Joe Stephens' first exposure to EMBA came at Washington University in St. Louis, where he was pursuing his MBA degree through the evening program while working as associate director of MBA admissions for the school.
Because his staff position required much travel, he took a semester of core courses through the EMBA Program. As the second youngest in the classroom, he noted a different dynamic.
“I experienced firsthand the difference between an evening program conversation and the types of conversations we had in the executive program,” says Stephens, whose part-time courses included full-time students. “Both were extremely engaging – though EMBA felt more strategic in nature. We constantly discussed application because we all were working and learning at the same time. It was fun to experience that dynamic, and in hindsight, it helped prepare me for what I do now.”
In fact, as senior assistant dean and director of Working Professional and Executive MBA Programs at the University of Texas at Austin (UT-Austin), Stephens now oversees evening and executive MBA programs in Austin, as well as weekend MBA programs in Dallas and Houston.
Stephens’ interest in higher education began with his involvement in campus activities as an undergraduate at the University of Missouri. He grew up on a farm that his family still owns and selected an agricultural education major with a business focus. One of his advisors noted his skills and enthusiasm and asked him to consider a higher education career path. Stephens thought about how much he enjoyed campus leadership and started investigating graduate schools. When he discovered that an assistantship would cover tuition, he decided to complete a master’s degree with an emphasis on student affairs instead of looking for a training position in the ag sector.
He moved to Texas after finishing his master’s in college student personnel from Bowling Green State University, accepting a position to run the Interfraternity Council at UT-Austin. He later returned to the Midwest to lead expansion and chapter services for his national fraternity, and in a few years, landed at Washington University in St. Louis as an assistant director of MBA admissions and later, as director of Professional MBA student affairs.
Thanks to a fellow student in his evening program, corporate America came calling. Nestle Purina offered him a brand management job. “Using all the MBA, especially the quantitative side, felt appealing to me,” he says.
He was soon to return to the MBA orbit – and the EMBA Program world. A phone call from a friend resulted in six years at the University of Missouri Trulaske College of Business, beginning with directing the full-time MBA program and ending as assistant dean of all MBA programs.
At Missouri, he launched what was at the time one of the first hybrid EMBA Programs. Students came to campus every eight weeks for heavily programmed visits, with the rest of the program online.
That early work also helped in responding to the pandemic and the growing trend toward hybrid and online programs. “A lot more programs look like what we developed at Missouri in 2011,” he says.
In 2013, he received another call from a colleague about an opening to lead working professional MBA programs at UT-Austin. Leaving the Missouri snow behind, he returned to Texas. At Austin, he worked to successfully increase the diversity of student backgrounds, promote student engagement, complete a new Dallas-based facility, and redesign the school’s EMBA.
The redesigned program includes double the strategy and leadership content, additional analytics and finance content, and more elective options, as well as a format change from weekly to monthly on-campus classes, including immersions in New York, Washington D.C., and Dallas. “We immediately saw improvements in our number of applications and geographic range of applications,” as well as variance in student life experiences.
The diverse perspectives and contributions of EMBA students help make the EMBA classroom an engaged one. “I like the maturity of the students, and the real-life experiences they bring,” he says. “I can still identify with most of these students in the EMBA Program, that’s probably another reason why I enjoy them so much.”
During the pandemic in collaboration with the local Austin start-up community, Stephens spearheaded the development and holographic delivery of six MBA courses to students. Although currently too labor intensive to continue, the holograph classroom worked well at that time and offers potential for the future as the technology evolves, he says.
Throughout his career, Stephens has seen the power of networks make a difference, whether that means sharing job openings or answering questions about a work issue. While launching the hybrid program at the University of Missouri, he first reached out to EMBAC Executive Director Michael Desiderio, who invited him to attend a regional meeting.
“I felt super welcome,” says Stephens. “That’s the thing about EMBAC in general – it’s just a group of welcoming people and it feels familial no matter what.”
When he was nominated to serve on the EMBAC Board of Trustees, it was an easy yes. “This is a community that I feel I gain a lot out of, and if there’s a way for me to help others gain from it or continue to gain from it, then I felt just a responsibility to serve.”
Stephens currently chairs the 2024 EMBAC Conference Committee and looks forward to a fantastic conference, Oct. 6-9, in Panama City, Panama – an event that showcases EMBAC’s special culture.
“It’s an organization where when new people join, they’re just shocked at how openly we share best practices with each other. Yes, we are competitors, but all ships rise if we help each other, and I feel that’s something that always has come through in my interactions with EMBAC. I’m so excited to welcome colleagues near and far, familiar and new, to Panama – a place known for literally connecting the world – in 2024.”
Stephens also shared the following insights with EMBAC Voice:
- My hobbies include: “I barbeque. I’m an avid barbecuer, I’ve competed before, and it’s been fun. I also love being outdoors – be it hiking, skiing, or sitting on a patio with a cold beer.”
- My favorite city is: “Austin, but if I could answer my favorite place to be it would be on the farm that my wife and I own in Missouri, 13 miles from my dad’s farm where I grew up. It’s just peaceful. It’s nice to be out there. We’re prepping the soil to be sure it’s producing well and working with the USDA on habitat improvement for wildlife.”
- I'm most proud of: “My daughters, ages 18 and 15.”
- I’m reading: “The Second Mountain, by David Brooks.”
- I’m passionate about: “Relationships.”
- My next project is: “We are doing some redesign work on our working professional programs and that’s my next project.”
- You may not know that: “I was a house director for a sorority for two years while I was in graduate school.”
- When I think about the Executive MBA Council, I think: “Global friendships.”