Will Mitchell’s Winding Road

May 22, 2012

Distinguished business professor’s path – from industrial smelter to some of the world’s most prestigious business faculties – was guided by non-traditional start at SFU.

Will Mitchell didn’t come by his decision to attend business school lightly. As an 18 year old, he was pouring lead slag into a furnace for a living at a lead-zinc smelter in Trail, BC when he decided to heed the call of higher learning – from Simon Fraser University.

Mitchell, whose parents were both teachers, grew up in the scenic West Kootenay communities of Trail and Fruitvale. Geographically, he was hundreds of kilometres from the West Coast and the top of Burnaby Mountain. Psychologically, the distance was even further.

But the lure of SFU was neither dulled nor diminished by distance or geography.

At the time, Simon Fraser University was a young institution with a reputation for flexibility and radicalism. The young Mitchell couldn’t resist the mix – and in a matter of days he had made the transition from the smoke-belching smelter to classes in political science, sociology, anthropology, English and math.

“At SFU,” he says, “you could do very interesting things.”

It would be the beginning of a long, winding, and hugely rewarding journey that would see him become not only one of the great business minds to graduate from the university, but indeed one of the world’s foremost business scholars.

But the road to success was neither clear cut nor necessarily smooth.

In fact, Mitchell lasted only one year at SFU before he dropped out of classes. The year was 1972, and the young Mitchell was eager to rejoin the workforce.

In the decade ahead, he would work in food co-ops, bake breads in a workers’ coop, and help set up a community credit union. He also worked as a First Aid attendant at a diamond-bit drilling operation for a dam project in Revelstoke, BC.

It was an exciting time to be working in community-engaged, socially-minded Vancouver organizations – not to mention the drilling safety work in the British Columba interior.

But all of this excitement would soon take a back seat to Mitchell’s long-term calling: management education.

In 1982, Mitchell would again apply to return to SFU, to finish the degree – now in business – he had started a decade ago. Again, the university would accept him, first part-time and then switching to full-time, and this time, he would reciprocate their good faith by completing his bachelor of business administration (BBA) in 1984.

As a result of the university’s taking him in at last-minute’s notice not once, but twice, and for allowing him to work during his studies, Mitchell is vocally grateful.

Mitchell sees in himself perhaps a bit of what SFU was trying to do when it opened its doors in the 1960s: democratize higher education for people from all walks of life, whether they were coming straight from high school or were working full-time in an industrial setting.

“SFU in the 1960s was about expanding the intellectual capacity and infrastructure for British Columbia, for the country, and ultimately for the world,” he says.

“The university appealed to me because of its radicalism,” he says. “It was young, and people there were doing interesting things.”

Among the captivating things that Mitchell caught onto during his undergraduate business days: Management research and the scholars engaged in it, every day. Soon, he caught the research bug.

“The light bulb was going off for me,” he said. “I wanted to understand business as a scholar. This was a chance to understand what people are doing in business and what business does in the world.”

He remembers in-depth conversations with faculty members such as finance professor Barry Schachter (now a Chief Risk Officer at Woodbine Capital Management in New York), and economics professor Richard Schwindt, who retired from SFU in 2009.

And he began working on research papers on the organizations he had so much experience with during his decade between stints at SFU: co-ops, credit unions, deposit insurance, and planning.

Shortly after graduation, he headed due south – riding his motorcycle with his partner down Interstate 5 to Berkeley, where he would begin a PhD program at the University of California.

While completing his doctorate, he joined a group of business and public policy academics, which provided him with the opportunity to pick up different tools – and new perspectives.

After Berkeley, he took a faculty position at Michigan in 1988 – where he rose from assistant to associate to full professor, and eventually chaired the university’s strategy area within the business school.

From there, he was recruited by Duke University, where he had the opportunity to build the strategy area at the Fuqua School of Business, and help strengthen a PhD program. Mitchell was partial to Duke’s strong research, teaching and service  agendas and he remains affiliated with the university to this day.

At Duke, he is the J. Rex Fuqua Professor of International Management and a faculty associate of Duke’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Health Sector Management Program, and Global Health Initiative.

Eventually, he also joined the faculty of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, where he holds the Anthony S. Fell Chair in New Technologies and Commercialization and continues to conduct research with academics across the university, including multiple aspects of life sciences.

He calls the return to Canada a “long planned homecoming”, though one that took a few years longer than he expected.

Today, he is active in professional and corporate settings. He is a co-editor of the Strategic Management Journal, and an editorial board member on several strategy-related journals in North America, Asia, and Europe.

Yet he continues to look back at Simon Fraser University as the place that launched his distinguished academic career.

“SFU allows people who aren’t on traditional patterns to deeply engage with the school,” he points out.

“Twice,” he says, “the university let me in at non-normal times. During that fall of 1971, I was working at the smelter in Trail, and when I called them they said sure, they would let me in.”

“Just that fact that they would open up and let me in. In the fall of 1981, it was the same story – they let me in while I continued to work.”

Mitchell is in fact convinced that the Simon Fraser model is an ideal model for all of Canada, because it provides a powerful pairing: opportunities for individuals, and flexibility for organizations and the economy.

“It is much more powerful when you have mechanisms like SFU,” he says. “Simon Fraser makes it possible for people to change their careers and lives. You can come back to do a MBA, BBA, arts, or science degree and then step into a new career.”

Upon hearing of a new graduate program being offered by the Beedie School of Business, the Executive MBA for Aboriginal Business and Leadership, Mitchell is both animated and enthusiastic about future prospects for SFU.

“The world comes to us as universities – doors open – and we also have amazing opportunities to take the university to the world,” he notes. “Whether we deserve it or not, there’s an expectation that we will be honest brokers.”

“The business school is in a position to do something that pretty much nobody else is.”

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