Your Unique Self = Your Best Asset

Alumni Sam Épée-Bounya (MBA ’03) shares how values, authenticity and resilience were keys to a successful career and a life with impact.

Sam Épée-Bounya, MBA ‘03
Managing Director, Wellington Management
Emerging Markets Debt Team (Focus:  Latin America and Africa).

What’s your perspective on bringing your authentic self to your career?

Being authentic and one’s true self can be a competitive advantage because you can offer your unique perspective and passion to the classroom or your firm. For example, I have a unique perspective on emerging markets having grown up in Cote d’Ivoire, West Africa. Cote d’Ivoire has experienced very tense socio-political periods. The country’s corporate sector can be very much impacted by the elections cycle, policy changes, and regulatory changes. My experience has given me an edge in assessing the tangible and intangible factors underpinning political and economic volatility in emerging markets, an important consideration when investing in Africa and other EM countries.

What are some of the challenges to being authentic in your career and work?

One challenge to being authentic is the pressure to follow the same path everyone else seems to be following. What if you are a Sloan MBA but interested in sports or theater? Will you have the courage to pursue unorthodox career path if that is your passion? My Sloan ’03 classmate Zaheer Benjamin has been very successful in sports management. He has worked at Phoenix Suns, Orlando Magic, Chelsea FC in London and now heads up global partnerships Strategy at Real Madrid, C.F., one of the most valuable franchises in the world. Zaheer had to set his own course as an MBA in sports management, which was fairly rare in the early 2000’s, but he followed his passion and was his authentic self. 

Where did your path to authentic leadership start?

I have always wanted to make a positive difference and create opportunities to support others’ success. MIT Sloan offers something special to those who want to explore and develop their leadership potential: endless opportunities and a collaborative community. If you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone and start something new, you will find others ready to join in the journey with you.

How did you explore and hone your leadership potential at MIT Sloan?

Some of the most important leadership experiences were ones I created for myself by identifying an opportunity and finding a community of partners who shared an interest. I am the type of leader who is inspired by the change I want to see and takes responsibility for making things happen, and in the MIT Sloan community, I found great partners.

One of the things I am most proud was leading the first ever MIT Sloan Africa Trip, which took place in the 2001-2002 school year. I set a goal of “demystifying Africa” and assembled a team to plan a successful trip across Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and Cameroon. It was a great leadership lab, and probably the highlight of my time at MIT Sloan. It forged lifelong friendships. I believe it was a key catalyst in accelerating MIT Sloan’s interest in Africa, and 20 years later, there is so much activity: MIT Africa, G-Lab, Tech Treks across Africa, and the Africa Innovate Conference (celebrating it’s 10th annual event this year). It’s exciting to think these seeds were planted by our first trip to Africa 20 years ago, and this is an accomplishment that feels very personal to me. By investing myself in something that was important to me, I helped create new learning pathways and relationships that extend beyond me to the MIT Sloan community. I hope all Sloanies look for those opportunities.

I accepted some of the more traditional leadership opportunities, too. For example, while I was at MIT Sloan, I was elected to the MIT Sloan Senate, which was a highly visible and important leadership responsibility within the community. That role helped me sharpen my leadership skills and learn how to listen, and how to be a more effective leader. I also participated in a G-lab team advising a CEO in Brazil, and was a TA for “Global Markets,” both of which helped me reflect on and develop my leadership skills.

How has what you’ve learned about leadership at MIT Sloan impacted how you bring your identity and experience to your work?

I deeply believe in Sloan’s mission to develop principled, innovative leaders who improve the world. I tried to live up to that mission every day for nearly 20 years since my graduation from MIT Sloan.

At work, I bring my passion for making a positive difference as an EM and global impact bond investor in my evaluation of investments by trying to identify companies to address world’s challenges in an ethical fashion to deliver good risk-adjusted return for our client portfolios.

I serve as Vice-Chair of Wellington’s Private Oversight Investment Committee that oversees the launch of a Diverse Founder’s Fund to fund underrepresented businesses and founders in North America (some parallel the fellowship fund my wife and I created 6 years ago).

I am an adviser to the CEO of Wellington on all the firm’s committee work (there are ~60 committees that are essentially the key governing infrastructure of the firm).  I believe I was asked to help in this role because our firm CEO sees me as an effective and authentic leader.

Does it come into play in other areas of your life?

Yes, absolutely. Six years ago, my wife, Alex, and I established The Épée-Bounya MIT Sloan Fellowship Fund to support gifted underrepresented minorities in getting a world class business education at MIT Sloan. The model of the fund is a little different, being a little smaller and more targeted than a typical fund at a university, so I had to be creative in finding the right partners to make this happen. This is another lesson I’d like to share, if what you are offering doesn’t fit a certain model, don’t be dissuaded. Be creative and persistent – one ‘No’ doesn’t mean your idea can’t happen.

As an alumni, I co-founded the MIT Sloan Alumni Group Affinity Council which connects alumni across multiple generations to serve the needs of the URM community at MIT Sloan. This has been a very active community, and engages students, alumni, and offices and administration.

I also chaired MIT Sloan’s Alumni Board’s D&I committee, and was a member of MIT Sloan Dean’s D&I Task Force, which led to the appointments of Fiona Murray and Ray Reagans as Associate Dean of Innovation & Inclusion and Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, respectively.

I give my time to support others on their journey, working with students in my role as an MIT Sloan Industry Advisor, a mentor in the MIT Graduate School Mentoring Circle and The Standard, a mentoring program for underrepresented MIT undergrads.

What has being a mentor taught you about the challenges students face bringing their full identity; and what advice would you give?

Being a mentor reminds me how stressful life can be at MIT and beyond.  Self-doubts and failures are part of life. It is ok to fail, and one big piece of advice I would give is to build the tools to be resilient in the face of inevitable failure and disappointment, and to learn from the mistakes.

Whether you are beginning your MIT Sloan experience or at an inflection point as you consider your next professional step, challenge yourself to explore opportunities to grow and, through your leadership skills, make change in the world. Even if you’re about to graduate or already have, there are opportunities to lead and make a difference for the community, as I have done for the last twenty years since graduation.

By MIT Sloan CDO