Course Reflection: Lessons from a Leader

April 14, 2020
Professor John Brown and Audrey Choi
Audrey Choi, chief marketing officer and chief sustainability officer at Morgan Stanley, came to HDS on March 4 to speak as part of Professor John Brown's class on business ethics. / Photo: Michael Naughton, HDS communications

The following personal reflection was written by Adriana Krasniansky and Ross Feehan, students in HDS 3092: “Ethical Discernment in Business Contexts.”

During times of crisis, opportunities exist. This was a key message that Audrey Choi, Morgan Stanley’s Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Sustainability Officer, delivered to students this March in one of HDS’ newest courses, “Ethical Discernment in Business Contexts.”

Ms. Choi’s personal story and economic outlook were instructive to members of the HDS community, some of whom are graduating this May, as the realities of COVID-19 were emerging both on and off campus. Whether the crisis be personal or global, Ms. Choi encouraged students to seek out opportunity and possibility in moments of great change.

Ms. Choi’s personal and professional narratives testify to the existence of opportunities amid crisis. For starters, Ms. Choi comes from a family that finds solutions in the face of crisis.

Indeed, handling challenging circumstances is in her blood: Ms. Choi’s own mother defected from North Korea and managed to qualify for immigration to the U.S. following the Korean War.

Raised in the United States, Ms. Choi attended Harvard College, where she studied literature and culture. As a Fulbright Scholar along the East-West German border, Ms. Choi experienced her first professional crisis when the Berlin Wall came toppling down. In response, Ms. Choi decided to stay in Germany but reimagine why she was there. She quickly befriended East German refugees and pivoted toward becoming a journalist for The Wall Street Journal.

Lesson #1: When there’s a crisis, discern what needs to stay constant and what needs to change.

After spending five years as a journalist in both Europe and the U.S., covering a range of industries, Ms. Choi found herself once again embracing change while entering the public sector.

First as a White House Fellow and later as a staffer on the Council of Economic Affairs and in Vice President Gore’s office, Ms. Choi learned how to persuade businesses as a federal administrator. Her experience in governmental affairs and policy proved to be incredibly advantageous when the next crisis hit in 2008. By then, Ms. Choi was at Morgan Stanley helping to develop the bank’s leaders and teams.

The financial crisis rewrote many regulations affecting institutions like Morgan Stanley, and Ms. Choi could see around the corner. Morgan Stanley suddenly needed to comply with new federal lending and community guidelines; Ms. Choi offered to step outside her remit and offer support using what she had learned in Washington, D.C.

Since then, Audrey Choi has helped lead Morgan Stanley from crisis to commitment. She has expanded Morgan Stanley’s investment portfolio to include environment, social, and governance (ESG) vehicles and targets, such as reducing and removing 50 million metric tons of plastic from entering ecosystems. She has realized that environmental degradation is itself a crisis, and that there are incredible opportunities for businesses to help.

Lesson #2: Whether you’re an individual or a company, volunteer your skills, experience, and resources in times of crisis.

As a class, we asked Ms. Choi how she now looks back upon her multifaceted career and where she thinks the world is headed. In a thoughtful response, Ms. Choi shared her own forecasts before reminding us that no one knows with certainty what awaits them in this life.

Lesson #3: When it comes to the “unknown” of crises, uncertainty now becomes clarity later, so don’t let uncertainty stop you.

As the COVID-19 virus spreads across the globe, many are feeling the effects of a social and economic crisis. Some days, it seems there are more questions than answers. In one small but notable way, Audrey Choi’s visit to HDS offered lessons for wading through today’s crisis: Stay with what’s needed and seize the opportunity. Uncertainty is a permanent reality, not a unique reason, so take that next step toward creating the world you already imagine.

by Adriana Krasniansky and Ross Feehan