How Kimfer Flanery-Rye Leveraged an EMBA to Blend Business and Service

Posted by Albers Schools of Business and Economics on Monday, March 13, 2023 at 10:00 AM PDT

Kim Flanery- RyeSometimes, a new professional step changes your trajectory in ways you didn’t know were possible. That’s what happened to Kim “Kimfer” Flanery-Rye ’19 when she began the Leadership Executive MBA Program here at Seattle University’s Albers School of Business.

Before the EMBA, Kimfer held a successful career as Vice President and Executive Creative Director for Yesler (which has since been acquired by Accenture). Her experience in the program led her to take a sabbatical from her job, start her own company, and bring her commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion to the forefront in her business practices. Today, she is the Founder and Principal Consultant at MyKimisms, LLC, a social enterprise centering DEI in its approach to brand strategy, design thinking, and organizational development focused on culture from the inside out.

The Path to Albers: A Reputation for Servant Leadership

With a background in marketing and creative, Kimfer debated between pursuing a master’s degree in fine arts vs. business. Working in a management position led her to choosing the business track. “I realized it was more important for me to continue my leadership journey,” says Kimfer.

As a woman in leadership, Kimfer was acutely aware of how both the education and the degree of an EMBA could lend credibility to her role. When she first became a creative director, only 3% of creative directors were women. She considered out-of-state schools, as well as her local alma mater, but she knew she didn’t want just any MBA education: She needed a reputable school with a strong accreditation and a focus on leadership. The obvious choice? Albers. 

“I wanted the leadership portion they advertised to be true,” she says. “And it was. Albers focuses on what it means to be a servant leader: how you show up in the global commons, how you bring your ethical self to work. All of that really resonated with me. That’s why I chose the Leadership EMBA at Seattle University instead of another school.”

“A title may bring you position, power, and authority, but that doesn’t create a culture—nor does it create a strong leader. Just because you have a lot of book knowledge or knowledge about business doesn’t make you a good leader, either.”

What makes someone a good leader, then? “Leadership is about everything outside of subject matter expertise. It’s the idea of the whole person. You need strong emotional intelligence. Albers really dives into that.”

Pursuing a Leadership MBA as an Experienced Professional

Kimfer already had a vast amount of knowledge and experience before coming to Albers: she had owned her own business and worked in both corporate and agency environments. “I wanted to get the formal learning that my life experience had given, though,” she says. “Some things you learn innately, but you don’t realize there are frameworks behind it.” The skills she learned during her Leadership EMBA gave her an understanding of the foundations and frameworks that inform her experiences.

These foundations went beyond the textbook, too. “It’s not just theory,” says Kimfer. “They tailor your education to real-world professional contexts. In our economics course, for example, the case studies and examples shared with us made the material relatable. In a course on analytics, we practiced presentations and discussed what we as business leaders should expect from the data analysis team we engage. We took away knowledge that we could actually apply in the workplace.”

Benefits of Executive Coaching and A Tight-Knit Cohort

An important part of developing that foundation in the Albers Leadership EMBA program comes with the executive coaching opportunity. Though she had already been working with an executive coach outside of the program, she leveraged the coaching experience differently than others. “I had been working with my original coach on topics related to women in leadership, so I chose a male coach at Albers. This allowed me to get a different perspective and create new learning opportunities.”

Kimfer highly recommends executive coaching to others. For others in her cohort, this was the first time they had the opportunity to work with a coach. “Anyone who can have one, I say do it. Executive coaching gives you a framework to inform your leadership. The fact that Albers provides you with one as part of your education? I thought that was stellar. I don’t know many MBA programs that offer this.” Many professionals in her cohort had such a positive experience with their coaches that they continued the service after graduation, paying out-of-pocket or using development funds from their organization.

The cohort nature was also a huge draw from Kimfer in choosing Albers. “It wasn’t just about networking; it was about like-minded people learning how they want to approach leadership,” she says. Her cohort included a c-level professional at the top law firm in the nation, professionals from Microsoft, Boeing, Costco, small business owners, entrepreneurs, and professionals working in start-ups. These classmates worked in a wide range of industries, including HR, product, marketing, tech, aerospace, traditional SaaS, law, retail, nonprofit, and others. “It was a phenomenal mix of people at various levels in their leadership journey,” says Kimfer. “Some people had more experience. Others were just diving into their leadership position. The diversity of expertise and experience was extremely valuable.”

Kimfer notes how other professional spaces can become a bit of a vacuum. At conferences, for example, you are usually surrounded by others in a similar industry or role as yours, so you might have more similarities in strategy and process. “Having exposure to people in different roles and industries allowed us to cross-pollinate ideas,” says Kimfer. “What happens in this industry might not be the same as what happens in another. We have insights and skillsets we can share with one another.”

She credits Albers with building these teams intentionally. “They are mindful about how they put your team together, making sure your different skillsets are complementing one another. They also took into consideration your different behavior styles and personalities.” She notes, too, that working with others who have different leadership and learning styles more accurately models real-life scenarios.

Using the Leadership EMBA as a Guided Sabbatical

Her experience at Albers was so transformative, in fact, that she took a sabbatical from work in her final year of the program. In her role as VP and ECD, she had built the creative team from the ground up, becoming the second largest revenue stream for her company. Her work supported tech companies such as Microsoft, Google, and Amazon. She loved her company, her team, and the culture, but she also asked herself, “How do I want to make an impact in the world in a more meaningful, lasting way?”

Kimfer used the second year of the Leadership EMBA as a guided sabbatical, learning how her values lined up with both her service and business. She continued working with her former company on projects related to her coursework; one of the advantages of Albers is being able to tailor your projects to serve the organization you work with as a learning lab, giving them real impact. During this time, she determined that the areas of service most important to her were at-risk youth, the LGBTQ community, and the arts.

Life After the Leadership EMBA

Today, Kimfer’s business is thriving. She centers service within her business model, working to support other businesses in creating more inclusive environments. When she first started MyKimisms, she found most businesses were coming to DEI through HR as personal development. She offered a shift in vision, bringing a focus on DEI from a business angle. She works with clients to develop their business strategy and implement system changes.

When the pandemic hit, many DEI-focused professionals lost their contracts due to nonessential budget cuts. At the time, DEI was a “nice-to-have,” not a “need-to-have”—a highly consulted role rather than a full-time position. Meanwhile, Kimfer’s clients doubled down. Changes to the workforce resulting from COVID-19 meant there was more incentive to create change in business practices, and MyKimisms has been assisting clients with reimagining change management, systems work, processes, and policies. After the murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020, businesses started thinking about DEI as a necessity, boosting the need for businesses such as Kimfer’s. “These cultural shifts catapulted our work,” she says. “They legitimized DEI work as an essential function.”

Outside of her successful business, Kimfer serves as the DEI Executive Chair for the Urban ArtWorks Board of Directors. Urban ArtWorks serves youth via the transformative potential of art, bringing together Kimfer’s commitment to young people and creative work. She has also been invited to speaking engagements such as for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. There, her talk focused on the importance of women in corporate board positions as well as how to leverage the power of women for collective good.

Her service extends to her commitment to Albers, too. Kimfer teaches an MBA course, “Creativity and Innovation,” here at Seattle University. She was inspired early in her career by an executive leader who taught accounting at a community college. She asked him, Why?—because it wasn’t for the money. Not only does it keep his skills sharp, he told her, but it’s a way for him to give back to the community, especially as a Black man. He noted the importance of having a representation of BIPOC professionals teaching young people. “For young people entering the field, it’s important for them to see a Black man—a leader—in their classroom.” Now, as an established leader, and as a queer Asian American teaching MBA students, she hopes to similarly make an impact.

“Do it”: Why the EMBA is Worth It

To anyone considering the Leadership EMBA at Albers, Kimfer says, “Do it.”

“Are you wondering if it’s worth the money or time, especially if you are already in a certain role?” she asks. “Yes, it’s worth it.”

For Kimfer, learning about how she navigates the world as a leader is just as important as building a foundation in business. “It’s about doing good in the world. Stakeholder value, stockholder value: all of that is part of business, yes. But how are you impacting the world in an ethical way? How is the work you do in a micro- and macro-economic way impacting individuals who you share the world with?”

Kimfer goes on to emphasize that the benefits go beyond the accreditation. “You get the initials of having the MBA after your name, sure. But it’s the transformative experience you have during those two years that makes it worth it. That in itself is its own education.”