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Trailblazer: Meet The First Out Transgender MBA President At A Top-10 B-School

·17 min read
Jude Watson, center in yellow, poses with the Haas School of Business MBA Association. Watson believes they are the first out transgender student-body president of an MBA student association in the country. Courtesy photo
Jude Watson, center in yellow, poses with the Haas School of Business MBA Association. Watson believes they are the first out transgender student-body president of an MBA student association in the country. Courtesy photo

Jude Watson, center in yellow, poses with the Haas School of Business MBA Association. Watson may be the first out transgender student body president of an MBA student association in the U.S. Courtesy photo

Growing up in Seattle, Jude Watson found a passion for community organizing by working with queer youth to find spaces to meet, hang out, and access social services. Watson (they, them, theirs) helped start the first youth-led LGBT community center in their hometown. Later, as a chef who largely learned their trade by working in Seattle kitchens, they co-founded Cooks for Black Lives Matter, a community-supported agriculture enterprise that has raised more than $100,000 to date.

Watson, now an MBA ‘23 at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, didn’t always picture themselves in business school. But their success with Cooks for BLM made them realize that they could claim entrepreneurship — and social entrepreneurship in particular — as part of their identity.

Headshot of Jude Watson, MBA '23
Headshot of Jude Watson, MBA '23

Jude Watson, MBA ’23

“I’m so deeply happy to be at Berkeley Haas and have such an incredible group of peers doing really powerful social change work,” Watson tells Poets&Quants.

Watson is also Haas’ MBA Association student body president. Though Watson would love to be proven wrong, they believe they are the first-ever out transgender person to be the student president of an MBA program.

Poets&Quants spoke with Watson about social entrepreneurship, Pride Month, trans visibility in business school, and what comes next. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us a little about your background.

I’ve lived in Seattle my entire life until I moved to Berkeley for grad school. I had a very progressive family who was very involved in the community in a lot of different ways.

Growing up, I became more aware that I was queer and sought out other queer young people. At the time, there were some very extensive queer youth organizing in Seattle around gaining more spaces outside of school GSAs (gay-straight alliances) for queer young people to be able to meet each other, hang out, and access social services that they needed. So I got very involved in youth organizing and helped start the first youth led LGBT community center in Seattle, called Queer Youth Space. I got to learn how community organizing works, about fundraising, and honestly, just got a pretty extensive crash course in running an organization. It was a great experience for me to learn what I loved and what I was good at, which was motivating people towards a common goal around social change. It became clear early that was what I was passionate about.

At what age did you start to realize you were queer?

Pretty young, maybe like 12 or 13, I would say. I initially came out as gay because I’d hadn’t really met trans adults as a kid. It’s very hard to imagine possibilities for yourself when you haven’t seen them. Through organizing with Queer Youth Space, I met a lot of trans adults and gender expansive people in general, for the first time. I met other trans youth as well. It was very helpful for me to be like, okay, there are people out there living such a wider variety of lives than I had imagined before, and I started identifying more with being non binary or gender expansive at that point.

Jude Watson, third from right, poses with friends while painting Queer Youth Space before it opened in Seattle.
Jude Watson, third from right, poses with friends while painting Queer Youth Space before it opened in Seattle.

Jude Watson, third from right, poses with friends while painting Queer Youth Space before it opened in Seattle. Courtesy photo

Career-wise, what were you doing before considering business school?

I basically did a lot of social work, student and community organizing with queer young people until I was about 20, maybe 21. I had been attracted to having a career in the trades for a long time, but had fallen into doing community organizing just because it was something I was so passionate about. So at that point, I took a very abrupt left turn, got a job as a prep cook at a local restaurant, and then worked my way up for the next six, seven years to become a chef in fine dining.

It was a wild experience: A lot of the hard things that you hear about kitchens are true for workers. There are things I really really loved about it– like the degree to which you feel so ride or die with the people you work with because you go through so many intense things together. At the end of every shift, you know whether you won or you lost. It’s almost like a sports game. You’re either like, “Yeah, we did an amazing job. I’m so proud of us.” Or you’re like, “Wow, that was horrible, something has to change.” I really enjoyed the challenge of it and how close I felt to other people. In kitchens, you really are judged by how hard you work and what you bring to the team. It was a very affirming place for me in a lot of ways, but it was also not a sustainable workplace for me over time. I’m so glad I spent the time there, but I realized at some point that I needed to find a less high burnout route in my life.

What are some of the kitchens you worked in during this time?

I was a sous chef at Stateside restaurant in Seattle, which was a fine dining Vietnamese restaurant when the pandemic hit. For a while, basically all fine dining was dead. So, then, I was an emergency meals chef at FareStart, which is a large culinary social enterprise in Seattle that helps formerly homeless or incarcerated people develop skills in the foodservice industry. I was working as a culinary instructor and helping with emergency meals during COVID as well.

Did you have any formal training or did you learn it on the job in the kitchens you worked?

I did a year of culinary school at the Seattle Central Community College.

Tell us about Cooks for BLM.

Jude Watson, center, packs boxes for Cooks For Black Lives Matter.
Jude Watson, center, packs boxes for Cooks For Black Lives Matter.

Jude Watson, center, packs bags for Cooks For Black Lives Matter. Courtesy photo

When the pandemic started and fine dining basically shut down, it was obviously around the same time as George George Floyd’s murder. There was a lot of incredible, very powerful community organizing that was happening around the country around police brutality, and anti black racism that I wanted to support. In the past, some friends and I had hosted large dinners and would invite people we knew to do one-off, pop up fundraising dinners for different social issues that we were passionate about like immigration rights. Obviously, a large dinner wasn’t an option during the pandemic.

So I was brainstorming with my friend, Max Goldstein, who was a cook with me at Stateside. We were trying to figure out what the alternative to that would be during the pandemic and came up with the idea of running a fundraiser as a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture.) It’s a format where you can put a lot of different culinary or gourmet products in a box that gets delivered to people’s houses. We would get donated gourmet food products from our network of cooks and restaurants in Seattle, and then sell those as a fundraiser for BLM community organizing in Seattle.

We thought, at first, we were only going to do it for one month, and then it sold out extremely quickly. There was a ton of appetite for it. We ended up doing a CSA monthly, and put together a leadership board to lead the project. We built out this whole organization called Cooks for BLM, and it’s still running in Seattle. It’s in wonderful hands, and at this point has raised over $100,000 for Black led community organizing, which is wild.

When did you start thinking about business school?

When I decided to transition out of kitchens, I went through a lot of options. I really enjoyed teaching, and I clearly also enjoyed community work with a political angle. So, I thought about a master’s in teaching or a master’s in public policy or in social work.

An example Cooks for BLM bag.
An example Cooks for BLM bag.

An example Cooks for BLM bag. Courtesy photo

At the same time, Cooks for BLM was really starting to blow up and become this project that was a major part of my life. I was deeply enjoying that work and realized that I could claim entrepreneurship as a part of who I am. I thought that business school, for me, would be a place that I would learn a lot more because I was much less familiar with, essentially, how business works, how capitalism works. Business school felt like a stretch for me, and that’s why I decided on it.

Once I really got into the process of applying for schools, it did become clear to me that there were business schools out there that did have a pretty strong social enterprise or DEI focus. Obviously, there’s still tons of work to be done on those fronts, but those were the schools that I sought out because I knew that I would have peers doing complementary work, and that has really been borne out. I’m so deeply happy to be at Berkeley Haas and have such an incredible group of peers doing really powerful social change work.

What was your undergraduate degree in?

My major was technically called Comparative History of Ideas, which was basically the come-in-and-make-your-own-liberal-arts-degree Social Sciences major. So I pulled together classes from a bunch of different departments like women’s studies and ethnic studies, and effectively majored in History of Social Movements in the U.S. I wrote my thesis on social movements and how backlash affects what progressive changes they’re able to make.

Where was that?

University of Washington.

NEXT PAGE: Visibility for trans people + Pride Month

Jude Watson, left, with one their best friends, Anhelo Benavides, before a Haas formal.
Jude Watson, left, with one their best friends, Anhelo Benavides, before a Haas formal.

Jude Watson, left, with one their best friends, Anhelo Benavides, before a Haas formal. Courtesy photo

Have you found that you’re able to bring a different perspective than some of your peers in your business classes?

Definitely. I tend to be the person in my class who makes a point about labor rights, or who adds a pretty strong social justice and DEI lens to everything that we’re talking about in school. Those perspectives are welcomed in the classroom usually, and we’re able to have pretty constructive conversations.

What specifically about Haas made you choose to go there?

Haas was my first choice all along. I was very excited by both the amount of DEI opportunities that were at Haas–whether that’s the Race and Inclusion Initiative, or a much broader range of electives that relate to social topics. There is a large and thriving queer community at Haas, which was obviously a huge deal to me. And as someone who’s orienting to go more into the DEI side of HR and tech, being on the west coast in California was a huge draw.

You may be the first out trans president of a student MBA association in the country. Can you explain the thought process of wanting to take on a leadership role in your class? Did you have any reservations about being out as transgender student leader, particularly with what’s happening in the country right now?

When I was applying for business schools, out of the 12 or so schools I was originally even considering, I emailed the LGBT group at every single one and asked if they could connect me to any trans or non binary students currently enrolled or recently graduated. Out of those 12 schools, I got connected with maybe three people. It was quickly very clear to me how few trans folks are in business school.

So as I was considering student government, I knew most business schools probably don’t have an out trans student, much less a student body president that’s trans. I don’t know to what extent being the first trans person in a position is important, nor do I think that being student body president is frankly that big a deal in the general scheme of life, but it did feel meaningful to me and was one of the main reasons I decided to run at school.

Visibility as a trans person is a really complicated thing. Because, to some extent, you are proud of your identity, and you want to be out, but also visibility comes with a risk and actual danger in some cases. I think being a visible trans person– and by visible in this case, I mean someone who’s in some sort of public role– is challenging and exhausting and sometimes scary. That risk is something you have to always have in your head as a trans person. Those are things that I weighed, but it also felt important to me and I’m proud to be doing it.

What has been your experience at Haas so far?

Jude Watson, left, makes sweet potato flour waffles with fellow Haasie Alex Angarita for their Lean Launch Pad entrepreneurship class.
Jude Watson, left, makes sweet potato flour waffles with fellow Haasie Alex Angarita for their Lean Launch Pad entrepreneurship class.

Jude Watson, left, makes sweet potato flour waffles with fellow Haasie Alex Angarita for their Lean Launch Pad entrepreneurship class. Courtesy photo

Genuinely, I’ve had a really positive experience. I’m so lucky that there are a handful of other trans and non binary students at Haas. At Haas specifically, we have a little pipeline of trans and nonbinary students that I feel very excited about. Just having a community at school and not literally being the only one is huge.

As always, as in all DEI work, there’s so so so much room for growth. I think students do incredible DEI work, and also, at Haas, as with any other business school, I think that there could be lots more institutional support, –whether that’s funding staff time or ensuring staff have all the resources they need to support us.

It’s challenging to do high-quality DEI work with how busy you are as students. It’s just like what happens in the corporate world where people are working their whole job, and then they’re also asked to lead a whole employee resource organization on the side. It feels the same in business school. You’re a full time student and you’re recruiting, and you’re also trying to run this whole initiative on, say, auditing our classes for best practice around anti-racism, or inclusion for international students. You can’t do that super well if you’re doing all those other things. And that’s why there needs to be more staff and resources at Haas–as everywhere.

What are you doing as student body president to make trans and DEI issues more visible?

I organized an event on trans advocacy with one of my best friends, Via Abolencia, who’s one of the co- presidents of Q@Haas. The event was called Trans Futures, and we brought in a panel of five trans advocates from diverse career paths to speak about their work to our classmates. It was just incredible to hear their stories, about the work they’re doing, and how they have built their lives around giving back to our community. It was really inspiring.

As a trans person, you’re often the only trans person in the room. It’s so rare to be in spaces where trans people are running the show, especially in business school. A lot of cis people could go their whole lives without being in a space like that, unless they really intentionally seek it out. Being able to bring that to Haas was very special to me, and I don’t know that a similar event has ever happened at Haas before. I’m glad we were able to provide that.

Do you think being the first helps lift up other trans students in business school?

I hope so, at least a little. Thinking historically, we saw so much movement forward with LGBT political equality in the United States in the early 2000s, which was partially driven by so many gay, lesbian and bi people becoming more visible in the world. A lot of times cis and straight people need that kind of relational exposure to somebody queer in order to have a less abstract and a more empathetic reaction to queerness or transness. So, yeah, I think it does matter that I’m out here in business school, where trans people are underrepresented, speaking openly about my gender identity. I also think that there’s clearly still a long way to go, and I don’t want to overstate my personal importance in any way.

In the last year, the national conversation around trans rights, and even a transgender person’s right to exist, have taken a really dark and probably dangerous turn. Has that made you reflect about what it means to be out and trans and in a leadership position right now?

It definitely has. With the incredible amount of anti-trans legislation that is going through many state legislatures right now, it does feel very important to me to be outspoken about who I am. I think I have a level of privilege at this point where it is safe for me to do so, and so I can use my voice much more loudly than I could have in the past.

I think trans people often show the world the freedom you can access if you’re truly unafraid to be yourself. For people who are invested in the often oppressive gender norms in society, it’s scary to see trans people so clearly transgressing those – I think that’s really frightening to some people. So, I think that trans people being out and being themselves in the world is powerful, and shows that there’s a more honest way for people to be themselves in all aspects of their life– even if you’re not personally trans or queer yourself.

What are your plans or goals for the Haas MBA student association in the coming year?

I’ll be president through December, and my main priority is creating a great experience for new students coming in. I’m excited to have a whole new class arriving, and I want them to have a positive social experience and feel welcomed into the school.

What are your career plans after graduation?

I’m interning at Cisco right now doing internal leadership development work in HR.

There are two hypotheses I came into business school with: one was food entrepreneurship, which I’ve been able to explore at Haas through classes like Lean LaunchPad, which has been amazing. The other was the more DEI or leadership development-oriented side of HR. I’ve gotten to test both in different ways. I’m really loving my internship at Cisco and hoping to stay on with them after I graduate.

What does Pride Month mean to you?

Pride Month is always a good reminder to both celebrate who you are, and remember the history of resistance that Pride Month comes from. Pride Month was born out the Stonewall uprising, where queer and trans people rebelled against the laws and situations in society that were negatively affecting them. I love Pride Month for the fact that it’s a combination of celebration and rebellion all at the same time, which feels very appropriate every year, but unfortunately it feels particularly appropriate for trans folks this year. I want us to be our boldest and most beautiful selves, and also be actively organizing to address the anti-trans legislation in state legislatures right now, along with the negative life conditions that a lot of trans people, especially trans people of color, face all the time from violence and lack of economic opportunity. So I think Pride Month means all those things for me. It’s an intense duality in some ways, but it’s what’s beautiful about Pride as well.

DON’T MISS: IMPROVING DIVERSITY: LESSONS FROM BUSINESS SCHOOLS AND WHO SHOULD & WHO SHOULD NOT APPLY FOR AN MBA

The post Trailblazer: Meet The First Out Transgender MBA President At A Top-10 B-School appeared first on Poets&Quants.