Graduate Student to Earn Two Master’s, Leverages Faculty Connections to Advance Business Technology Career | Technological Leadership Institute
It’s not often we get a full-time working professional in the process of completing two of our Master’s programs at the same time. The curriculums are rigorous enough as it is to keep you busy with one program, work and, well, life. This August, however, one of our graduate students, Michele Azar, will have earned the first of her two degrees in M.S. in Security Technologies (MSST). Next spring, she’ll complete the 21-month M.S. in Management of Technology (MOT) program. But then again, that ambition and work ethic were ingrained in her from an early age.
Azar is a seasoned retail executive with more than 20 years of experience who originally hails from the small town of Ladysmith, Wisconsin, about an hour north of Eau Claire. Raised by a Wisconsin-based entrepreneur and real estate broker, she recalls getting a “business education” as early as sixth grade, when she would regularly accompany her father to his real estate office and pitch in.
“I started writing the ads for the local paper, writing appraisals and learning how to run a business at a very young age,” said Azar. “I loved the entrepreneurial spirit and the sense of community I learned from working in a business setting at a very young age. These unique experiences shaped me as a leader.”
Azar went on to earn a bachelor’s in business from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an MBA from Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. She made her way into retail as an intern, growing into buying and management positions. She has worked with Gap, Inc., Target, Inc. and BestBuy. She played an instrumental role in Best Buy’s turnaround, where she led the vision, development and 1,000-store scale of a new shipping capability (buying online to ship from stores), which turned retail stores into warehouses to ensure no online sale was ever missed. Noting that online shopping was growing on mobile platforms, she invested early in foundational digital capabilities (mobile web) while also co-founding BestBuy’s open API platform Remix. She has held leadership positions in product development, inventory management, financial forecasting, supply chain, digital transformation, e-commerce and more.
From clothing to computing to connected devices, Azar thrives on finding new ways to serve customers. She had stacked up an impressive list of professional accomplishments, but her thirst for learning and pushing cutting-edge concepts continued to grow. This appetite would ultimately lead her to the Technological Leadership Institute (TLI).
One day, as she passed the Minneapolis-St. Paul International airport, a TLI billboard caught her attention.
It read, “Become a Next Generation Security Leader with a Master of Science in Security Technologies.”
The message resonated with her. From her many years in retail, she gained an interest in security and how it could build a stronger, more resilient, adaptive and holistic structure for brands, cities and local governments.
From her own research, she learned that the cyber security market is forecasted to near or exceed $200 billion. She also noted how TLI faculty and alumni were often in the news as subject-matter experts. Security, she thought, was a new expertise area that would round out her experience.
“The more I read about TLI and its world-renown leadership, the more curious I became,” said Azar. “It’s energizing to have nationally-esteemed faculty who provide high impact to the local and global economy while also finding the time to teach. I was excited by the prospect of being part of the TLI community of thought leaders who help solve complex problems facing our industries and our nation.”
The more research she did, the more excited she was about TLI’s programs.
“I attended an information session and TLI Director Dr. Massoud Amin spent extra time with me one-on-one to discuss my professional goals and to make sure TLI offered me the most fitting solution,” said Azar. “The MSST program benefits were obvious to me: the dedication to executive development; the relevance to my career plan; the profound expertise of the faculty. I immediately applied to the program.”
One of her favorite MSST classes was Dr. Faisal Kaleem’s “Securing the Cyberspace-I: Risk, Threats and Countermeasures,” in which students explore the technical foundations underpinning cyber threats and corresponding defenses.
“What I found most useful was that Dr. Kaleem required us to research a cutting-edge security topic, perform value-added unique analysis and then publish the findings to help educate the security community at large,” said Azar. “MSST offers an extremely timely and important expertise that all board members and executives need."
She says she enjoyed the MSST classes she took during the summer of 2016 so much that she didn’t want to stop. She decided to apply to the MOT program as well.
“MOT provides a rigorous understanding of new product commercialization by teaching us about pivotal technologies forecasting models,” said Azar. “I love the blend of business and technology that prepares students for leadership roles in technology-based organizations. TLI programs broadly afford students the opportunity to take their leadership impact to the next level.”
In MOT, she says she really enjoyed Kirk Froggatt’s “Leading Individual and Team Performance” course, which she says taught her self-awareness. “I never really understood who I was as a leader until I took Kirk Froggatt’s leadership course and learned how to effectively make sense of different leadership styles,” said Azar. “This helped me catapult my career forward.”
One of the defining components of all TLI programs is the capstone, during which students collaborate with a corporate mentor and faculty advisor to conduct work-based research.
Azar’s graduate research topic is “Urban Mobility and Self-Driving Tech: How to Foster a Culture of Security and Trust as Underpinnings for Resilient Smart Cities.” The next phase of her research will culminate in a large-scale transformation offering to help organizations ensure that security is a key element of the strategic vision for all Internet of Things (IoT) products.
Her goal is to continue to work for a growth company and pursue an expanded scope in a c-level role (CISO, CDO or CTO). She’s already got her eyes set on transitioning from non-profit boards to serve on public company boards to extend her large-scale digital transformation and new security knowledge beyond consumer electronics.
“To help me achieve my goals, TLI provides me with access to local and global experts, and the opportunity to learn and work side-by-side with industry leaders and outstanding student colleagues. All of this drives us to push innovation not only within our own firms, but across industries through collaboration and partnerships.”
As a student, Azar has taken full advantage of the engagement TLI faculty have outside of the classroom.
She joined the Minnesota chapter of Infragard, a partnership between the FBI and the private sector that unites businesses, academics, state and local law enforcement and other leadership to exchange intelligence in order to prevent hostile attacks. She also attended the Cyber Security Summit, a large-scale consortium that draws industry, government and academic leaders. After attending the event in the fall of 2016, she pursued the opportunity to join its Advisory Board Group.
“TLI opened doors for me and allowed me to pivot my professional experience toward leading in tech-intensive environments,” said Azar. “You’re encouraged to get involved and drive impact. I would recommend TLI to all industry leaders who wish to stay relevant in the age of unprecedented speed of change and industry disruption driven by emerging tech and trends, the proliferation of IP-enabled devices, IoT, automation and smart city development. There’s an immediate return on investment.”
So how does she juggle graduate school and multiple commitments?
“I am blessed with a supportive husband, happy family and a system that meets our unique needs,” says Azar, who is also a wife and mother. “We’ve raised two incredibly confident, talented and independent daughters who have chosen to pursue STEM fields.”
In order to decide whether a program is right for you, she advises professionals who are looking to advance their careers to reach out to her and other students to learn what they liked most about their program.
“I set up informational interviews with every person I could find to understand what made MSST and MOT unique,” said Azar. “This helped me customize solutions that would meet my professional goals.”
She also encourages them to contact her directly on LinkedIn.
“The unique combination of experience and skills you’ll attain from TLI programs will differentiate you as a leader and position you with a competitive advantage,” said Azar, who also serves as Board Chair and President of Minnesota River Valleys Girl Scouts. “And remember to use your talents to help others.”
To learn more about any of our three Master of Science programs, be sure to attend an upcoming information session or set up an individual appointment with a member of our admissions team.
To help me achieve my goals, TLI provides me with access to local and global experts; the opportunity to learn and work side-by-side with industry leaders and outstanding student colleagues. All of this drives us to push innovation not only within our own firms, but across industries through collaboration and partnerships.