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Making A Difference

Capturing the Personal Side of the MBA Experience

Tony Deifell (MBA 2002)

As an MBA student, Tony Deifell (MBA 2002) was intrigued by the idea of reflective leadership, so he decided to combine his skills as a photographer with a question from a Mary Oliver poem: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The resulting exhibit of 90 portraits and essays launched the HBS Portrait Project.

“I’m interested in vulnerability,” says Deifell, whose 15-year (and counting) commitment to the project involves working with a team of student volunteers who solicit essays and returning to campus to photograph and provide editorial advice to the authors of the selected essays. “The Portrait Project shows their human side.”

The project has been integrated into the MBA curriculum: New students respond to a Portrait Project exhibit during their first week on campus and graduates’ portraits and essays are displayed at Commencement. HBS hosts a website that includes all the portraits and essays (more than 500) since the project’s launch.

Deifell himself participated in the initial project—his portrait was taken by classmate Mardie Oakes, to whom he is now married—and his essay about his experience teaching photography to visually impaired students has helped define his calling as a social servant and as an entrepreneur. Since graduation, Deifell has published a book and presented a TED talk about what he learned from the cracked sidewalks; worked with nonprofits; and launched several ventures.

(Published January 2017)

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