11 Oct 2012

Answering the Doctor's Call


When Bill Downing (MBA 1995) started his first semester as a medical student in August, he finally closed the loop on a dream he’s had since childhood.

“If you’d asked me when I was a young boy what I wanted to be, I’d say, ‘a doctor,’” says Downing. “I was always intrigued with medicine. I guess it’s just in my DNA.” But, as often happens with childhood dreams, Downing set aside his medical aspirations. His father had launched Downing Enterprises, a manufacturer of trade-show exhibits and retail displays located in Copley Township, Ohio, and the younger Downing wanted to help take the family business to the next level. So instead of medicine, Downing studied business at Bowling Green State University, and later earned his Harvard MBA, all so he could help the family company thrive.

“I have no regrets,” says Downing, 46, who served as the company’s chairman and CEO. “I’d always had a great relationship with my father; I chose the business path so I could work with him.”

Looking back, Downing can see how that path, in many ways, has also led him back to his dream. Recounting his time at HBS, Downing says he never forgot one speech given by then-Dean John McArthur. “He encouraged us to embrace our community in a significant way,” Downing recalls. “He said we had been uniquely blessed and that we needed to reach out where we live. That must have been very important to him, and I guess I really did take it to heart.

Says Downing, a married father of three who has spent more than a decade volunteering in the poor urban neighborhoods of nearby Akron, “My true heroes are the pastors, social workers, doctors, and nurses who volunteer in the clinics and churches. Volunteering beside them, I saw that I could invest the rest of my career in helping people.”

To that end, Downing started taking science classes three years ago. Then, while searching for a medical school that would accept a mid-career student, he stumbled upon a new joint program, offered by Cleveland State University and Northeast Ohio Medical University, that was seemingly tailor-made to his aspirations. Downing is one of just 35 nontraditional students in the program, aimed at providing doctors to underserved urban neighborhoods.

“I want to be a one-on-one healer,” says Downing, who continues as chairman and maintains a key advisory and stewardship role at Downing Enterprises. “But,” he adds, “I can definitely see the synergistic advantages of having both business and medical training. Clearly, there’s a health-care gap for urban poor, and it goes along with developing a community. Business leaders must find a way to involve urban communities in the overall economy. It will be a priority of mine to first help my patients and, if I can, to help my community in those larger ways.”

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1995, Section A

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