As an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, Julian Dickenson was a standout defender for the university’s Division 1 soccer team while maintaining a high grade point average in actuarial mathematics.
His secret to maintaining that balance?
“I wouldn’t necessarily define it as balance,” says Dickenson. “It’s first things first. My number one thing was academics. Right under that was soccer. Everything was a mile lower than those two things.”
He credits that focus to being the only child of a single mom known as one of the toughest math and science teachers in the Augusta, Georgia, high school where she teaches. “You talk about a work ethic?” he says. “That was everything. I would not be anywhere near here without her.”
You’ve cited your mom as an inspiration. What did you learn from her?
She would work two and three jobs. And she always got me to soccer practice on time. When I really wanted to step up, she got up at about 5 or 6 a.m. and drove me two and a half hours to Atlanta to practice with the best teams in the state. She’d work a full day with exhausting kids, then drive me to practice, watch us practice, then drive two and a half hours back and get up for work the next day. On weekends we typically traveled across the Southeast to compete. She did all that because she knew how much I loved soccer. Seeing this from a young age shaped my work ethic and how I approached life, work, relationships, and my other passions.
Was she the same way with your academics?
She made sure her students earned their grades in her class. She definitely took that approach with me. She taught me not only how to find the answer, but how to break things down and understand the theory behind it.
What drew you to math?
My mom warned me that, going into the world, people might not perceive me in the best light — because of my race, because I was a bigger guy — and their initial impression wouldn’t be the most favorable one. Before teachers got to know me, there was a perception that I fit an archetype. I saw how people’s perceptions could influence results. Math was one subject where it didn’t matter what I looked like or what clothes I wore. In math, you’re either right or you’re wrong.
Actuarial mathematics is a cool blend — math was my favorite subject growing up and something I’ve always been attracted to — but it also brings in my love of finance, statistics, and analyzing how the world works. It’s also a meritocracy. With math, you can get to the correct solution in a number of ways and be judged by that.
Hard skills are where you flourished, but you were attracted to Stanford’s program because of its attention to soft skills such as leadership and interpersonal dynamics. Why do you think those are important?
First, I realized how important it was during conversations with mentors. Second, observing people I admire and who I saw having a great impact on the world. The vast majority of them were able to combine the hard skills with the soft skills to help people see where they were coming from and get people excited about an idea. You look at leaders like Barack Obama, who is an incredibly smart guy. But I also saw his ability to break down ideas in simple ways and motivate people. As a young Black kid coming out of Augusta, Georgia, that made a huge impact on me.
You mention mentorship, which apparently played an important role in your life. How so?
I’m thankful to be in a position where I’m still getting help from mentors to get closer to my goals. And now I’m doing that same thing for others. One mentor who was there for me at a critical juncture was Dr. Vaughn Clagette at Pitt. I knew him through the Georgia soccer network. He went to med school at Pitt and now he’s on the board of trustees. And he came along at a pivotal moment.
What was that pivotal moment?
It was in 2016, the year after I graduated, the day after I had back surgery. It was a low point. My entire life I was known for my athletic ability, but suddenly I couldn’t pick up anything over five pounds. I couldn’t even leave the house and needed help doing everything.
What did he say when he reached out to you?
He called me and said there was no reason I shouldn’t be aiming for the Stanfords and Harvards of the world for my MBA. At that point my confidence was so low I didn’t think that was possible. But he had such confidence in me and wanted me to shoot for the stars. He said I could have an amazing impact on the world. Coming from one of the first Black doctors at Pitt who is now on the board, and seeing that example, made a huge difference.
What do you feel are the top three qualities of a strong leader?
Ethics has to be number one. If you don’t have an ethical leader who does the right thing, sooner or later they’ll be exposed. Second, they have to be able to articulate a vision for what they’re trying to accomplish. Generally, the people I look up to as leaders are able to break down the details. They help you see a path to that destination and get the best out of people. Third would be confidence. If you’re trying to accomplish anything, there’ll be naysayers and doubters. You’ve got to have the confidence to succeed in spite of all that. Things can change so quickly in the world. You have to have the confidence to say you believe you’ll get through this and achieve the vision.
Are there qualities typical of a great soccer player that you think might translate into the world of business?
Consistency and vision. And soccer is a team effort. I don’t think anybody can achieve anything truly great by themselves.
Any specific experiences at Stanford that stand out?
One has to be the Interpersonal Dynamics course we affectionately call “Touchy Feely.” I plan on using what I learned, in my work and personal life and relationships, even with myself in being able to describe my own emotions at a higher level. That was not necessarily encouraged while I was growing up. Touchy Feely gave me an increased vocabulary for seeing the world and relationships, and the confidence to go into a tough conversation and recognize what someone is trying to say.
Stanford GSB students are encouraged to let their guard down and share their authentic selves. How have you grown as a result of that?
By my teenage years, I grew to be pretty guarded. I never wanted to show vulnerability. That started changing with a back injury. A surgeon said I’d never play soccer again, but I’d at least be able to walk after surgery. I’m like, “Wait, that’s the level we’re going to? From aspirations of going pro to this?” I had a lot of time to think and reflect on who I was becoming and I asked myself if I wanted to continue on this path. I gradually started opening up more and it not only made it easier to see my true self, but also other people. Stanford has been as advertised. It’s really freeing not having as many walls up. And I think that’s how I’ll make my impact on the world. I couldn’t do it being someone who the world wants me to be. I just have to be myself.