Xiaoye “MD” Ma isn’t a firefighter; he just played one on TV. When Ma, MBA ’18, graduated from high school in Singapore, he didn’t head for the U.K. to study law or medicine, as his parents had planned. Instead, after completing a firefighting boot camp, he spent eight months playing a deputy fire chief on Burning Flame, a 20-episode Chinese television series.
Following his gig on the TV show, Ma decided to come to the U.S. to earn a bachelor’s degree in media studies, as well as economics. During his time at Pomona College in Southern California, Ma interned at Participant Media, a production company run by Jeff Skoll, MBA ’95, that’s known for movies including An Inconvenient Truth and Spotlight.
“As a media studies major, I was fascinated by entertainment that inspired and compelled social change,” Ma says. Working at Skoll’s business gave him his first glimpse of the possibilities awaiting him.
After graduation, Ma spent two years as a management consultant with Deloitte, and then worked in business intelligence for a company that makes tactical gear for first responders. But that media company internship — and the example set by Skoll — inspired Ma to enroll at Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2016.
He views his time here through an emotional lens. Because personal narrative and interpersonal development are core to the student experience — and because, like actors, businesspeople can benefit from learning to harness emotion and understand narrative — “in that sense, to me, this aspect feels almost like a theater school.”
Appreciating Real-Life Drama
That dimension became especially apparent when Ma starting attending TALK, a longtime student-led tradition during which classmates publicly share their stories. “I thought I would come to Stanford GSB to learn about entrepreneurship, about startups,” he says. “I did. But at TALK, I also learned how little I know about the world.”
Ma, who had been raised in the U.K., China, and Singapore, had thought of himself as well-traveled when he arrived at Stanford GSB. But he found that his fellow students’ lives and perspectives introduced him to new worlds. “Weekly TALKs given by my classmates often took me on an emotional roller coaster,” he says. “There were always moments of joy, sadness, anger, sorrow, and pain. Listening and connecting to my classmates’ narratives gave me a reason to pause and reflect — on the life I have lived, and the life I want to live.”
Just a few weeks after Ma arrived at Stanford GSB, the intimate and accepting environment encouraged him to share his story as a gay man at Coming Out Monologues, an event held by GSB Pride, a student-run organization for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.
“It was daunting,” Ma later reflected in a blog entry. “It was the first time I openly spoke about my journey and struggle; I completely lost it halfway through my talk. There were more tears in the room than I expected: These were tears from my classmates, second-year MBAs, and staff, many of whom I had never met nor interacted with.”
It was an emotional moment. Months later, another big moment arrived: A classmate asked Ma how to support a friend who wanted to come out. “Being authentic, being myself, helped create an environment for other people to connect with me,” he says.
Lessons Well Learned
Ma’s school experience has brought other lessons in acceptance. He has learned how to handle rejection, whether that meant not getting into a highly sought-after entrepreneurship class or not landing a part in the GSB Show, an annual student-run theatrical production. In such cases, his initial disappointment and frustration gave way to reflection. Then, he says, he wondered: “ ‘What have I already received that others might not have?’ These experiences taught me to feel grateful for all that I have been able to do.”
By the end of his first year, Ma had traveled on a study trip to Thailand and the Philippines. He’d sharpened his technical-design skill sets in two coveted classes he took at Stanford’s d.school, the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design. He’d received financial support through a Impact Design Immersion Fellowship and the Entrepreneurial Summer Program to spend a summer interning at Future Family, an early-stage startup with a mission to provide women and couples with affordable fertility care.
And he’d discovered what kind of entrepreneur he might be. Ma came to realize that he prefers building up companies to building them from scratch — though what kinds of companies those might be, he doesn’t yet know.
Now a second-year MBA, Ma has just completed Finding Spiritual Meaning at Work, a seminar taught by Scotty McLennan. Over 10 weeks, he learned about different religions and heard how executives like LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner and JetBlue’s chairman — Joel Peterson, Stanford GSB’s Robert L. Joss Adjunct Professor of Management — integrate their faith into their day-to-day work. Since taking that class, Ma says, “I find myself in a different place. I’m no longer bothered by the uncertainty of what my future path looks like, for I found some guidance on how to walk down this path.”
At Stanford GSB, Ma has found power in authentic narratives: in being himself, and seeking the same authenticity in others. “Look closer,” he says. “There’s a story behind everyone.”
— Jeremy Markovich