Joanna Gorin, WG’20, credits Wharton with helping her pivot to a business leadership role at ETS “to bring the best of science to customers around the world who are in need of effective solutions.”

When Joanna Gorin, WG’20, came to Wharton’s EMBA program, her goal was to transition from a research leadership position to a business leadership role to make a greater impact on product decisions. She recently achieved that goal when she was promoted to vice president of global language learning, teaching and assessment, and chief operating officer of global English language markets at ETS.

“In this newly created position, I will focus on strengthening and expanding the brand of ETS across the global language learning and assessment ecosystem by evolving, inventing and accelerating solutions to market that best serve future learners,” said Joanna, noting that strategy and data analytics are key aspects of the role.

Starting with a Passion for Psychology

Joanna discovered her passion for educational psychology later in college. Her original major was music, but she struggled with motivation and took a break from school to explore commercial acting. When she returned to college, she took a psychology class and was hooked, particularly on the study of human cognition and how people think and make decisions.

After college, Joanna earned her Master’s degree in educational psychology , focusing on learning and cognition, and planned to complete a PhD. “I was ABD – “all but dissertation” – when I decided to shift my focus from the learning theory and methods of educational psychology to an intersection between human cognition, quantitative methods and measurement side. That focus was not available in my program, so I changed schools and entered a different PhD program. It would have been easier and faster to simply finish my dissertation in the first program, but I wanted to do what excites me and I knew I could make a unique mark in this interdisciplinary area,” she explained.

After completing her PhD, she joined the faculty at Arizona State University, where she became a tenured professor and a research scientist in the Learning Sciences Institute.

“I loved teaching and leading my own research lab, but there was a limit to the impact I could have on educational practice and society. Even with external funding and international collaborations, the scope and reach of my contributions was limited and my excitement for each new research project gradually faded. After 10 years, I left my tenured position to make a change,” said Joanna.

Leading a Research Unit

That’s when she joined ETS. “I had previously worked there as a predoctoral fellow and intern, and was collaborating on grants, so I knew they were establishing a new research group and investing heavily in research that aligned with my area of interest.” She began as research director of the Cognitive and Learning Sciences Group, moving her family from Arizona to New Jersey.

Within three years, she was tapped to become vice president of her unit. “I started at ETS with a unit of 11 people and then took over a 150+ person research area. For a measurement researcher, that is the epitome of running a research agenda at the premier educational testing research company. Everything I did was tied to the bigger context of what was happening in education,” she said.  

Joanna added, “With my leadership team, I also started a major change management endeavor in my unit to find ways to become more impactful. I applied a business-oriented lens to collect our financial and internal labor data to analyze our research portfolio and understand where our investment in research was aligning within our corporate mission and business strategic priorities.”

At the time, noted Joanna, testing was increasingly viewed negatively as a barrier to education. “We needed to change how we communicate about ourselves as a mission-based research organization that sells products and services as solutions for educators and learners. However, as is often the case, there was a natural tension between what research results would suggest as optimal for education and what seemed feasible and sustainable for business from the perspective of customer demands. We needed to bring those two perspectives together more closely to understand how they can be married. We needed people with research backgrounds in business roles.”

Getting an MBA

Joanna with her two sons

Joanna wanted to become that type of leader – someone with a research background in a business role. To prepare for that role, she decided to pursue an MBA.

At that point, a lot had happened in her personal life. She was going through a divorce, she had two young children, she lost her mother unexpectedly in a car accident, and her sister was diagnosed with cancer. “My attitude was that this was absolutely the right time to go back to school. I have purpose for getting the degree and I had already disrupted my family, so I owed it to them to not back off the opportunity,” she said.

When she approached her managers, they recommended that Joanna consider an executive education or mini-MBA program. “I weighed the pros and cons of a full MBA versus a shorter program and the pros of Wharton’s EMBA program outweighed the other options. It had a quantitative focus, was close to home, and I could learn with and from an experienced and diverse cohort of students.”

Joanna explained to her CEO that a six-month program would be insufficient for developing the new business skills ETS needed to grow, without more leaders at the organization experienced with emerging, innovative models of business to mentor her. However, the Wharton EMBA program would differentiate her with knowledge and tools and empower her to transfer that knowledge to help the company innovate, especially as it faced disruption due to factors like the test optional movement and fewer international students.

“I explained that it was important for me to have this two-year sustained experience that I could bring back to the company between classes and also take challenges at the company to the faculty for feedback,” she said.

Reaping the Rewards of a Wharton degree

Joanna and her classmates on a Global Business Week trip to Argentina

After graduating in 2020, Joanna said she already “thinks and talks differently.” This was evident when, a few months prior to graduation, she began having conversations with her CEO and SVP about moving to a business unit.

Creating a proposal for a new position, she focused on a global growth initiative that would help pivot the company toward learning versus testing, and help it become more global. Joanna applied knowledge and skills gained during her Global Business Week trip to Argentina and an elective on global strategy.

Her proposal was supported, and she was named vice president of global language learning, teaching and assessment, and chief operating officer of global English language markets. In this role, she will oversee a new connected strategy across all of the company’s English language business activities, including existing brands and emerging businesses, and help shift the company from a product to a market focus.

“I’m applying everything I learned in school and that isn’t an accident. I purposely chose electives that would add value and made sure to ask questions in class related to my focus,” she said.

Joanna points to her finances classes as an example. “I am now chair of the board of our new subsidiary in China and co-sponsor of our English language growth initiative, so I need to look critically at financials for planning and initiative review. I had questions about some of the strategic and financial assumptions in the previous models, so I spent a weekend reviewing the numbers based on what I learned in class. I was then able to effectively communicate to our leadership what I saw as a potential risk and could articulate it in financial terms.”

Looking back, Joanna calls Wharton a “life-changing experience.” She said, “The sheer mass of knowledge you learn and the change you see in yourself is incredible. The EMBA program opened up an entirely new world. I’m excited about my new role and my ability to help my company make a greater positive impact in the world. This is the legacy my mom would want me to have.”

Joanna with her classmates on Wharton’s campus

— By Meghan Laska

Posted: December 21, 2020

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