February 17, 2021 • By Sydney Charles
Derek Powell MBA ’98 was just three months old when his family moved from Vietnam to make a home in the Moreno Valley. Growing up in that small military community, Powell didn’t realize the significance of his parent’s––who are African American and Vietnamese—interracial relationship.
“With my dad in the military and living in a community around the base, it was not a big deal,” he said. “It wasn’t until later, when I learned about the 1967 Supreme Court decision (Loving v Virginia) to allow interracial marriages, when I realized how much of a challenge it was for couples like my parents to be out in public.”
In the throes of his unique upbringing, Powell discovered a passion for science and space. After receiving his undergraduate degree in astronautical engineering with military distinction from the United States Air Force Academy, he focused on pursuing a career in a growing market: business technology.
“I wanted to focus on IT because it was an opportunity for me to leverage my engineering degree and my quantitative skills,” he said.
Powell turned to the Full-Time MBA program at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business to sharpen his skills.
He explained, “I wanted to better understand business, especially in the context of technology, and UCI was a strong choice for that.”
Powell loved learning, and with the Merage School, he was able to gain experience and knowledge in fields in which he was both strong and weak. Some of his favorite classes taken in graduate school were in the field of consulting—which ended up inspiring his career trajectory.
“One of the areas I wasn’t strong in was marketing. It wasn’t until I took a class from Connie Pechmann when I realized I could really get into marketing. I still have the final exam where she gave me an A. It gave me the encouragement and confidence that I had a lot of latitude and flexibility to explore other areas within business that I didn’t really think of before.”
Upon graduation, Powell was offered a full-time position with Andersen Consulting (now Accenture), the company where he interned not only during his time at the Merage School out of the Los Angeles office but also out of the Hong Kong office while studying at Hong Kong University Science & Technology (HKUST) as an exchange student. The technology-focused foundation at the Merage School helped Powell to bridge cross-functional expertise with emerging digital capabilities for global clients.
“At the time, the high-tech supply chain was the best of the best in terms of how sharing information could bring new efficiencies across the value chain, so that’s where I focused my efforts,” he said.
Powell’s career shifted to the media & entertainment industry where he has worked on several technology-related projects ranging from infrastructure and enterprise software implementations to designing and developing digital content production and distribution platforms.
While at the Merage School, Powell also learned the importance of mentoring, networking and building connections, lessons he carries with him to this day.
“One of the things that’s helped me succeed in my career is how I utilized different networks,” he said. “It’s not just networking and being able to connect with your classmates or industry colleagues, but also staying in touch with the TAs and professors as well. Their research was very applicable to the types of business issues I was working on, so keeping up with their research and insights were key to the value I brought to my team and personally to my success.”
Currently, Powell is furthering his connections by partnering with the newly formed Black Management Association (BMA) at the Merage School.
Associate Professor Tonya Williams Bradford said, “Derek is an incredible fountain of experience. The breadth of his experiences provides an invaluable role model and perspective for our students. I am excited to partner with him to support the growth of the BMA and its contributions to the Merage School and Southern California business communities.”
To his fellow Anteaters, Powell stressed the importance of finding a balance between your skills and how to leverage them.
“For those looking for new opportunities, I recommend pursuing roles that 1) align with their interests, 2) leverage their strengths, 3) develop their personal brand and 4) chart your 3-5-year career roadmap,” he explained. “You need to have a sense of self-awareness on your strengths and value you provide. I wouldn’t recommend a person to pursue a role that’s way out of their reach. I encourage job seekers to be very honest and truthful with themselves, but there’s also a balance between overextending yourself and pushing yourself just enough so that you get exposure to the roles into which you eventually want to grow.”