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We are proud of the successes of our Alumni and their contributions to a diverse range of businesses.

Jon Holman

Jon Holman

MBA candidate, Carnegie Mellon, Tepper School of Business

How to strive for, and achieve, difficult things

Congratulations on winning Northwestern’s Kellogg Design Challenge. What was the experience like?
To start, we competed with more than 100 teams on a prompt from the design challenge sponsor, Exelon: “How might we engage with energy customers in urban areas to reduce demand when the grid is overwhelmed?” Then, our design innovation plan was selected as one of 24 to continue in the competition for six more weeks. Overall, I had a great time and I think our team dynamic—with students from business, engineering, and design—helped us be really efficient and think outside of the box.

How did you approach the challenge?
We used a lot of design thinking, talking to people and performing immersive research. We even applied analogous inspiration to our approach and delved into people’s experiences beyond energy, for example when they receive an Amber Alert. Ultimately, we found that many consumers care about the environment and they want to save money, but financial incentives alone aren’t enough to change their behavior. We heard from regulators that their priority is whatever most benefits disadvantaged communities. And, finally, on the business side, Exelon wanted a solution that was feasible and easy to implement. These insights led us to the following question: “How might we entice customers with new incentives but also appeal to regulators?”

So, what was the winning solution you proposed?
We built a prototype for a new feature within the Exelon app. When energy demand is rising, a push notification asks people to reduce their energy load and offers a monetary credit to someone’s bill. But it also gives a consumer the option to instantly reroute their savings to a customer in need. So by reducing your own energy consumption, you’re also helping someone who might otherwise experience a shutoff. This changes the incentive from extrinsic to intrinsic, which is much more powerful for changing behavior. Then, the day after an energy demand peak, Exelon would send a message back to participating customers, saying “Thank you for helping reduce energy. You saved X-amount of carbon emissions.” We also added a crowd-funding-inspired bar to the app so people could see how many others in their area opted in to participate, building a social proof aspect.

Before business school, you were at PwC. Did anything from your time at the firm play a role in how you approached the design challenge?
My experience in the Digital Accelerator program definitely helped prepare me for this kind of problem-solving, because I was already familiar with the design-thinking process. I had also worked remotely in that program, which was useful as we had to collaborate virtually for most of the design challenge.

Can you tell us a bit more about the Digital Accelerator program?
It was a two-year internal program that gave me the opportunity to participate in rigorous online curriculums, learning about AI and machine learning as well as how to code, while also using design thinking to disrupt audits, build technology solutions, and shift the culture. It was a way to drive upskilling at the firm and it opened my mind to new possibilities. Plus, I made so many friendships and met mentors through it. Sarah McEneaney, for example, who was the partner in charge of the audit side of the program, was helpful both at PwC and when I wanted to apply to business school. Now I’m on a technology strategy product management track at business school, in large part because of what I was exposed to at PwC.

Outside of school, how do you spend your time?
It’s not easy to do much during the pandemic, but I’m trying to stay active and spend time with family and friends. I’m also really passionate about what I’m doing in school, so I spend a good amount of time building out and coding hands-on machine learning side projects. Currently, I’m building predictive NBA machine learning models for daily fantasy sports contests. I used to make music videos as a creative outlet, but now I get that similar fulfillment from what I’m studying.

What makes you so passionate about machine learning?
When you first think about it, it seems like a way for more automation. But I think the most exciting thing about it is how it can ultimately unlock more human connections. When more of the monotonous stuff can be taken care of, it should enable us to build more creative and more personal experiences.

You’ve accomplished so much already. What advice would you offer others?
Don’t be afraid of failure. In fact, you should almost want it. Failure usually means you’re learning, and striving for something that’s difficult to achieve. That’s what often opens doors to other great things.

This interview was conducted, edited, and condensed by Jen Swetzoff, founder and creative director of CLOSEUP. She was formerly the deputy managing editor at strategy+business magazine.

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Amy Paquette

Amy Paquette

US Alumni Network team, PwC US

Sallie Hinson

Sallie Hinson

US Alumni Network team, PwC US

Kerri Murphy

Kerri Murphy

US/MX Alumni Network Leader, PwC US

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