Honoring Legacy and Leadership: Highlights from the Johnson School’s Big Red Bash

By: Maria Minsker '13
Two men standing on either side of a woman, posing with arms around each others' shoulders, smiling.

Johnson School 2024 Distinguished Alumni Awards honorees (left to right) Marques E. Zak, MBA ’10, Anne Chow ’88, MEng ’89, MBA ’90, and Barry W. Ridings, MBA ’76

Against the backdrop of the city skyline, alumni, staff, and prospective students gathered at the Tribeca Rooftop in New York City for the Big Red Bash—the pinnacle event of the year for Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management. Held on May 9, 2024, the gala marked an annual celebration of achievements and the enduring bonds of the Johnson School community.

A man speaking into a microphone with a "Big Red Bash" banner in the background.
Vishal Gaur, Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean of the Johnson School

As Vishal Gaur, the Anne and Elmer Lindseth Dean of the Johnson School, took the stage, he set the tone for an evening of recognition. “It’s wonderful to be here with all of you tonight to celebrate the strength of our community,” he said.

Gaur took a moment to recognize notable alumni that received awards earlier in the year, including Heather Henyon, MBA ’03, who received the 2023 Cañizares Award for Distinguished Alumni in International Business and Emerging Markets for her impactful career and engagement with the Emerging Markets Institute. Gaur then went on to congratulate this year’s 10 Under 10 Notable Alumni, spotlighting outstanding recent graduates making substantial contributions to their fields and communities.

A man gesturing and speaking into a microphone with a "Big Red Bash" banner in the background.
Andrew Karolyi, Charles Field Knight Dean of the SC Johnson College of Business

Following Gaur’s welcome, Andrew Karolyi, Charles Field Knight Dean of the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, took the stage with gratitude and enthusiasm and reflected on the significance of the Big Red Bash, now in its seventh year. While the event celebrates award recipients, he emphasized its essence lies in honoring the broader Johnson School community and reinforcing the importance of alumni engagement.

To that end, Karolyi encouraged continued involvement through avenues like the Cornell SC Johnson College’s Lifelong Learning Initiative. “We are creating a powerhouse through the college that is benefiting all of the three schools,” he explained. The initiative is currently focused on artificial intelligence (AI) and its impact on business—a theme highlighted in upcoming events and offerings.

photo of a large celebration hall filled with tables and people.

Championing engagement

With the opening remarks wrapped, it was time for the main event—presenting the night’s three 2024 alumni recognition awards.

A man standing in front of a microphone and smiling.
Marques E. Zak, MBA ’10, was honored with the Robert J. Swieringa Recent Alumni Service Award

First up, Gaur introduced Marques E. Zak, MBA ’10, as the recipient of the Robert J. Swieringa Recent Alumni Service Award, highlighting his exemplary commitment and leadership within the Johnson School and Cornell communities. Zak, who is head of multicultural marketing at American Express, was commended for his pivotal roles, including cofounding the Johnson Recent Alumni Council and initiatives like the 10 Under 10 Notable Alumni list.

In his heartfelt acceptance speech, Zak reflected on his remarkable journey, acknowledging his humble roots as the grandson of hardworking immigrants and domestic workers.

“Growing up, my dad—who is here today from Houston—instilled in me a powerful motto: ‘The power of one.’ Even a single person can make a significant impact. Initially, I will admit I saw this through a self-serving lens. However, as I matured, I realized that true impact comes through service,” he said.

Zak recounted an early experience in high school where he advocated for grade equity in physical education, highlighting his commitment to fairness and equality. This passion for service continued to flourish during his time at the Johnson School, where he actively participated in various groups including the Johnson Admissions Group, student council, career workgroups, and the Black Graduate Business Association (BGBA).

Expressing deep gratitude to the Johnson School for its impact on his career, Zak affirmed his ongoing commitment to service by serving on the Cornell University Council and the Cornell University Library Advisory Council, with aspirations to become a Cornell trustee in the future. “My service is driven by a core belief: Cornell University should be a transformative experience for any person in any study, for generations to come, just like it has been for me,” he concluded.

A lifetime of commitment and mentorship

Gaur returned to the stage to present Barry W. Ridings, MBA ’76, with the Samuel C. Johnson Distinguished Service Award, a lifetime achievement honor recognizing Ridings’s exceptional commitment to the Johnson School and its alumni community. His extensive engagement included his longstanding membership on the Johnson School Advisory Council and his role as its former chair.

A man speaking into a microphone and gesturing.
Barry W. Ridings, MBA ’76, was honored with the Samuel C. Johnson Distinguished Service Award

Ridings, former managing director and vice chair of U.S. investment banking at Lazard Frères & Co., expressed deep gratitude and excitement for receiving the award in his acceptance speech, acknowledging the Johnson School’s special place in his heart. He warmly mentioned his wife of 47 years and cherished roommates from his days at what was then known as Cornell’s School of Business and Public Administration. All were in attendance, underscoring the enduring friendships fostered by his alma mater.

Reflecting on his journey from Colgate University to Cornell’s Business School, Ridings humorously recounted pivotal moments, including an unexpected interaction with (the late) Professor Hal Bierman.

“On my first day at Johnson, when the business school was still in Malott Hall, I sat in the back of Professor Bierman’s class,” said Ridings. “He had set out an assignment before class. So I’m sitting in the back row, and Professor Bierman says, ‘Mr. Ridings, can you answer the question that I’ve sent you?’ In my mind, I go, ‘Holy smokes, he knows my name.’ I learned two important life lessons that day: I never sat in the back again, and I never went to work unprepared.”

Ridings emphasized Cornell’s transformative impact on his life and career, noting the solid financial foundation and life lessons imparted by his professors. He shared his joy in returning to teach classes at Johnson, including valuation and negotiation, where he discussed engaging topics like dealing with the former president, Donald Trump.

In closing, Ridings underscored the significance of giving back to Cornell, urging everyone to contribute not just financially but also through time and commitment to help future generations surpass their predecessors. “We need to give back, get engaged. Not just money, but time and commitment. Help those who come behind us to surpass us,” he said.

Trailblazing leadership, impact, and inclusion

Finally, it was time for the biggest honor of the night. Gaur introduced Anne Chow ’88, MEng ’89, MBA ’90, as the recipient of the L. Joseph Thomas Leadership Award, a lifetime achievement honor recognizing Chow’s exceptional vision, leadership, business acumen, and community commitment. Before welcoming Chow to the stage, Gaur remarked on her impressive career spanning more than three decades in technology and business sectors, including her trailblazing role as CEO of AT&T, becoming the first woman of color to hold that position in the company’s history.

a woman speaking into a microphone and smiling.
Anne Chow ’88, MEng ’89, MBA ’90, was honored with the L. Joseph Thomas Leadership Award

In her acceptance speech, Chow expressed genuine gratitude and humility, sharing her initial disbelief upon hearing the news. She reflected on her transformative journey from being an introverted engineer to embracing the significance of human connection and interpersonal influence, a lesson she learned and valued deeply from her experiences at Cornell and the Johnson School. “I knew that I actually wanted to better understand how people and technology came together for innovation and growth. But in order to do that, I had to learn more about people and importantly, I had to learn about business,” Chow said.

Chow credited her Cornell education for laying the foundation of her career, which encompassed navigating through multiple corporate roles and transitions and culminating in her current engagements in boardrooms and classrooms. “My early experiences at Cornell have shaped some of my life’s mantras. People call them ‘Chowisms’ and I’ll share a couple of them with you right now. The first one is that life and leadership are all about relationships. Be sure to seek and foster meaningful ones. The second one is to be good. You must do good for good. I know all of you as Cornellians and future Cornellians get that,” she said.

Acknowledging her parents’ courageous immigration to the U.S. from Taiwan for a brighter future, Chow underscored her deep-seated belief in the country’s potential despite prevailing challenges. “Despite all the crazy that’s happening, we still live in the greatest country in the world and we should be proud to be here,” she said.

Inspiring excellence

This year’s Big Red Bash event was a celebration filled with inspiring moments and reflections from esteemed award recipients. Throughout the evening, common threads emerged from their speeches, and these narratives collectively underscored the ethos of Cornell’s Johnson School—a community that thrives on shared experiences, mentorship, and the enduring impact of leadership.

“I absolutely believe that if we work together, we can ensure a future that’s bigger and brighter than ever before. And after all, isn’t that what ‘progress, impact, and leadership’ are all about?” Chow closed.

A "Big Red Bash" sign on the window of a building, reflecting another building across the street.

All photos are by Jesse Winter.