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A Conversation with Northwestern MSC Alumnus, Sonny Sultani

Sonny is the CEO of design communications agency SONNY+ASH in Chicago, which he co-founded in 2011 in the middle of his time in the MSC program. The company helps people communicate their ideas to the masses. His undergraduate background was also in Communication Studies at Northwestern.

Why was MSC the right program for you?

Think of a young kid who was pretty much an introvert, who wouldn’t speak in class, but at home was a chatterbox to the point that my mom would have to give me a dollar to shut up. That was me. I had to go into communication because there were two things I loved: 1) talking and 2) observing. Communication was who I was and my nature. Prior to communication I was an engineering major. I had all the grades and did what I needed, but it didn’t feel like I would get up in the morning and really like what I was going to do. After undergrad I was working in engineering and sales and it was more technical than it is sales, so I wasn’t really doing communication at my job. After about 5 years I was bored, so I went into the MSC program. It felt like a good fit for me and after studying communication as an undergraduate at Northwestern, it felt like the right thing to do.

I went into a communication graduate degree instead of business for a couple reasons. Firstly, it felt like home to me. Secondly, I didn’t see benefit of the financials part of a business degree. Thirdly, there’s enough black and white decisions in life and I wanted that insight into grey zone situations, and the soft skills to take my company to the next level.

As an entrepreneur, do you think that the program had a significant and unique value for entrepreneurs?

I think every entrepreneur should go through this, especially for small business owners. This is your gamut of classes you should take in life to run a business effectively. If I would put it in numerics, I would say it will help you learn how to best manage employee retention, the ability to see and mitigate risk through communication, the management of crises that may happen throughout your organization, and the effective introduction of products and services. All of these topics are part of any entrepreneur’s struggles, and often a typical small business owner can’t afford to always hire consultants. So, to all the entrepreneurs out there, why not spend the money and have that knowledge base for yourself. That’s something people can’t take away from you and I think that becomes an amazing part of your core to run any business.

What is something you’ve learned that has made an impact on your professional and/or personal life?

This program gives you a direct application of theories. It’s had a significant impact on way I see the world. For instance, the way I relate to people. I saw the biggest benefit in my soft skills, because I chose classes that weren’t coupled with my nature, but very challenging for me as an individual and my values.

Kathleen Galvin’s Diversity and Inclusion class is one that challenged my values. When I first started, if you asked me about my opinion about diversity and inclusiveness, I would have given you a whole spiel on how the “strongest survive” and there is no need for it, but my perspective definitely changed. When you are an executive of a company that is growing very fast, you have to start thinking about the other side of the coin. I was even eventually asked to speak about diversity and inclusiveness on a panel. I took this class, leading me to make decisions at work, leading to me to become a thought leader in the topic.

How have you grown from the program?

I had a model of the world – a very big financial model of the world about running a business. It was all about profits. The process of going through the MSC taught me that wasn’t the only model that worked, and that there’s more to profits than the dollar and cents of it and that other attributes have to be juggled and pieced together, because they all lead to the same kind of numbers.

What was your favorite aspect of MSC at Northwestern?

I really enjoyed the cohort. I got to meet a lot of interesting people and formed close relationships with them. I still have a few of them as friends and we connect from time to time. I have enlisted some of them as consultants in my company. One helped me interview potential candidates, one was a technologist who helped me create a server infrastructure. Everyone in each cohort has a different career and their own path. Very diverse interests are represented, and it’s great when you’re stuck with a question because there is always someone there who can answer it.

What advice would you have for anyone considering the MSC program?

It’s not really about a particular business path. It’s more about soft skills than it is about the career path. It’s the track of what all leaders should go through in all organizations. You’re going to use this stuff whether you like it or not. As a leader, the more tools you have, the better you can run an organization. The program gives you not just one tool, but a whole toolbox.