In 1991, 12 corporate executives from companies including AT&T, ExxonMobil, Federal Express, Pearle Inc. and other major corporations came to the Cox School of Business at the invitation of its benefactor, Edwin L. Cox Sr., and then-Dean David Blake to discuss what corporations look for when hiring MBA graduates for leadership positions.

The executives agreed that MBA graduates tended to understand the theories of leadership but often lacked the skills to apply them in a hands-on environment. Thanks to this meeting—and a generous endowment by Ed Cox—the Cox School of Business established the Business Leadership Center (BLC), the nation’s first MBA leadership center.

But there was one more important piece of the BLC’s foundation—and perhaps the most crucial piece of its future—in that meeting. Representing Pearle Inc. was a woman named Paula Strasser.

Paula Strasser with Dean Al Niemi (left) and Cox School benefactor Edwin L. Cox (right) in 2001 at the 10-year anniversary celebration of the BLC.

The Start of Something Special

For the past 18 years, Strasser had worked in corporate training and development, first in banking and then at Pearle Vision, one of the largest franchised optical retailers in North America. She enjoyed her time there but had always wanted to bring her passion to help develop students’ corporate potential to an academic setting.

“Corporate education and business were my two dreams,” Strasser says. “That meeting was the nucleus of what I wanted, what I needed to hear—and what the Cox School of Business was wanting to hear.”

Blake and the School’s Management and Organizations faculty liked Strasser’s ideas, enthusiasm and corporate experience. In a matter of months, Strasser became the BLC’s first director.

Tasked with following Ed Cox’s vision to create an “experiential” program that would complement the academic knowledge SMU Cox MBA students were acquiring in their core and elective classes, Strasser invited a handful of local corporate leaders to campus to work with about 30 students on applied business communications skills and self-assessments.

The concept might sound simple, but nothing like the BLC existed at the time. Strasser’s dedication to bringing Ed Cox’s vision to life helped the Cox School set the standard across the nation for business school graduate program leadership training.

“The siren went off when schools wanted to come see what we were doing,” Strasser says.

In the BLC’s inaugural year, Fortune Magazine wrote about Strasser’s achievement in shaping the leadership center. It wasn’t long before university representatives from esteemed institutions such as Harvard Business School and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management were visiting SMU to learn how Strasser had built such a successful program.

Following the BLC’s example, leadership centers are now common fixtures at business schools.

The Best of the BLC

At the Cox School, following the BLC’s success, a new endowment established the Business Leadership Insititute (BLI) for BBAs in 2006, under the guidance of then-Dean Al Niemi and with further support from Ed Cox. Both Niemi and Cox wanted to give BBA students the same competitive edge in the marketplace that BLC classes had given MBAs. BLI classes are now a required part of the BBA curriculum.

Meanwhile, Strasser continued leading the BLC with noticeable flair, creating leadership learning opportunities that remain unique to the Cox School. In 2000, Strasser kicked off the BLC’s Disney Institute program, which takes a select group of MBA students to Orlando, Florida, annually to see firsthand the corporate operations behind the magic curtains at Walt Disney World. Strasser says SMU Cox is the only university that offers MBA students a program with the Disney Institute.

It’s been a hit among MBA students since its inception and is popularly considered a highlight of the BLC. Strasser, a lifelong Disney fan, says working with Disney to develop the program is a career highlight for her too.

Strasser’s other pride and joy within the BLC is the Nonprofit Consulting program she launched in 2005. The program pairs Cox MBA students with local nonprofits aligned with their academic concentrations.

“They all truly put their heart and soul into these pro bono projects,” she says of the participating students and nonprofits.

Like the Disney Institute, Nonprofit Consulting is one of the most popular elements of the BLC—arguably because they’re Strasser’s favorites too, and students can sense her passion in the programs’ planning.

In fact, ask any Cox MBA student or graduate, and they’ll tell you the BLC wouldn’t be what it is today without Strasser.

Paula Strasser hands the BLC reins to Kate Hoedebeck (left).

Passing the Torch

“She is synonymous with the BLC,” says Kate Hoedebeck, who, under Strasser’s guidance, has been the BLC’s director since 2019. “She doesn’t need accolades. She doesn’t need people to say, ‘Oh, this is all because of Paula’—even though it is; she found the amazing people and set up the structure [we have today].”

Hoedebeck, MBA ’98, has fond memories of attending seminars at the BLC—and particularly of Strasser.

“She was there to welcome us to every BLC seminar,” says Hoedebeck. “She was at every function with the MBAs, and she was a key administrator of why it was such a personal experience for us. I absolutely consider her one of the reasons I enjoyed the experience so much.”

Since Strasser taught Hoedebeck as a Cox MBA student, later brought her on as an instructor and eventually made her the associate director of the BLC, she had no qualms about handing over the reins when she retired at the end of May.

Reflecting on her 32 years at SMU Cox, Strasser calls the experience “a dream come true.”

“I had the opportunity to work with so many SMU Cox faculty and staff members,” she says. “Truly some of the very, very best. I mean, there’s just no question. That’s objective.”

Strasser’s Next Chapter

Following her retirement, Strasser plans to spend more time traveling with her husband to visit their grandchildren around the U.S. She also hopes to see New Zealand and Australia—but only if time allows, since she’s planning to keep her schedule full of volunteering, advocating and, yes, more leadership training.

Strasser, herself a cancer survivor, has been working with Wipe Out Kids Cancer for 20 years. She’s looking to spend more time with them. She’s also excited to spend time advocating for adoption.

“Our youngest was adopted at two weeks old,” Strasser says. “When you have the experience, it’s just a very big blessing.”

She says she’s most excited about continuing to share her leadership development tools—this time with a much younger generation of leaders. She’s hoping to find a local elementary school where she can introduce students to some of the same fundamentals of leadership she did at the BLC. This comes as no surprise to those who know her—it’s been her vocation all along.

“Paula’s so passionate about servant leadership and the ethics involved and how to be the right type of leader and create the right culture,” Hoedebeck attests.

Maintaining a passion for 32 years is a long time. But Strasser’s imprint on SMU Cox is indelible: it’s the BLC. When MBA students learn at the BLC, three decades of Strasser’s passion as the consummate Ally for Cox will increase their diplomas’ value.

“The simplest thing is, she made a difference,” says Hoedebeck. “Paula, you made a difference.”