Florida Trend | Florida's Business Authority

A Wild Journey


During his tenure with Zoo Miami, Matt James knew he wanted to be more than just the guy who worked with animals. Following stints at Marinel-and Dolphin Adventure in St. Augustine and ZooTampa, James felt like he wasn’t doing enough.

“I thought there’s got to be other solutions to the wildlife issues we faced, and a lot of those lie on the business side,” James says.

There was just one problem: He needed to convince the people on the business side that he had more to offer.

“It’s always cool to be the animal guy,” says James, 39. “But I think you get pigeonholed pretty quickly.”

Looking to bolster his credentials and develop a more diverse skill set, he enrolled in the MBA program at the University of South Florida’s Muma College of Business. Attending a program with classes on Saturdays — gave him the edge he needed to be able to sit at the table with the zoo’s leadership.

Today, James lives in Dallas, where he is the chief animal officer for Colossal Laboratories & Biosciences, a biotech company focused on using genetic engineering to restore extinct species. His responsibilities include the care and welfare of the live animals in the research program.

He credits the MBA for helping him along his career path.

“I think it gives you a perspective, and that’s what most people lack,” James says. “Rather than just understanding accounting, it was understanding why accounting needed things certain ways and understanding the reasons finance ran the way it did. That was a pretty powerful tool, because it helps you sort of socially climb through the organization.”

His trajectory illustrates one of the strengths of an MBA — particularly for people who don’t have a business education background, says Eric Douthirt, director of MBA programs at Muma.

In fact, roughly half of the school’s MBA students come in without a previous business degree.

“Those are very often some of the most successful folks because they’re more balanced,” Douthirt says.

There may not be many zoo professionals enrolling in the program, but there are many industries — such as health care — where an MBA can offer an immediate boost. As such, the program has attracted many doctors and nurses.

“They can really be effective leaders because they understand what other caregivers are dealing with day in and day out,” Douthirt says. “But they also understand what the organization needs to run on a daily basis.”