After Earning His Doctorate, Sessa’s Career Went to the Dogs
If you don’t believe the old adage “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans,” just ask Dr. John Sessa.
Four years ago, Sessa was operating a thriving consulting business and working with a Florida company that was converting used cooking oil from Malaysia into biofuel. He had just begun his doctoral program in Business Administration at Argosy University and was planning to continue advising start-up and mid-size business clients upon graduation.
But when his former fiancé introduced him to philanthropist, entrepreneur, “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” and “Vanderpump Rules” television star Lisa Vanderpump and her husband, Ken Todd, a fast friendship developed—and so did an unexpected career pivot that surprised even Sessa.
Today, he is executive director of The Vanderpump Dog Foundation, a Southern California non-profit dedicated to creating a more humane world for dogs everywhere. The organization recently opened a 6,500-square foot, neon pink Los Angeles rescue center that offers retail, food, grooming services, a dog café and an adoption facility. All profits are used to support the Foundation’s mission.
Rescuing and placing dogs from kill shelters, they placed 40 dogs for adoption in its first full month of operation—including one lucky dog who went from living in a small cage in a kill shelter to a life of luxury, roaming the 1.5 acre yard on a Beverly Hills estate.
Sessa is also co-founder and chief operating officer of Vanderpump Pets, which produces a line of premium pet accessories sold at select Petco locations and boutiques throughout the United States.
While his high-profile career is thriving today, Sessa remembers a time not that long ago when he was convinced that earning his doctorate was the only way to elevate his career to the next level.
“I was often in meetings where I was the youngest person by 20 years,” Sessa remembers. “I also look younger than I am, so when I met prospective clients or associates, I could always sense they were wondering ‘Who’s the kid?’ I knew I that in order to be taken seriously and establish the career I envisioned, I was either going to have age really fast or get my doctorate.”
Sessa, who earned his M.B.A. in International Business from South University, applied to several universities, but ultimately chose Argosy because it felt like the best fit.
“The admissions team and the advisor I was assigned were all so accommodating and easy to work with,” says Sessa. “The entire application, financial aid and enrollment process only took about three weeks. Before I knew it, I was beginning my classes, which was great because I was really motivated to get started.”
He was also ready to finish as quickly as possible. Sessa, who was planning to concentrate on global finance and business, set an ambitious target date for graduation.
“When my advisor told me the dissertation process typically takes a year and a half or even two years, the overachiever in me was thinking, ‘I’ll have mine done in seven to eight months.’” Sessa recalls. “I knew when I wanted to graduate and what I’d need to do in order to make it happen.”
Sessa ended up completing his dissertation in eight and half months and graduating by his declared date, but he says earning his doctorate was not without its challenges.
“I was working full time, so I had to consciously make time to study,” says Sessa. “There were plenty of Sundays when I would spend 15 hours studying while my friends were out drinking mimosas, but the effort and sacrifice were absolutely worth it.”
Sessa says that while some people look at a doctorate in terms of how much more money they might earn once they have one, he came to see the value of the degree in a broader context.
“The process of earning my doctorate gave me a sense of accomplishment and self-confidence that have been every bit as valuable as anything I learned in any class,” Sessa says. “It’s done more than enhance my career. It’s enhanced my life.”
Sessa says he’s always been self-motivated, thanks to the discipline he developed as a competitive swimmer.
“I competed from ages 10 to 21, and swimming taught me a lot about focus, determination, and finishing whatever I start,” Sessa says. “When you’re halfway across the pool, you have to push yourself to finish the race and touch that wall, no matter how well you’re doing or how you happen to be feeling at that moment.”
The son of a steel mill worker and a teacher’s aide, Sessa grew up on an Indiana farm.
“As much as I love my parents and my childhood, I wanted different things,” says Sessa. “I knew if I wanted to get off the farm and get out of Indiana, education would be my ticket. I worked as model during my twenties, but I always knew it was a career that would only last so long. I valued education because it’s something you have forever, something no one can ever take away.”
While Sessa had no clue he’d end up in a career where he would be advocating for the well-being of animals, he says it feels like his life has come full circle.
“As a farm kid from the Midwest who grew up loving and having empathy for animals, I pinch myself that I get to do work I’m passionate about,” Sessa says. “If someone had told me even five years ago that I’d travel to Washington, D.C. to lobby Congress in support of a resolution my partners and I drafted with Congressional allies to condemn the Yulin Dog Meat Festival, I would never have believed them,” says Sessa. “I also never imagined that I’d travel to China to rescue animals and co-write and direct a documentary like The Road to Yulin: and Beyond. The twists and turns my career—and my life—have taken in the past few years continue to amaze me.”
Sessa believes that while no one can save the world singlehandedly, everyone can do something.
“I feel like it’s a privilege to do work that matters,” he says. “When I look at the faces of the dogs we rescue—and the faces of the people who adopt them—I know we’re helping make the world a better place.” ###