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
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
“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
“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
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.” ###