BRAND IS THE BIGGEST FACTOR IN CHOOSING EMBA PROGRAMS
This year’s class represents a wide cross-section of schools, nationalities, and backgrounds. Overall, Poets&Quants invited 40 schools to participate, ultimately receiving 83 submissions from 37 programs, which came from faculty and student recommendations. In turn, P&Q selected 50 students from 34 EMBA programs, which included a 28-to-22 male-to-female ratio. American-based programs accounted for 78% of the selections (which includes three dual partnerships with overseas programs). Another third of the students hailed from outside the United States.
On average, the Best & Brightest are 41.5 years old, with students ranging in age from 26 to 56. Some 30 members are married, with another 27 having children. Surprisingly, the biggest bloc of graduates came from health- and science-related fields with 16 representatives on the list, including 8 MDs. Business-related majors accounted for 14 Best & Brightest, with liberal and fine arts majors (12) rounding out the top three.
When it comes to their MBA experience, the class was somewhat consistent. Just four of the 50 had even considered an online MBA program in place of an executive one. As a whole, the class was very focused in the school selection process. On average, they factored 1.4 schools into their decisions, with 38 targeting just one program. Overall, 31 students received some form of company sponsorship, which ranged from 2% to 100%, but together averaged 32%. The big differences, however, came in which factors most influenced their decision to attend a particular school. Here, 14 Best & Brightest graduates chose branding and reputation as their biggest drivers, a number that reflects the importance of both rankings and messaging to business schools. However, faculty quality and program structure trailed closely behind with 11 votes each. Beyond that, it was a matter of taste with Love of Learning (4), Other Factors (4), Peer Recommendation (3), Alumni Recommendation (2) and Student Quality (1) also being cited.
BLACKHAWK HELICOPTER PILOT BECOMES A STAFFING MOGUL
No doubt, the lack of enthusiasm for peer quality was the biggest surprise of the survey. Make no mistake: the Best & Brightest didn’t skimp of achievements entering business school. Columbia Business School’s Anna Pavlick is ranked among the top cancer doctors in America and was part of a clinical research team that helped gain FDA approval for seven melanoma drugs. Southern Methodist University’s Robert Alan “Super Doc” Probe is a former President of the Orthopedic Trauma Association, who received his alma mater’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 2017. Yale’s Yu-Hui Rogers made history as part of the team that sequenced the first human genome. Then there is MIT’s Barry Stein, an expert and pioneer in cardiovascular MRI and CT who has delivered over 200 addresses around the world. Stein isn’t the only pioneer in the group, either.
Before enrolling at Washington University, Katherine Buehner flew a Blackhawk helicopter and was one of the few female aviation officers in the U.S. Army. She didn’t stop blazing new trails when she arrived in St. Louis. Instead, she partnered with a classmate to open a staffing business. “We launched the company six weeks earlier than we had expected and grew four times quicker than we had anticipated,” she beams. “The company was turning a profit within four months.” Denni Manzatto, who is graduating from INSEAD-Tsinghua’s program, was asked to lead in different roles at prestige fashion house Prada in Milan more than three times in the past four years. Most recently, he was asked to head the iconic brand’s digital and E-commerce operation.
Beyond boasting an enviable list of accomplishments, the Class of 2017 has something else in common: They give back to their classmates — and their communities at large. For nearly 20 years, the University of Chicago’s Todd Hellman has been a “buddy” to those suffering through their final days with HIV. At USC, Tristan Simpson led a fundraising drive for a classmate’s daughter, who’d just been diagnosed with cancer. To help his Columbia classmates get to know each other better, Fahad Ahmed kicked off a podcast. In this venue, students could share their stories and classmates could listen when they were exercising or winding down. “This project helped my classmates commit to our network,” he notes. “It helped create a culture where people intensely wanted to learn about each other and form genuine long-lasting bonds.”
Not surprisingly, such colorful, compelling, and capable graduates have some great stories to tell. Just sidle up to UCLA’s Doug Larratt and you’ll hear the naval veteran talk about being a NASA Astronaut finalist or evacuating Filipino refugees after a volcanic eruption. As a political journalist, IE Business School’s Sonia Sánchez Plaza has covered stories everywhere from Lebanon and Afghanistan to the Kremlin and the White House. In 2013, MIT’s Sharon Pian Chan executed an innovative social media campaign, where hundreds of readers shared photos of themselves holding “I do” signs to reflect their support of same sex marriage. For IESE’s James Bartlett, his passion for music, art, and social media turned into the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), whose growth has necessitated the construction of a new 20,000 square foot building that’s slated to open in 2018. “I didn’t want my life to be defined by someone else’s vision. This willingness to jump in the pool and learn how to swim, has given me a comfort with the unknown.”
SILICON VALLEY DISAPPROVAL MOTIVATES RETAIL HEAD TO GIVE MBA A WHIRL
The “unknown” is exactly what the Best & Brightest stared down when they started on their MBA degree. Most will tell you that it was the “known” that was truly frightening. For Todd Hellman, those whispers to start business school came when he saw no clear path to move up. Edward John Kroger began toying with the idea after his clients were increasingly bringing issues to him that were more grounded in business than medicine or law. Bill Fagan felt he couldn’t “own” the COO role without expanding his expertise beyond sales, while IMD’s Andreu Torregrosa Martinez jokes that his tipping point came when he “no longer knew if I was using my own thoughts or company jargon.” Most surprising of all comes from U.C.-Berkeley’s Laurie Etheridge, who leads a 450 person clothing line. Despite the MBA being “the thing not to do” in some Silicon Valley circles, Etheridge channeled the area’s contrarian spirit all the way to Haas. “When everyone starts to say “don’t do something,” I usually think it’s a fantastic idea,” she quips.
A fantastic idea, but not necessarily an easy path. Often, an EMBA can be a time of dizzying time zone changes and abrupt crises at home and work, where constant and conflicting demands test every professionals’ ability to juggle time, priorities, and relationships alike. One test is when students earn the coveted job change or promotion during the program. That was the fortune of Yale’s Jamila Abston, who re-joined Ernst & Young after an 8-year term with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Not only did she need to quickly master a new role, but the change required her to move from the Atlanta to New York City during the middle of her second year. “This was probably the most difficult time to achieve balance,” Abston admits, “but the long nights are worth it. By establishing priorities and work boundaries, I was able to succeed during this time.”
Travel is often the most common lament for EMBAs, particularly when it’s coupled with their to-and-from at work. However, many EMBAs forget that life, with its unexpected twists, continues during business school. That was the case for Sonia Sánchez Plaza, who had to balance heading the political news team of Spain’s most popular radio station with school and motherhood. “I have a one-year-old baby, and he does not sleep very well,” she says. “On some mornings before going to work, I’ve been with the computer in one hand resolving case studies, had the baby and a bottle in the other hand, and with cartoons on TV!” However, such inconveniences come with a silver lining. “A baby teaches you that it’s possible to survive sleeping very, very little while still doing many other things at once. That’s very handy when you study an Executive MBA.”
SUPPORT SYSTEMS HELP THE BEST & BRIGHTEST MAKE IT THROUGH
Sometimes, events happen outside their control, however. Katherine Buehner took a stiff 1-2 combination early in the program, learning she was pregnant with her third child followed by her husband being unexpectedly deployed. It was here when family came through for her. “My mother and mother-in-law flew into Colorado Springs to help me take care of the kids because my husband was still deployed,” she explains. “I was able to have the baby and still make it to class the next weekend because my mother took care of her while I was in class and I was able to nurse her during breaks. It seems crazy thinking back on the situation, but I was determined to finish school on time no matter what was thrown my way.”
There is much thrown at them. The benefit, of course, is that EMBAs can immediately apply those hard-won lessons at work. It couldn’t have happened at a better time for Tristan Simpson, who headed up the marketing division for an $800 million dollar company in the midst of being purchased. “It was so helpful that the course content was exactly parallel to what the M&A process was for me,” she observes. “Step-by-step, we walked through the elements of a transaction process when it really mattered most to me.”
Despite the time crunch, some students, such as Notre Dame’s Killjan Anderson, found that the EMBA experience deepened their relationships with their families. He and his daughter, a high school sophomore, became study buddies. “Several nights a week, we would head up to our neighborhood Starbucks. Granted, we both had head phones in and didn’t talk much, but we both looked forward to the time together.” Children weren’t the only ones who offered comfort to this year’s Best & Brightest EMBAs. “There were several times I would walk in from an 18-hour day (hospital, then gym, company meeting, then class), already on a conference call with my team, and without words, my husband would just place a plate of food in front of me as I fell onto the couch,” grins Angela Fusaro.
NOT JUST A DEGREE, BUT A TRANSFORMATIVE EXPERIENCE
Such support is invaluable, Fusaro adds. Her advice to future EMBAs: Make sure everyone is on board with their decision to return to school. “You won’t have surplus emotional capacity anymore so I learned to be selective about what brings value to my life.” More than that, some parts of their lives are certain to get neglected, notes the University of Toronto’s Rodney Cheung, who considers “learning to become more interdependent” to be the biggest lesson from business school. For James Bartlett, the grand takeaway was an acceptance of the now…and an appreciation for the bigger picture: “1) You can always get more done than you thought you could; 2) You won’t always be able to get everything done; and 3) If you don’t get something done, life goes on.”
In the end, the EMBA is far more than crushing workloads and calculated tradeoffs. Although the Best & Brightest EMBAs were often a decade or more older than their full-time counterparts, they were not immune to the transformative nature of the educational experience. Before business school, Kroger was accustomed to being the leader and chafed at the concept of teamwork. However, his first semester was an eye-opener. “Our team was so capable and dominant that it easily surpassed any result that a single individual could have accomplished. It changed my entire conception of teams and what they can accomplish.”
In the case of Todd Hellman, the experience changed his career trajectory entirely. “Before business school, I thought it was to move up in the ranks of employment. Now, it’s to create employment opportunities for me and others who not only make an income, but also make an impact.”
Why did these graduates choose their particular EMBA programs? What strategies did they use to juggle work, life, and school? What would they change about the experience if they could be dean for a day? Go to the next two pages to read detailed profiles of the 50 Best & Brightest EMBAs from the Class of 2017.