2018 Best EMBAs: Laura Rivera, Wharton School

Laura Rivera

The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

“Hard-working, well-rounded, loyal, caring, and curious leader.”

Age: 35

Hometown: Newtown, PA

Family Members: Husband – Marc Alfarano; Son – Antonio Alfarano (5); Daughter – Alma Alfarano (2)

Fun fact about yourself: I have played piano and organ for religious services at the same retirement community in Northeast Philadelphia since I was 14 years old.  

Undergraduate School and Degree: Chestnut Hill College, Bachelor of Science in Finance

Where are you currently working? Senior Manager, Medical Device Business Development Finance, Johnson & Johnson

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: Prior to joining the Wharton Executive MBA (WEMBA) program, I was elected to and served one term on the Board of Directors of the Norristown Area School District, and I served as Treasurer for International Opera Theater, a non-profit performing arts company based in Philadelphia. While pursuing my MBA, I continued to lead J&J Finance’s undergraduate recruiting efforts at Temple University and communications for the J&J Finance Latino Leadership Council (FLLC) Employee Resource Group (ERG). I was also a member of the WEMBA-42 East Class Gift Committee, which raised $184k for the Wharton Fund—the third highest total for a WEMBA East class on record.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I have never been so happy in my life to be “mediocre.” It was an honor and privilege just to be learning from the best in the world, among the best students in the world, and stretching myself in new and exciting ways. The fact that I was able to keep up in all of my classes (and even excel in some), while continuing to meet the expectations of stakeholders at work (through a job change and promotion) and at home (through my husband’s career change), is a huge achievement.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? One of the things I appreciate most about my career at J&J is the opportunity to contribute every day to helping people everywhere live longer, healthier, happier lives. If I had to point to just one job, project, or time in my career of which I am most proud, I would still have to say it is as part of the team that led the remediation and relaunch of products after the latest round of Tylenol and other over-the-counter medicine product recalls around 2010. Through various roles of increasing responsibility across the Supply Chain and Commercial Finance organizations, I was able to influence key decisions, with high visibility and criticality within and outside of J&J. This, in turn, has resulted in stronger-than-ever relationships with our regulators, suppliers, customers, and most importantly users of our products.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? I really enjoyed and respected all of my Wharton professors for different reasons, but if I had to pick a favorite, I would say Richard Waterman. He was the only professor I had twice. I had never taken a statistics course before, but he explained it so clearly, using vivid, real life examples—it really got me hooked.

What was your favorite MBA course and what was the biggest insight you gained about business from it? My favorite MBA course was our Global Business Week – South Africa: A Gateway to Africa. It was the first time I’d traveled to Sub-Saharan Africa, so I really dove into the preparatory readings, and helped organize a visit for my class with our J&J Consumer Cape Town office. The biggest insight I gained was a better appreciation for the impact of the broader sociological, political, and economic context of a market on how business evolves and is conducted there.      

Why did you choose this executive MBA program? Attending the University of Pennsylvania has been a lifelong dream. At the stage that I was in my career and life, the Wharton Executive MBA seemed like the best balance between fit and the caliber of education for which I was looking.

What did you enjoy most about business school in general? I really enjoyed being a student again—having focused time to attend lectures, think, write—but the biggest, most pleasant surprise was the relationships I have built with a whole new network of my truly amazing classmates.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? The biggest lesson I gained was to think more broadly about business decisions and to understand the interplay between the various disciplines.  Operations, Marketing, Accounting, Finance, Management, Communications, Economics, Statistics… it’s all related. The best business decisions are the ones that are made with the benefit of all of the tools in the box and the perspective of both internal and external stakeholders in mind.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? There have been many late nights, early mornings, and creative uses of my time and energy throughout the program, all heavily reliant upon the flexibility and support of my co-workers and family.

However, since you mention juggling…One of my most vivid memories of the work-family-education worlds colliding was our first WEMBA “Family Night,” where students’ partners and children were invited on campus to meet one another.  When our program Director of Admissions suggested we go into the main room to watch the evening’s entertainment (a troupe of jugglers), my cranky toddler slapped her across the face! I was deeply embarrassed and apologetic (and grateful that I had already been accepted to the program!) To my relief, she took it in stride, which was a reminder that these collisions are inevitable, and the quicker we adapt and bounce back, the better. The EMBA may put it under a microscope, but it’s good training for the rest of one’s professional life.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? The EMBA is a team sport. Recognize the strain that it will put on your whole network, and make sure the stakeholders in all areas of your life are on board.  Keep the lines of communication open with them throughout and inspire them with your progress and passion. Their support is critical to your success in the program and after it.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? The biggest myth about going back to school is that it’s all work and no fun. Maybe I’m the only one who didn’t know what was in store for me, but as hard as I’ve worked, I think I’ve played harder!  It was such a joy to experience all of the social aspects of being part of a “class” without all the angst or self-consciousness that went along with it as a high-school and undergraduate student.

What was your biggest regret in business school? No regrets here!

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Tough questions! Hard to pick just one, with so many hard-working, brilliant, and fascinating people to choose from, but the class I most admire is Liz Tammaro. She is an incredibly smart and disciplined worker and student and great role model for being a good partner, parent, and friend.  Coming from very similar walks of life, we were each others’ support system throughout the program.

“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…after 12 years at Johnson & Johnson, I got the feeling I’d been drinking the Kool-Aid a little too long! The Wharton Executive MBA seemed like the perfect way to get some external perspective without having to leave a job and company I loved.”

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…living in a much more organized house and have fewer gray hairs!”

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I would like to be a CFO/VP Finance. Every firm faces the challenge of virtually unlimited opportunities but limited resources. I love the problem-solving aspect of the role of the CFO, as well as the ability to influence with fact-based data. As the leader of a large finance organization, I would be able to do this, while leveraging my skills motivating and developing others.      

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? As a valued team member and classmate who always followed through on her word and contributed positively to their MBA experience through my ideas, efforts, and talents.

Favorite book: To Kill A Mockingbird

Favorite movie or television show: The Shawshank Redemption

What are the top two items on your bucket list? 1) Learn to play the guitar (Pianos and organs are not very portable!) 2) Grow my family by one more (I’m the youngest of three kids, so in my mind the best is yet to come!)

What made Laura such an invaluable addition to the class of 2018?

According to her classmates’ nomination of her for a class spirit award, Laura Rivera is exceptionally talented in wide variety of areas and demonstrated unrelenting patience in helping others learn material that came easy to her. She was generous with her time throughout the program regardless of her significant professional and many personal obligations. Her dedication to the health care industry brought an important voice to class discussions.

Laura is a professor’s ideal student and a student’s ideal classmate because of her relentless work ethic, practical application of ideas, ability to foster teamwork and the quickness to which she lends a helping hand in order to give back to the class. On the final day of the program during the Capstone session, Laura reminded us why she is such a valuable member of the Wharton community with her poise as she took a chance by sharing her personal story, and moved the emotional conversation forward to the benefit of her classmates. Laura is one of those rare individuals whose educational and professional background emphasizes quantitative skills, while her emotional intelligence allows her to understand the importance of the unquantifiable aspects of life that bring us together for better outcomes for everyone. I am proud that Laura is a graduate of the Wharton MBA Program for Executives.”

Dr. Peggy Bishop Lane
Vice Dean, Wharton MBA Program for Executives

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