The Best & Brightest Executive MBAs Of 2021

Indra Gutierrez, University of Texas (McCombs)

MEDICAL CHAMPIONS AMONG THE BEST & BRIGHTEST

The Class of 2021 has also carved out intriguing career paths. At UC Irvine, Dan Chow is the co-director of the school’s Center for Artificial Intelligence in Diagnostic Medicine…when he isn’t a major in the U.S. Army Reserves. Michigan State’s Jim Knapp is the CEO of a sports radio broadcaster, while Broderick Johnson worked as a disc jockey before joining NYU Stern’s EMBA program in Washington, DC. Speaking of music, Oxford Saïd’s Ruth Hopkins uses the medium to provide education and therapy to neurodivese populations like autistic children. At the same time, Rutgers EMBA Adam Perlow serves as the COO for the Northstar New Jersey Lottery Group, which produces $3.5 billion in revenue and over $1 billion in profit!

Keith Spencer, Penn State (Smeal)

Looking for a man for all seasons? That’d be Keith Spencer. The pride of Penn State, Spencer is a professional vocalist and concert producer who performed his one-person musical showcase, Brothers on Broadway, at the Capital Philharmonic of New Jersey. When he isn’t performing, Spencer is the VP of customer success of an expense and revenue management software firm. ESADE’s Céline Heemskerk is equally versatile. Before becoming a global PR guru, she studied biology — and spent five months living on the Galápagos Islands (Think Charles Darwin).

The medical community is particularly well-represented in the 2021 Best & Brightest EMBAs. IMD’s Iris Depaz is the country medical head in Australia and New Zealand for Sanofi Pasteur, the world’s largest vaccine producer. “The COVID pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance of what we do,” Depaz tells P&Q. “We have just witnessed what the absence of only one vaccine can do to society. I feel prouder than ever to have chosen to work in vaccines and public health.”

Her classmate, Thierry Fumeaux, is a chief medical officer in Schlieren, Switzerland. Last year, the Swiss Institute for Medical Training selected him for their ISFM Award, which is given to practitioners for teaching excellence. At the University of Texas’ M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Anne Tsao goes by a number of titles: section chief (Thoracic Medical Oncology), clinical medical director (Thoracic and Orthopaedic Center), and director (both the Mesothelioma and Thoracic Chemo-radiation programs). Over her career, Tsao has brought together researchers in Oncology and Mesothelioma to discuss prospective therapies; she even co-lead an effort with the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Genome Atlas program that brought together 80 researchers worldwide on thymic malignancies.

Anne Tsao, MIT (Sloan)

On the surface, Tsao’s resume can seem intimidating. She even started at MIT when she was just 16! Still, her biggest satisfaction has come from more humble pursuits. “The research scientist part of me is most proud of the 150+ peer-reviewed publications and their impact on the advances in the field of cancer research,” explains Tsao, who returned to MIT to earn her MBA. “The servant-leader part of me is so proud to see my faculty and staff mentees ascend the career ladder, to make a positive difference in our communities. As an organizational change-leader, I am most proud of co-leading the Thoracic service line team that successfully ensured the safety and well-being of all of our lung cancer patients, as well as the healthcare providers, during the COVID pandemic.”

BREAKING UP ZOOM FATIGUE

Yes, the Class of 2021 carries some heavy burdens. That doesn’t make them serious all the time. Take the University of Chicago’s Mary McKinney Flaherty, an attorney with a sense of whimsy. “Any time my husband or I get on an elevator, we dance. I’m talking about the Cupid Shuffle, the Robot, Voguing. It’s a lighthearted diversion that helps shift our minds from whatever we might have been stressing about on the way to work or out of a meeting and reminds us to not take things too seriously. If you’re having a rough day, give it a shot!”

Sheila Taylor applied a different tact to fend off Zoom fatigue for her NYU classmates. “I dressed up in costume for the last 15 minutes of almost every Zoom class during COVID, just to break up the monotony. You name it, I wore it – Super Mario, the Kool-Aid Man, Lego Lady, tiny hands, a penguin, Freddie Mercury, a squirrel. Made things way more interesting!”

That’s just a start. Wharton’s Michael Greer snapped up a gold medal in Tae Kwon Do at the U.S. Junior Olympics when he was 12…and then spent six years as a professional ballet dancer in his late teens and early 20s. Want toughness? Northwestern Kellogg’s Helen Lam, a motorcycle and motor car racer, made it to Mount Everest Base Camp…while breast pumping. Rice University’s Matthew Goldsby became the world champion in Sporting Clays (think “Golf with a shotgun) when he was just 15. At 21, the University of Toronto’s Hugh Martin sailed across the Atlantic to Ireland. That said, you don’t need to be young to pursue adventure. Rice University’s Keyuri Popat personifies this ‘better late than never’ ethos better than anyone.

“After six months of learning to ride a bike at the age of 48, I rode the MS150 a 150-mile bike ride for the benefit of the multiple sclerosis society. Three months after running for the first time, I ran the Disney half marathon at the age of 51.”

SUCCESSES CARRY INTO BUSINESS SCHOOL

The Best & Brightest EMBAs took this same spirit into business school, unafraid to get their hands dirty. Philip Zhou brought the EMBA voice to student organizations. He served as a VP in eight clubs — and still managed to get promoted three times during his time at Columbia Business School. Sarah Page “revived” the Board Fellows program at London Business School, creating avenues for classmates to partner with NGOs in London and Dubai. Along the same lines, Indra Gutierrez launched a consulting club, one whose mission deviated from the full-time model.

“Overall, the consulting club has catered to students who were interested in following the traditional path of working for a management consulting firm after graduation, but it was also for students who were interested in starting their own consulting firms,” writes the Texas McCombs grad. I personally really enjoyed the intersection of combining entrepreneurship and consulting into one club.”

For others, business school was a chance to embrace their fears and test their limits. Anne Tsao, for one, relished learning to code in R (and make multi-color graphs). As an undergrad, Martial Byrd worked full-time to pay for school, which hindered him for posting a high GPA. Fast forward to the Texas A&M EMBA, where Byrd hit the 4.0 mark…despite a new baby, pandemic, and “intense workload.”  Of course, EMBA programs are packed with liberal arts majors like USC Marshall’s David Zartman, a media mogul who wondered how he could possibly survive quant courses like finance and stats.

“There were some long nights sweating over income statements, bond pricing, corporate finance valuation spreadsheets, and WACC,” he admits. “But thanks to hard work, accessible professors and my study group teammates, I thrived and succeeded. It really cemented the joy, power and educational experience you can find in team collaboration.”

BRINGING BLUE COLLAR TO CAROLINA BLUE

Daniel Stelter Thorpe, University of North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

These daily achievements helped the Class of 2021 build confidence, as did defining class experiences. Just ask Echo Li about Quantico military simulation that was part of the Wharton McNulty Leadership program. “Over 24 sleepless hours, our guest speakers became screaming drill sergeants and our tests involved “fire team” tactical challenges,” she reminisces. “Then, drenched in freezing Virginia rain, we crawled through a barbed wire battlefield and shivered our way through the many obstacles in the legendary Quigley to finally triumph in hot showers. The experience was both inspirational and bonding. My teammate called me “valiant, fearless,” and “just the kind of person I’d like to survive imprisonment with!”

These bonds created some unexpected connections. At the University of Minnesota, for example, Sony Malhotra started a blockchain startup with two classmates. And you might not even expect to find a Daniel Stetler Thorpe in an MBA classroom. A former high school science teacher, Statler Thorpe started a landscaping business, one that had swelled to three dozen employees with a 20%-50% year-over-year growth rate over the past nine years. Despite this success, Stetler Thorpe wondered whether his classmates would accept a blue collar guy who’d come to class after “spending all day in the dirt, hot and sweaty.” Turns out, he became an invaluable contributor to the class.

“I wanted to be in the room where some of the greatest business thinkers were talking. I wanted to be in that room, listening to whatever they were saying. I trusted that whatever I heard during class I could apply to my business regardless how different it may be. I couldn’t have been happier with UNC Kenan-Flagler. My classmates and professors celebrated where I came from and welcomed my comments and suggestions.”

Resourceful as any MBA, Stetler Thorpe even found a way to turn business school into a money-making venture. With centers located in the far west and the far south of North Carolina, he endured long commutes to Chapel Hill in the center. To make his driving time more productive, Stetler Thorpe decided to enter into a new business.

“There was a good synergy for me to turn into a delivery driver and move product from the coast to the mountains,” he observed. “I would leave Wilmington, pick up a 30-foot flatbed trailer of balled-and-burlapped (B/B) trees before class, drive that truck to class, leave after classes, and either continue on to the mountains or back to the coast to sell trees or install our weekly projects. Because I was making the trip multiple times per week, I could procure much more material with limited shipping costs. Selling those B/B trees paid for most of my MBA degree.”

Pages 4-5: 102 profiles of this year’s Best & Brightest Executive MBA grads.

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