The Biggest Surprises EMBAs Face

Abeel Mangi

Abeel Mangi


The caliber and caring of classmates wasn’t the only surprising part of the EMBA experience for the Class of 2016. As many learned, the curriculum was geared toward introspection as much as a deep dive into every operational facet. The University of Virginia’s Mayra Rocha, who earned a National Emmy at Univision during her stint in B-school, came in thinking it was “about numbers.” Instead, Rocha encountered tests, a business coach, and classes that prodded her to answer the big questions.

“I was constantly pushed to find out more about myself,” she says. “Things like, ‘What was hindering my professional growth? What were my weaknesses? What could I do to highlight my positives?’” Over time, Rocha recognized the method behind these endless questions. “One must truly know oneself in order to lead better,” she explains, “to be aware of holes along the way that need to acknowledged and worked on.”

Abeel Mangi, a surgeon who has participated in over 2,500 heart operations, took a similar inward journey during his time at MIT. Like Rocha, he came to appreciate the experience. “I never expected a detailed deconstruction of my own psychological strengths, weaknesses, and tendencies as a leader,” Mangi explains. “Access to ongoing coaching, multiple 360 evaluations, and lots of resources dedicated to showcasing ones’ strengths and mitigating one’s weaknesses has been simply invaluable — and a total surprise to me.”


There was another surprise in store for Mangi at MIT: the pace of business. “I always thought that we were really good at keeping up with technological change in cutting-edge medicine,” he says. “Turns out, we are correct, if time is measured in geological terms. I was so impressed with how ‘on top’ of current events and rapid changes in business that all my classmates and professors were. Honestly, it was a pleasant challenge to learn how to keep up.”

Audrey Klein

Audrey Klein

Not surprisingly, business school moves just as fast. Elo Emeh, a Nigerian-born EMBA from IESE Business School, was amazed at how fast students grew in terms of their “decision-making and managerial process improvement.” “This transformation starts while you are still going through business school,” Emeh says. “The impact is almost immediate.” At the same time, Adam Harpool was stunned by just how quickly his two years at Columbia Business School passed. “It seems like just yesterday that I was sitting in orientation in 2014 and wondering what in the world I had just signed up for.”

Along with speed, psychology was another key component of the MBA experience. That helped Audrey Klein, who holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, to better appreciate the cognitive biases and motivations that shape business. “Ultimately, economics and business boil down to human behavior,” Klein points out. However, such behaviors aren’t always healthy, adds Notre Dame’s Ruth Riley. “I was really surprised by all the companies who have gotten it wrong because of lack of foresight or resistance to change.”

While psychology can explain some foibles, it pales in comparison to the biggest surprise most EMBAs discover: There aren’t necessarily right or wrong answers. That insight can be terrifying to some students, but it was actually freeing to Georgetown’s Ellen Davis. “Oftentimes, the person with the most articulate, thoughtful perspective is the one everyone rallies behind. This realization has made me more confident in expressing my opinions, even if I’m not sure whether others agree with them.”


Surprises in B-school don’t have to be paradigm-shattering or fear-inducing. For one, business professors are more jet-setting secret agents than insulated poindexters. “Business school professors lead a very interesting life,” explains Wharton’s Gene Gard. “They get all the experiences of an academic professorship, but also are very well paid and have all sorts of opportunities for publishing, collaborating, consulting, launching new ventures, writing interesting books, getting on the speaking circuit, and just generally meeting interesting people. I wish my high school guidance counselor had told me about that career 20 years ago!”

Christian Dunbar

Christian Dunbar

For UCLA’s Christian Dunbar, a Navy SEAL officer, the biggest surprise was the comfort hr got in knowing that the recipe for business success is no different than any other endeavor. “The most surprising thing about business school is that it isn’t rocket science. Ha! Says the guy with advanced degrees in aerospace engineering and space systems operations,” Dunbar jokes. “What I mean is, coming from a long military career and wanting to shift into a more traditional business leadership role, the mystery of ‘business’ is really like everything else: Work hard, take stock of your lessons and others’ lessons, and navigate through business with core values, like-minded people, and good mentors.”

Duke’s Kirsten Castillo echoes Dunbar’s sentiments, pointing to the larger purpose she discovered. “It’s not about business school, it’s about learning how to lead amongst great leaders, learning how and when to follow, learning how to be a better team.” In fact, Cornell’s Tavares Brewington was caught off guard by just how much there is to learn about business —and how much he wants to keep learning after graduation.

“I suspect that this will be a process that continues for the rest of my career.”