The Thunderbird Mystique Lives On

Thunderbird School of Global Management

Thunderbird School of Global Management

This year, I was among the latest crop of almost 700 MBA graduates from the Thunderbird School of Global Management. This palm and cactus desert oasis has challenged, frustrated, and at times even vexed me. Like most of my cohort, I feel a mix of emotions upon leaving — the things I wanted to study more, the case studies I will reread, what it took to get here, and the friends from the more than 60 countries on campus who I will miss.

When I first decided to attend Thunderbird as an Executive MBA student, I was looking for an environment akin to the one I was leaving. The school is often called the “United Nations of Business,” a perfect moniker, considering I had just left the UN’s Department of Public Information. I was a press officer for the General Assembly, covering speeches of global dignitaries – Presidents, Prime Ministers, and policymakers. At Thunderbird, I would be exposed to other world leaders, but they would be from the sphere of international business.

Coming to Arizona was not an obvious choice, especially since I already went to graduate school at Columbia University and live in New York City. There are also countless top (and Top 10) MBA programs in the region, which would be much simpler to attend, without the strain of commuting, time or expense. Obviously others in my 42 person cohort were not hindered by the travel either; they flew in from Chicago, Tampa, Salt Lake City, Houston and Los Angeles.  One executive drove in from Mexico — the roundtrip drive was 15 hours twice a month. The travel was taxing.


However, the mission of the school intrigued me, as well as a top ranking in its specialty of international business. Alums from around the world spoke of the “Thunderbird mystique,” which is something I did not really understand until I arrived on campus. The school’s heart and soul is found within the open spirit, curiosity and global mindset of the students. A sample of my fellow MBAs included an Iraqi diplomat, a Nigerian doctor, an Indian wealth manager, a Chinese banker, and more. Other friends I met were from Macedonia, Nepal, Ecuador, Russia, France, Lebanon, and South Sudan, to count just a few. They would regale me with tales: “I am going to work in Shanghai this summer,” or “I just came back from Tunisia,” and “Did you hear I am moving to South Africa?”

And yes, there were Americans too — but unique in their ability to transcend cultural boundaries. They were also global explorers. I was blessed with a diversity of nationality, cultures, thought, industry and life experience. More importantly, my super smart cohort challenged me to look at the world from unusual angles.

Every MBA program has an initial “sizing up” of the cohort. Any initial reservations about the intellectual caliber of my fellow classmates quickly evaporated. I was humbled. Everyone possessed different talents and there were many high-octane CVs within the group, but some accomplishments were so notable that fellow classmates wondered why many of their fellow students needed an MBA at all. My classmates included a finance whiz who managed institutional portfolios of $400 million and then co-founded an infrastructure company that he sold for more than $150 million; the founder of top-selling c2o Pure Coconut Water who cashed in half his father’s pension to launch the company from the back of a van; the aerospace engineer with 10 patents under his name; and another classmate whose company went public on the Australian stock exchange.


In the U.S., all the known MBA programs boast a diversity of students from all walks of life. But Thunderbird offered something else that is difficult to explain: a community with a fierce loyalty to the ideals of creating sustainable prosperity around the world, and an openness to study, learn about, and instantly travel to do business in far-flung corners of the planet, in cities many have never heard of. After all, as one of the school’s early leaders put it: “Borders frequented by trade seldom need soldiers.”

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