100 Best & Brightest Executive MBAs: Class of 2019

Texas Christian University’s Nicoleta Bugnariu


For a real adventure, you might want to meet up with “Citizen of the world” Nicoleta Bugnariu. “I enjoy traveling and discovering new cultures, hiking, and scuba diving,” writes the Texas Christian University MBA. “The distance between the highest mountain climbed, Kilimanjaro, and the deepest dive in the ocean at Similian Islands, is 19,500 feet.”

Taking deep dives and scaling the highest peaks could describe the Best & Brightest’s business school experience. During her capstone class at Georgia Tech, Rebecca J. Von Der Heide experienced the process of turning an idea to solution “end-to-end.” As a result, she was able to produce a business plan that enabled the Nielsen Company to launch a new service months later. Similarly, Gregory Taylor credits his promotion to medical director to lessons he applied from making presentations, developing strategy, and poring over financial plans as an EMBA student at USC. In contrast, Natalie Chan saw herself in a case study and realized that she’d lost sight of the picture. As a result, this business owner swallowed hard and made an uncomfortable decision that she’d long been delaying.

“I bid farewell to a member of our team who wasn’t a right fit for the kind of culture and teamwork we aspire to build,” explains the INSEAD grad. “Seeing how the team’s performance and collaboration were subsequently enhanced in the past eight months affirms me that it was the right decision.”


Those weren’t the only high points for the Class of 2019. Thanks to delivering quality work and making connections at Southern Methodist University, Tu X. Dao was asked to join the Board of Directors at a $2 billion dollar oil and gas company. Before starting her MBA at Chicago Booth, Stephanie Tanous – an engineer by trade – didn’t need to understand high-level finance. By graduation, Tanous notes, she could “hold my own” with boardroom peers “who made a career out of finance.” Then again, the biggest accomplishments were often the most underappreciated.

“Although there were many times that I felt I wouldn’t get through the endless hours of reading and class preparation, I kept going,” writes the University of Maryland’s Gretchen MacLeod. “I made it to every class, on time and (nearly always) prepared.”

That wasn’t always easy to do. Think an executive MBA program is simply going the extra mile? It’s more like running a second marathon as a cool down. That includes four hours of sleep, grab-and-go food, working vacations, and weekend redeye flights. Rika Kari estimates that he lost 46 Saturdays with his first child and another 29 with his newborn during his 21-month EMBA program at Southern Methodist University. Not to mention, EMBAs can expect to be pulled in every direction by family and work. It is these surprises, however, that often knock even the best students off stride.

“I’ve witnessed Individuals in my cohort endure with poise adversities from losing a parent or job to dealing with workplace or family crises and receiving a cancer diagnosis and initiating treatment just weeks into the EMBA program,” says Dr. Janis Green, a Best & Brightest who earned her MBA from the University of Maryland.”


Marian van der Walt, a mining executive who studied at the University of Oxford, boils her experience down to this: “By saying “yes” to the EMBA, you are saying “no” to various other aspects of your life.” Catherine Bornbaum, the managing director of an analytics laboratory, took this advice to heart. Earning her MBA at the University of Toronto alongside her husband, she decided to “set realistic expectations” and “create firm boundaries” – often delegating chores like meal preparation and declining popular social events. Those boundaries spilled into relationships too. Early in her MBA program, Jennifer Braly’s partner compared herself to a maid, a “backup plan” who only got the leftovers. That led Braly to make her relationship a priority.

“School was bi-weekly, on Friday and Saturdays. Every Friday, I would plan on attending all the school events alone, to build my individual connections. Saturday, we would jointly decide to attend any events. Then, that Sunday became a partner-only (school-free) day. The next 18 or so months remaining, we stuck to this schedule and became stronger because of it.”

The demands also led the Class of 2019 to become masters of improvisation. When a group presentation conflicted with a previously-scheduled trip, U.C.-Irvine’s Karen Noblett pre-recorded her part…with Machu Picchu as a backdrop! After Chizoba Ngwube couldn’t find a babysitter to cover her team meeting, she simply brought her children along and turned it into an adventure. “I quickly packed luggage with sleeping bags, blankets, electronics, homework books, snacks, as I couldn’t tell how long my team would be,” writes the Arizona State grad. “We ended up staying until past 10 p.m. Surprisingly, my kids loved the experience and looked forward to more of such crazy days.”

University of Virginia’s Steve Neece


The adults even looked forward to seeing each other’s kids. “I tended to be on teams with others who also had children,” says the University of Virginia’s Steve Neece. “During our team video meetings, it was very common for our children to pop on to say hi to the team.”

Kooky kids were just one of the unexpected joys of the EMBA. For many students, their programs introduced them to experiences they may have never fathomed themselves. That was true for Edurne Benito Antolín, who had the opportunity to visit leading organizations, meet thought leaders, and travel the globe at IESE. “I had access to a wide range of perspectives that opened my mind. For example, spending a day at West Point learning about leadership with cadets, visiting the United Nations and understanding its mission, or having an open talk with an influential member of the Chinese Communist Party open to answering questions of all kinds. A priceless experience.”

Nina Lotfi considers the biggest benefit of Northwestern Kellogg’s program to be her classmates. “You have access to people with tremendous diversity of experiences and expertise. They are there to support you as you take on new opportunities and challenges. It’s like having 70+ consultants on speed dial!”


Consultants is one term for classmates. However, the Wharton School’s Denise Carter prefers a different one: Heroes. “9% of my class is either active duty or retired military and their sacrifice and stories of heroism are hard for me to comprehend. We have trauma, brain, transplant and neonatal surgeons who spend their lives saving others. 25% of the women in my class are entrepreneurs and knocking it out of the park every day. So many of my classmates either got married, had children, moved jobs, or had some major life change during this program and they all did it with such grace, never missing a beat. I’m really lucky to have been included in this group of people.”

A supportive and inspirational network wasn’t Carter’s only big takeaway from the Wharton School. For her, the MBA is a testament to grit, to digging deep and pushing forward – even when you don’t want to or think you can’t. “One of my biggest lessons has been that a strong belief in your own capabilities is half the battle of accomplishing anything,” she admits. “Almost immediately after starting the program, I recognized my confidence level when I walked into investor meetings was much higher.  This program has made me realize that I am more capable than I previously thought.”

That confidence, coupled with a refreshed skillset, makes EMBAs a force at work immediately after they step foot on campus. “What I enjoy most about business school are the new perspectives and tools that I immediately put to work,” asserts U.C.-Berkeley’s Lisa Rawlings. “I am able to ask more thoughtful questions, make more compelling cases, and implement more effective protocols. The fact that I get to do this in a place that values respect and collaboration over dominance and competition makes this process even more rewarding.”

The Wharton School’s Denise Carter

The process also taught the Class of 2019 what was truly important in their lives. Some discovered just how much time they squandered by binging Netflix or surfing the net. For others, business school was a lesson in humility, of learning you can’t go it alone in work, academics, or family. That’s one reason why Wharton’s Denise Carter urges future EMBAs to ask for help.


“I find most people in this program are overachievers and have not often been in the position of needing to rely on anyone,” she explains. “Now you are going to need help with group projects in class, meeting deadlines at work, and just keeping your domestic life in order.  It’s a lot to manage on your own. Don’t be too proud. It’s a useful lesson to recognize that people want to help you too.”

Just don’t forget to show your appreciation, adds Southern Methodist University’s Amy Byalick. “Make sure to show them gratitude and share your successes around homework assignments and testing scores. This was the biggest reason I was successful. I referred to my support group as “my Village”. I consistently remind these individuals (friends, family, teachers, etc.) that they are the foundation of my success, and I find ways to thank each of them individually.”

The MBA is hardly the end of the Best & Brightest’s education. At Rice University, Celestine Tung is already planning to take additional courses with her MBA classmates. Why not, says Emory University’s Wendy Ho. There is no environment quite like business school for taking risks and breaking barriers.

“In an executive MBA program, you can make mistakes, learn from others, and break some bad or outdated leadership habits – and in their place, make new and better ones that will fuel the next chapter of your growth,” Ho says. “While in school, everyone is invested in your success: the faculty, your classmates, the program and career offices. How many other times or places when you can say that?”

To access 100 in-depth profiles of this year’s Best & Brightest EMBAs, go to pages 3-4.

DON’T MISS: Best & Brightest Executive MBAs: Class of 2018

The Best & Brightest EMBAs: Class of 2017

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