2022 Best & Brightest Executive MBA: Catriona Stadtler-Ayer, University of Virginia (Darden)

Catriona Stadtler-Ayer

University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

Age: 53

“Driven, creative, hard-working student, Mom, and friend who proudly led her class to build lifelong community.”

Hometown: Arlington, VA

Family Members: Jeff (husband), Gemma, and Niles (children)

Fun fact about yourself: I grew up in Africa and Europe and learned to speak five languages (English, German, Swedish, Afrikaans, and French).

Undergraduate School and Degree: Rice University, BA in Political Science, Policy Studies, and German.

Where are you currently working? Universal Service Administrative Company; Senior Advisor.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work, and Leadership Roles: President, Executive Student Association (ESA) at the Darden School of Business.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Passing Finance and Accounting! But really, earning the trust of my classmates and being elected President of the student body. Darden ESA changed the model for student government this year, so in addition to serving the two classes and working with Darden Leadership, we’ve also been inventing a new governance model. It’s been energizing and rewarding to serve my classmates.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? For the past 20 years, I worked on a federal program called E-rate, which provides broadband to schools and libraries across the US. Thanks to this program, millions of school children from New York City to American Samoa have stable, high-speed Internet in their classrooms. When the pandemic hit, we quickly pivoted to providing emergency broadband to students’ homes. This access levels playing fields and opens doors to educational opportunities students would otherwise not have.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? When I visited Darden and spoke with the students, I knew that it was the place for me. I wanted a top-tier business school with excellent teaching and was thrilled to find one where students supported each other. I was so impressed with the women I met and what they had achieved professionally. Most importantly, they all seemed to be friends instead of competitors.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? One of the most significant realizations from my MBA was that I am capable of much more than I previously thought. After working in the same professional community for 20 years, I initially believed I would continue in the same field, just at a higher level. Now I have the confidence to know that my skills are transferrable to many more areas and companies than I ever thought possible. My MBA opened the aperture of my future. I’m excited to explore more professional opportunities after graduation.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? Doing all three is tough, especially when you add on Student Government leadership. Luckily, my family was understanding and supportive of my schooling. As a class,  we were happy to share notes and set up additional tutorials for anyone who needed help. We all knew that it was only a matter of time before someone else would bail us out. I transferred to a less demanding role at work, freeing up my evenings and weekends for school. I always prioritized having dinner with my kids, so I read cases over breakfast and did homework late into the evening. Although I couldn’t miss class, I occasionally missed other school events and relied on my classmates to cover for me. Being in school teaches you prioritization. It’s only 20 months, so even if you miss a personal event, you know it will be different next year.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? Jump in! After raising my children, it was time to focus on myself. Going back to school has been energizing and reinvigorating professionally and personally. I learned new skills that I could apply immediately in my job, grew as a leader, and made many new connections. In addition, it gave me new perspectives on how things should work and where I can take my career. I highly recommend it!

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? The biggest myth is that the school made a mistake in letting us in. Admissions staff are wise – if they offer you a place, you deserve to be there! I was always surprised when my classmates confessed to impostor syndrome. In my eyes, I was the impostor, and they were the ones that clearly should be there. Once we realized that we all had the same worry, we became much more relaxed and open with each other.

What was your biggest regret in business school? My biggest regret is that we could not physically get together when we started due to COVID restrictions. You learn so much through impromptu conversations with your classmates. Cherish the moments that you can spend together. My classmates are all remarkable people.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I met Sean Taylor during the Spring before we started. COVID lockdowns had just begun, and Sean made the extra effort to reach out to members of our class and set up virtual community hangouts. A Major in the USMC, Sean brings a wealth of real-world leadership experience to the class. Sean served as the Executive Vice President of the Darden Executive Student Association. His insights, thoughtfulness, and creative problem solving made me a better leader. His trust and humor made him a life-long friend.  

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? From the beginning, I knew that I wanted an in-person experience. Darden’s hybrid format suited my family life by allowing me to attend evening classes from home, balanced by in-person weekend residencies. I was also looking for classmates who had more work experience, which fit the profile of executive MBA programs.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My ultimate goal is to lead an innovative technology company with a supportive and inclusive culture that lets people grow and have fun every day.

What made Catriona such an invaluable addition to the class of 2022?

“Catriona Stadtler-Ayer is an remarkable student and leader. I am proud to call her a Darden student, a soon-to-be alum, and a friend. She served as the Executive Student Association (ESA) President for the class of 2022 and it is fair to say that she was instrumental in unifying and leading her cohort during an extraordinarily challenging and unusual time.  Even before being elected as ESA president, Catriona demonstrated outstanding leadership and initiative by connecting with her cohort even prior to matriculating and investing her time in establishing a tight community with her peers and even with other MBA students in the DC metro area.

Catriona is highly valued by her peers, in particular for her ability to be a collaborative leader, who listens carefully, is thoughtful of others’ needs and is willing to go the extra mile and step up to make things work for most.  Given the challenges of balancing multiple stakeholders with different needs and expectations, it was especially notable how Catriona approached cases of disagreement with respect and patience.

Finally, Catriona offers exceptional in-classroom leadership, beyond all she does outside the classroom. She is always engaged, well-prepared, keen to learn, and so humble and respectful in her investigation.  It was an absolute joy to experience her as part of the Darden ExecMBA student community.”

Professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne
Senior Associate Dean of Professional Degree Programs

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