2023 Best & Brightest Executive MBA: Clare Atzert, University of Virginia (Darden)

Clare Atzert

University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

Age: 40

“I am a life-long learner, and someone who cares about developing others.”   

Hometown: Cape May Court House, NJ

Family Members: Steve (father), one sister, and three brothers.

Fun fact about yourself: I like to make art, including pastel landscapes.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana BS Mechanical Engineering, 2004

Naval Postgraduate School, Masters of Science in Engineering Science, Mechanical Engineering, 2007

Where are you currently working? Director, Surface Ship Systems Division, Naval Reactors (a joint Dept of Navy/Dept of Energy agency)

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: I like to run, hike, read, and knit. I also enjoy baking and cooking, going out to musical or theatrical performances, and traveling. I was the VP for the Network of Executive Women (NEW) for the past year at Darden. I also supported tutoring for my cohort. I was inducted into the University of Virginia Raven Society in November 2022. 

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am most proud of my time serving as the VP for NEW. I felt proud to be help create a community for the women in the program across all formats. I developed or coordinated a mix of academic, career, and leadership-oriented events during my tenure.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am most proud of managing the propulsion plant portion of the USS GERALD R. FORD (CVN 78) Full Ship Shock Trials in Spring-Summer 2021. I managed a team of approximately 30 personnel to plan and execute the trials. These were the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier full ship shock trials in over 30 years. I interfaced with senior leadership at multiple Navy and contractor organizations to ensure on-time planning and successful execution of the shock trials.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? My favorite professor was Robert Carraway. I am grateful to have taken three classes with Robert – DA1, DA2, and Data Analytics and Visualization. He challenged me to think beyond the numbers, and to use them as a starting point for decision making. As an engineer, I tend gravitate toward analysis (I love data!). His focus on the overall framework for decision-making helped me to re-evaluate and adjust the framework I use to make decisions.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? I chose Darden’s MBA program based on discussions with my prior supervisor, Karen Henneberger, who is a Darden (EMBA 2020) graduate. She encouraged me to apply to Darden after she started the program. She emphasized the transformational nature of the program, the world-class faculty, and the sense of community in the school. I liked the idea of doing a program where the cohort is focused on helping each other be successful in learning, and the hybrid format was appealing to me. After attending a few webinars hosted by the Admissions team and speaking with a residential MBA student, the feeling of community was reinforced. Furthermore, while everyone I spoke with talked about how challenging the program was, they also emphasized how much fun they had. All of these factors convinced me to apply.

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? I learned that to be a strong leader, I need to be authentic. As a woman in a male-dominated workplace, I have shied away from being true to myself in professional settings. Through the program, I learned that I was holding myself back by not being authentic. I have applied this lesson in several ways, including being vulnerable, not being afraid to be myself, and being more vocal in standing up for positions I believe in. I am grateful to the program for enabling me to enhance my leadership, and for giving me more confidence.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? I found it challenging to juggle my work, education, and personal life. I do not like asking for help, and I learned that I needed to ask for help from friends and family to manage all the aspects of my life. One example of how they helped me is that I relied on friends and family to take care of my cats during on-grounds residency weekends, global residencies, and leadership residencies. I also accepted multiple offers of home-cooked dinners from my friends.  My takeaway is that people who care about me wanted to help me to be successful in this program, and they went above-and-beyond to support me. I would not have been able to do this program without them.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? I would say to them that you can do it! I was so apprehensive starting this program. I had imposter syndrome and felt that the Admissions team must have made a mistake. I quickly learned that I did belong there, and I thrived due to a supportive cohort and amazing faculty. Looking back now at the end of the program, deciding to go to Darden was one of the best decisions of my life. I am so grateful for what I have learned, and more importantly, for the friendships I have made over the program.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? The biggest myth is that you have to do it all alone. My learning team was invaluable during the core curriculum in preparing for class. It is not possible to read every single case in detail for every class, especially given work or family demands. I relied on my learning team, and other classmates, to help prepare the large volume of cases for each on-grounds residency. My class also supported each other with preparing for the exam via tutoring sessions. Without their support, I would not have been able to get through the program.

What was your biggest regret in business school? My biggest regret is not getting to know all of my classmates in a meaningful way. Time is fleeting in the program. While I was able to connect with many of my classmates, there are a number of them that I wish I had had more time to get to know better.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I most admire Leah Svoboda. She was the President of the Network of Executive Women. She coordinated 15 events for the club throughout the past 13 months, and strove to make a strong community for the women across all of the executive formats. On top of the demands for the club, she also coordinated several outreach events for the local DC community. I am so impressed by Leah’s ability to juggle school, the Network of Executive Women, and community outreach. I learned so much from her this past year, and am grateful I had the opportunity to work with her as part of the Network of Executive Women.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? I chose an executive format because I wanted to finish the program in as short a time as possible. While it was a tough 21 months, I was glad that it did not last for more than two years. I chose the Darden Executive MBA program over online formats due to the hybrid nature of the program. It was a good mix of synchronous on-line and in-person classes. I believe having some in-person engagement made my learning experience so much more powerful, and enabled me to form strong relationships with my classmates and the faculty.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? I recently was promoted in my organization, so I plan to stay in this position for the next few years. Long-term, I would like to pivot into an organization that focuses on sustainability. I care a lot about the environment and the effects of climate change, and I would like to make a positive impact in that area.

What made Clare such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2023?

“Clare has been a leader in the class from the outset. Her willingness to ask deep questions, analyze issues, formulate recommendations, and model professionalism are exemplary. She brings a great blend of substantive career experience and excellence at technical details. It is inspiring to work with Clare — a person who excels and continues to hold herself to the highest standards to be even better.”

Darden Professor Robert Harris


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