2023 Best & Brightest Executive MBA: Volkan Emre, Northwestern University (Kellogg)

Volkan Emre

Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management

Age: 40

“A constantly evolving adventurer, eager to reach new heights.”

Hometown: Ankara, Turkey

Family Members: I live in St. Paul, Minnesota with my wife Beth, my daughter Selma, and my Tibetan terrier dog, Whit.

Fun fact about yourself: In the early 2000s, I was part of a professional cave research team that aimed to explore the world’s deepest cave.

Undergraduate School and Degree: I hold a BA in Finance from Hacettepe University and an MS in Financial Economics from Istanbul Bilgi University in Turkey. Additionally, I earned an MA in International and Development Economics from HTW Berlin, Germany.

Where are you currently working? I am the Executive Vice President and CFO of Tayse, a rapidly growing home décor company serving US-based clients through mass merchants, e-commerce giants, and its direct-to-consumer brand, Decorsify.

Extracurricular Activities, Community Work and Leadership Roles: I actively volunteer with Upwardly Global, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization, assisting immigrants and refugees with international credentials to restart their careers in the US. I am also a member of the 2022-23 Cohort of the Northwestern University Crown Family Israel Center for Innovation.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Since joining Kellogg, I have worked diligently to unite both sides of the entrepreneurial equation within the EMBA community: entrepreneurs pursuing disruptive ideas and investors seeking high-return, high-impact, and sustainable investment opportunities. This effort led to the creation of the Kellogg EMBA Entrepreneur & Investor Initiative, in collaboration with cohort member Kostas Poulakidas. So far, we have hosted various workshops, pitch sessions, speaker events, panel discussions, and developed a unique pitch competition unlike any other MBA or EMBA program. The competition, called LEHI Executive Pitch Competition, stands for “Low Ego High Impact,” reflecting one of Kellogg’s core principles.

This innovative, interactive pitch competition enabled Kellogg Executive MBA students to showcase their entrepreneurial ideas to Kellogg’s global network. Each of the North American Kellogg EMBA campuses – Evanston, Miami, and Toronto – was represented by current students pitching their entrepreneurial ventures to a live, global online audience. Our next goal is to expand this competition to include all seven Kellogg campus locations, making this concept a sustainable interaction platform between Kellogg EMBA students and the global Kellogg community.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am proud of the B2B computer vision and AI solutions/products I spearheaded and implemented at Pergatech, a tech startup I co-founded and led. I am particularly proud of Apollonius3D, a 3D scanning solution platform that was showcased at a significant scientific event at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in 2016.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Professor Mohanbir Sawhney was my favorite MBA professor. His Tech Venture India (TVI) elective was the crown jewel of my Kellogg EMBA experience, opening doors to India—a country with arguably the most exciting entrepreneurship and VC investing scenes in the near future.

Thanks to Professor Sawhney, I connected with brilliant Kellogg leaders during a 10-day immersion in Delhi and Bangalore to discover India’s unique tech ecosystem. Together, we visited inspiring founders in various industries who built not only impressive unicorn companies, but also transformed the lives of millions of Indians by significantly improving their quality of life and addressing crucial issues. We were privileged to visit India’s most impactful technology giants at their campus locations and learned more about the future of Generative AI. We also spent considerable time with VC investors and had the unique opportunity to meet the Minister of Technology, who shared valuable insights about tech infrastructure and ecosystem development in India.

Why did you choose this school’s executive MBA program? As a finance-trained mid-career professional, I believe that advancing in the corporate world requires a different mindset and skill set focused on general management to oversee multiple business functions. Kellogg’s core curriculum and collaboration-based culture were highly appealing to me, as they facilitated a shift in my professional mindset and helped me develop a general management-focused skill set. My experience in the program highlighted the significant impact of the Kellogg network, in addition to the world-class education I received from top professors in their respective fields.

The low ego, high impact mindset evident in the admissions process was a major factor in my decision to choose the Kellogg EMBA Program. It took me over two years to select the right program, during which I engaged with several top executive MBA programs. The low ego, high impact mindset was reflected in every interaction I had with the Kellogg admissions team, current students, and alumni, ultimately leading me to apply exclusively to Kellogg. I was impressed by Kellogg’s self-confidence, as evidenced by their willingness to connect me with multiple current students and encourage ongoing communication.

Another area where Kellogg stood out was its unique global network of top-ranking partner business schools across the globe. The second-year experience in the Kellogg EMBA Program is largely based on elective classes offered on five different continents. The prospect of learning in a classroom with a diverse and multicultural group of executives from five different Kellogg-affiliated business schools was incredibly exciting for me. My actual experience in the program surpassed these expectations, and I am thrilled to be part of a truly global network spanning various industries. The Global Week in Evanston, during which all international students came together, was a highlight of the program, providing me with lifelong connections I would not have had the opportunity to establish elsewhere.

The Kellogg EMBA facilities, particularly the Allen Center, offer a level of ease and convenience unmatched by other EMBA programs. The ability to stay in one place throughout class weekends and intensive weeks was very appealing to me. The Kellogg EMBA program provides excellent classrooms, group study rooms, multiple dining and social venues, and accommodations, all in one location. The program’s provision of early arrival opportunities for students flying in from different states was another attractive feature. The option to check into the Allen Center the night before class weekends made the experience even more inviting. Lastly, I have always been a fan of Northwestern University’s Evanston Campus, and the Allen Center is located at its heart, offering unique opportunities for Northwestern students, such as sailing. 

What is the biggest lesson you gained during your MBA and how did you apply it at work? The quote from Kellogg Professor Harry Kraemer, “Don’t just watch the movie, be in the movie”, aptly summarizes the leadership lessons I learned during my collaborative Kellogg experience. Being at Kellogg involves continuous collaboration on complex business cases with intelligent, motivated, and influential business leaders while learning from one another. Kellogg’s collaborative culture and value-driven leadership philosophy have enabled me to unlock my potential in navigating and leading amid ambiguity while enhancing my self-awareness and confidence in decision-making.

The Kellogg impact became immediately and naturally apparent in my workplace, with a heightened emphasis on collaboration in decision-making and the development of others to increase their impact within the business and community. Kellogg has helped me refine and improve my teamwork skills, enabling me to become a much more effective leader in forming and guiding diverse, high-impact teams. I can confidently say that the most significant lessons I applied at work stemmed from the changes in my mindset and confidence, which evolved through self-reflection and feedback.

Give us a story during your time as an executive MBA on how you were able to juggle work, family and education? Finding the right balance between family, education, and work was undoubtedly the most challenging aspect of my Kellogg EMBA journey. There was a month during which I spent two weeks in India for the Tech Venture India (TVI) elective class, one week in Miami for a series of electives, and a class weekend in Evanston. Concurrently, my company was undergoing its annual independent audit, where I represented the company; my daughter celebrated her sixth birthday party; my wife was swamped at work due to a major corporate restructuring; and I wrote a nearly 50-page white paper for the TVI class. I managed to navigate this hectic period with the immense support of my wife and by simply working late hours and sacrificing sleep.

What advice would you give to a student looking to enter an executive MBA program? Entering a competitive executive MBA program entails a significant financial and time commitment. It is crucial to thoroughly understand the time commitment and confirm it with your support network before applying. Reach out to both current students and alumni to gain valuable insights. Do not rush your application; take the necessary time to ensure you are 100% prepared.

Each institution is unique, so be certain about what you truly desire from an executive MBA experience, particularly regarding the network. Measuring the ROI of an executive MBA program is not as straightforward as it is for full-time or part-time programs, due to the inherently more senior and diverse class profile. In my view, this makes networking the most crucial component of an ROI assessment. Therefore, be sure to understand the alumni networks of the schools you are considering applying to.

What is the biggest myth about going back to school? There is a myth that executive MBA programs are less intensive than a full-time MBA program. In my view and experience, this is entirely untrue and here’s why:

First, EMBA students are accomplished and impactful business leaders who work full-time. It is incredibly challenging for working professionals to incorporate Kellogg into their busy schedules. I traveled from St. Paul, MN, to Evanston, IL, twice a month and spent an average of six days per month on campus. In addition, I dedicated nearly eight weeks to intensive weeks and international electives. From a time commitment perspective, I believe that being in a competitive executive MBA program is equally as, and sometimes more,  demanding as a full-time MBA program, perhaps just in a different way.

Competitive executive MBA programs attract the best and brightest accomplished business professionals. When it comes to group work and assignments, EMBA participants typically bring their passion and skill set to the table. This ultimately pushes all group members to work harder to meet each other’s expectations. As the bar is high, so are the levels of commitment and quality of work.

Lastly, both programs share the same professors, and I do not believe they are more lenient towards executive MBA students.

What was your biggest regret in business school? I have no regrets; however, I wish my personal schedule had allowed me to take more international electives, particularly in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I was genuinely impressed by all my classmates in the program and felt as though I was surrounded by stars each time I entered the classroom. My admiration for all my classmates is beyond words, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to embark on this journey with them. I am still curious about the Kellogg admissions team’s secret to assembling such a diverse, successful, brilliant, and humble group of business leaders.

If I must single out one person from my class, it would be Kostas Poulakidas, a prominent member of our cohort. Kostas is an attorney and partner at Taft Law, with a practice focusing on real estate. We were in the same study group, and together we built the Kellogg EMBA Entrepreneur & Investor Initiative, organizing multiple workshops, pitch sessions, and pitch competitions to connect Kellogg EMBA entrepreneurs with the student and alumni communities. I deeply admire Kostas’ mindset and motivation in recognizing and uplifting others in an incredibly selfless way that I have not seen before.

What was the main reason you chose an executive MBA program over part-time or online alternatives? Based on my level of experience, my goal to expand my network in an in-person setting, and my admiration for Northwestern University’s Evanston campus, I did not consider other MBA options.

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My ultimate long-term professional goal is to start and lead a sustainable, scalable, and impactful business that employs technology to solve significant problems for people and other businesses. I am confident that my Kellogg experience will play a key role in achieving this goal, with my enhanced skill set, vision, and unique network of low-ego, high-impact business leaders.

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

“I serve as the Director for Kellogg’s Executive MBA program and have been working in this space for 20 years. The work has been challenging but extremely rewarding. A few times during my tenure of working with EMBA students, I’ve had the great fortune to meet a student who reminds me of why this work is so inspiring. Volkan Emre is such a student.

Volkan started the program 18 months ago and without a doubt, has made our program better. He and a classmate (Kostas Poulakidas) had an idea to create a forum for their cohort to pitch entrepreneurial ideas to one another after dinner – from 9 to 11pm – on Friday nights of class weekends. It started as that – cohort members helping one another by leveraging resources and connections at Kellogg, giving one another feedback and creating important connections that would support them in their entrepreneurial quest. It has evolved into bringing in speakers, expert panels, expanding across 6 campuses and ultimately passing their legacy on to new cohorts – so that what they have built will continue after they graduate in spring. Volkan was absolutely relentless and tireless in his efforts to move this initiative forward. He planned events, mobilized students around the globe, collaborated with speakers, facilitated conversations and coached his fellow EMBA students. His latest efforts have resulted in a “pitch competition” that is being launched around the globe (to all partner campuses). He is also working to launch a podcast series – interviewing many of the contacts he and his classmate have made around the world because of their diligent efforts. On a recent trip to India with them, Volkan was the first one out in the morning and the last one to finish at night – adding on many visits and interviews that weren’t required, but he felt were impactful and important – and they were.

What impresses me most about Volkan is his generosity and willingness to serve – serve the program, his cohort and seemingly, everyone he meets.  There is a sense of urgency in his efforts – as if he’s afraid to live one minute of his life without curiosity, passion, and drive – extracting every bit of value and learning out of every single day in our program.  It’s how he lives his life, and I am so grateful that he came to Kellogg.”

Colette Feldges
Director, Executive MBA Program, Evanston


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