Best & Brightest Executive MBAs: Class of 2018

Southern Methodist University’s Erik Day


However, it wasn’t always the headline-grabbing acts or jaw-dropping resume bullets that defined the 2018 Best & Brightest. Erik Day, a vice president at Dell Technologies, is a case in point. Some 25 years ago, the SMU MBA was a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 17 students and faculty lost their lives in February’s mass shooting. Touched by the event, he mobilized alumni to write letters to surviving students, with Day himself addressing the school’s Gay-Straight Alliance members. “I simply told them my story about how my high school experience paved the way to my success in becoming a VP at a major company and getting my MBA. I was hoping to give them encouragement to be strong and work hard, but in the end they taught me that their determination and courage is what will change the world.”

Maybe the Class of 2018 will one day change the world. As students, they settled for victories both personal and profound. At the World Government Summit, Hind bin Khirbash, a native of the United Arab Emirates, stood alongside her London Business School teammates when they received their first place trophy at the Universities Challenge…from the Prime Minister of the UAE himself! What’s the highest compliment you can receive in business school? At Yale SOM, Kodjor Adovor sat through a class where his company was taught as a case study (Cold call, anyone?). The same thing happened to filmmaker Amanda Pollak, an IE Business-School-Brown University grad who watched a clip from her documentary illustrate a key point.

That said, this was far from Pollak’s shining moment in school. “I am proud of the fact that, despite often working 70 hours a week, I managed to sit down at the dinner table with my family nearly every night.” she says.

In fact,  theUniversity of Pennsylvania (Wharton School)’s Laura Rivera found her greatest joy came in just being part of the class. “I have never been so happy in my life to be ‘mediocre,’” she jokes. “It was an honor and privilege just to be learning from the best in the world, among the best students in the world, and stretching myself in new and exciting ways. The fact that I was able to keep up in all of my classes (and even excel in some), while continuing to meet the expectations of stakeholders at work (through a job change and promotion) and at home (through my husband’s career change), is a huge achievement.”


It was an achievement amplified by the hurdles that came with it. For many, that starts with never-ending flights that criss-cross time zones, if not continents. To join Friday lectures at Cambridge University, Mubarik Hussain would take a Thursday redeye from Qatar, returning home on Sunday morning from an overnight – just so he could go right back to the office to work. Beyond the jet lag and jam-packed schedules, there are the sacrifices, the missed milestones and daily delights that students can never get back – the ones that leave a nagging feeling that they’re never doing enough. Indeed, an EMBA is a humbling experience, one that rarely fails to remind them just how far they still need to go.

In an EMBA program, perfection is a perversion. Here, life gets messy. Team calls are made at midnight and studying is done on the way to board meetings. Children get sick, marriages flounder, and loved ones pass on. Make no mistake: neither the weight nor the pace of the job ebbs. “As a class, we’ve had over ten babies born, engagements, marriages, personal tragedy, new jobs, moves, etc,” shares Cornell University’s Manisha Mehrotra, a Bloomberg executive. “I admire the people who can stay present through it all, manage those experiences, and enjoy their time in the program.”

In the end, the Class of 2018 – like the EMBAs before them – gutted it out. They learned what to leave in and what to leave out. They stepped outside what they’ve always done – and discovered new talents and interests. Their secret: They had family at home who bought into the new normal – and a school community that supported them because they juggled the same demands. Even more, they had a big picture vision for their careers – and their families – that made an EMBA time well-spent.

ESADE’s Uliana Obynochnaya


That was particularly true for ESADE’s Uliana Obynochnaya, a single mother of two whose parents will soon be relying on her, too. “I was very often treated by my family as an irresponsible person wandering in the dark, searching for any concept in my life,” she confesses. “But from my point of view, the concept is very clear: successful and happy Uliana equals happy kids and happy parents who have everything they need for a good life and a strong and prosperous family. I have four people who are fully dependent on me or will become fully dependent on me very soon. And I do not have anyone at my side to help. Therefore, I feel immense gratitude toward my dear parents and kids, who had to overcome these times together with me. I really believe that they have also invested heavily in their future by doing this. I must say that they are my strongest motivation.”

For Northwestern’s Parent, the big epiphany came right after orientation during her daughter’s gymnastics practice. Between a call from a confounded classmate and frantic texts from her assistant, she experienced the same dread as every EMBA – wondering how she could possibly juggle everything that needed attention. Then, she remembered that an MBA program, when you strip away all the worries, is really a blessing. “Over the last two years I have had a few moments of doubt “How am I going to do this all?” “What have I done to myself?” “Have I taken on too much?” In moments of stress, I remind myself of what a champagne-soaked, first-world, temporary problem this is. Then I drink a cup of coffee, put on some music, and get to work.”

Vesna Petronic-Rosic, who got her MBA from Chicago Booth, chose a standard routine to meet her obligations. Turns out, it helped this section chief to deepen her bonds with her family in the process. “Friday lunch and some breaks were spent answering work emails and completing work-related projects, while the evenings ran late with my study group. Come Saturday 4:30 pm, my kids would be waiting for me in front of the Gleacher Center and we would go get dinner or catch a movie together. My daughter took over the cooking, so I could study on Sundays, when the whole family would have lunch together. In a way, it made us plan better and then stick to the plan. We knew if we missed the opportunity, another one would not come for a week or two. We were all in it together!”


What led the Best & Brightest back to campus to earn MBA degrees? Already successful, the Class of 2018 had climbed the ranks, amassed accolades, and built sturdy networks. Few were looking to leave their firms, either. Instead, the decision often came down to a defining moment, a revelation of where they really stood – and a sense that they could be so much more.

That was the case for Michigan State’s Spiros Assimacopoulos, the CEO of a bread company. His moment of truth came when he realized that he had run out of ideas. For the University of Chicago’s Brendan Downing, that moment hit when his pride kept him from asking others for help with his “gaps” in business knowledge. Despite being an innovator in liver transplant surgery, Ram Subramanian found himselfreading the Harvard Business Review more than the New England Journal of Medicine.” Sometimes, change required the class to step up and pursue a degree. “My father unexpectedly took a medical leave of absence and left me in charge of our company with only seven years’ business experience and a law degree,” explains Ohio State’s Keith. “I felt I just needed… more.”

And “more” is exactly what the Class of 2018 received in their executive MBA programs. While some equate business school to drinking from the proverbial fire hose, Columbia Business School’s Rocky Granahan, a senior vice president at Oppenheimer Funds, conjures up a different metaphor: drinking from the fountain of youth.


University of Virginia’s Corbin Norman

“I proved to myself that I am not too old to learn and I still have what it takes to make an impact at the next level of my career,” she says. “My cohorts came from different nationalities and industries. It was the first time in my life where I was no longer one of the youngest, one of a handful of females, or the only minority in the room. As a person born into Generation X, I enjoyed seeing the world through a Millennial’s point of view. We both found ways to relate to each other and I bring that classroom experience to the Millennials at my company.”

Across the pond, the London Business School’s Kiran Ganesh found the academic frameworks – along with the space to think – to be especially helpful in his work as a managing director at UBS Global Wealth Management. “In the day-to-day, one often doesn’t take enough take the time to consider the problems which arise. Thinking in more academic terms: what is the nature of the problem, what framework can be used to tackle it, what are the options, what should we choose, etc, can be very helpful.”

At the same time, adds IE-Brown’s Pollak, the EMBA experience enabled her to take risks that might be career-ending in other contexts. “From day one, I was pushed to do things that were extremely unfamiliar and often uncomfortable,” she shares. “Whether that was public speaking or financial accounting or getting to know an entirely new group of people. At age 47, I’d gotten to a place where I felt pretty good about things, this experience pulled the ground right out from under me. Surviving and ultimately thriving has been quite a thrill.”

Now that the Best & Brightest have reached the end of their academic journeys, how will they be remembered? Certainly, they left a mark on their respective faculty members. Look no further than Elizabeth Demers, an associate professor of accounting at the University of Virginia. For her, Corbin Norman, an entrepreneur who launched kweliTV to improve how African Americans are portrayed on television, was the type of leader who could rally his peers around a mission in the classroom – and well beyond. “He is one of those rare students who seems to grow before your eyes, taking everything in with an insatiable appetite, and transforming this into positive energy and excitement that is contagious.”

Looking back on his two years at Michigan State, Kyle Krause hopes his MBA peers take away that he was authentic – “someone who took the time to ask and actually care about the response to the question, “How are you?” Similarly, Georgetown’s Kafi Joseph wants to be known as the woman who brought up her classmates…so she could bring out their best. “I’d like my peers to remember me as someone who pushed them forward when they stalled, encouraged them when they faltered, supported them when they were tired, and applauded them when they achieved success.”

That success, adds Berkeley’s Singh, can be measured in one key business metric. “I’d like to be remembered as someone who got s*** done,” he says. That’s the person I try to be.”

Why did these graduates choose their particular EMBA programs? What strategies did they use to juggle work, life, and school? What were their favorite classes and the biggest lessons they learned? Go to the next two pages to read detailed profiles of the 100 Best & Brightest EMBAs from the Class of 2017.



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