Christopher Epps has devoted much of his career to the public sector. After earning a degree in journalism, he led communications efforts for non-profits ranging from America’s Promise Alliance to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation. In between, Epps has helped run public affairs offices for the International Trade Association and the U.S. Department of Commerce. Come August, he’ll join the second cohort collecting their MBA from the Boston University Questrom School’s Online program.
It hasn’t been an easy two years for Epps. As a peer mentor, he would sometimes find himself coaching overseas classmates who were 13 hours ahead of him. That doesn’t count his first year transition, where he moved from being a communications consultant to managing external affairs for the U.S. Economic Development Administration. While travel-heavy role can be daunting, Epps believes Questrom’s flexible, online format gave him the flexibility to “learn from anywhere.”
“EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED”
“I have completed online MBA assignments while in other countries, participated in class on trains and airplanes, and met with my cohort team while on vacation. At this juncture in my life, the traditional classroom wouldn’t be the best fit.”
Long-term, Epps hopes to move into corporate social responsibility and cause marketing – though his career in public service has taught him to stay open-minded and “expect the unexpected.” Not surprisingly, his advice to future online MBA students focuses squarely on preparation.
“Communicate openly and often about your schedule, your needs, your challenges. During your online MBA experience, there will be changes, your commitments will shift…and no two weeks will look the same. Therefore, it’s important to continuously communicate with the people in your life, including your cohort teammates, loved ones, and supervisors.”
DRIVING CHANGE AT GOOGLE
Epps is one of the 52 graduates selected for Poets&Quants’ 6th annual Online Best & Brightest Online MBAs. Each spring, P&Q reaches out to the world’s top-ranked online MBA programs for nominations from the graduating Class of 2023. Like past years, the Online Best & Brightest were selected by faculty and classmates based on criteria like academic performance, classroom contributions, and professional achievements. Overall, P&Q reached out to 32 online MBA programs, with 31 opting to participate. This included elite schools like the University of Michigan, the University of Southern California, Indiana University, and Carnegie Mellon University.
This year’s class features 29 women and 23 men, whose ages range from 27-55. Their ranks include entrepreneurs, military personnel, physicians, consultants, engineers, and financiers. As undergrads, they attended institutions as diverse as Princeton, Iowa State, and the University of Phoenix. Currently, you’ll find the Best & Brightest working at blue chip firms like Johnson & Johnson, Dell Technologies, Visa, and Disney.
…and Google too! That’s where Kelsey Wolak worked while she earned her MBA at the University of Michigan’s Ross School. A chemical engineer by training, Wolak started her career at Schlumberger leading projects while serving in U.S. Navy as a reservist. In 2020, she transitioned over to program management at Google, where she recently streamlined program offerings. It was an effort, she admits, that faced opposition and lacked the “flash” of a new product launch. Over six months, Wolak adds, she attracted an executive champion, built a case, and delivered a result that received “zero negative feedback” from Google external partners.
“This was a significant personal milestone for me as I’ve historically been uncomfortable interacting with senior leadership, but I was able to overcome this obstacle and confidently drive a high-level objective for the company,” she explains.
NO ROLE IS TOO BIG
That’s just one of the influential roles held by the Class of 2023 in elite organizations. Take Brandon Smith, a new graduate of Auburn University’s Harbert College. Originally a pharmacist, Smith rose from manager to senior manager to director during his two years in business school. Now, he heads up operational excellence at Centene – America’s largest Medicaid managed care organization. Christopher Rickard also snagged a promotion while he earned his MBA online with the Jack Welch Management Institute. At Gartner – a $5.5 billion dollar consulting firm – Rickard is now a managing vice president who oversees the Canadian Public Sector practice. Over 15 years, Venkata Veera K Mandala climbed from software engineer to senior manager at Pfizer. His claim to fame? The Lehigh University MBA was deeply involved in shipping 600 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the American public. By the same token, Carnegie Mellon’s Christa Musgrove serves as an advisor in the Office of the Chairman for Chevron. This came after leading a “multi-national, cross-functional” team to successfully address a “first-in-kind” challenge.
“I am proud of the perseverance and leadership it took to overcome technical and innovation challenges to discover a new way to recover subsea hydrocarbon fluids,” she tells P&Q. “As a result, I received a patent in 2019 as part of a team at Chevron. This gave me the confidence to aspire to do difficult things and really sparked an interest in leadership for me.”
Big and difficult? Over the past decade, Austin Birner has grown Renewal by Andersen – a window and door replacement consultant – from $5 million to $150 million in annual sales. The University of Cincinnati MBA’s reward? He is transitioning into the role of company CEO. At the Hess Corporation, Trent Kostenuk oversaw the launch of a joint venture with Exxon Mobil and the China National Offshore Oil Corporation. The well have since turned into “one of the hottest plays in the world.
“This project was not only significant in terms of its size and complexity, but it also received the majority of the capital investment for the company’s portfolio,” adds the Rice University MBA. “My contributions to this project gained me high visibility within the organization and positioned me as the go-to person for technical expertise and guidance for the G&G team and leadership.”
PATENTS AND PLATFORMS
The Best & Brightest have also racked up their share of accolades – at least at Indiana University’s Kelley School! Outside class, Leah Gistenson is a mother of three and a general counsel. As a Kelley MBA, she was chosen to be part of the 2022 MBA World Summit, which brought together 100 of the world’s top MBAs from 32 countries. Not to be outdone, her classmate, Belle Chou, has also enjoyed international acclaim.
“As an inventor who consistently files one to two patents annually, I’ve amassed a considerable portfolio of U.S. and international patents. Recently, I was honored to receive the prestigious 2023 Enterprising Women of the Year award. My company’s commitment to CSR and sustainability was recognized with six awards in the relevant categories last year… Ultimately, I credit the success of my ventures to the exceptional team of individuals who have supported me along the way, providing me with the drive and purpose to keep innovating and creating new solutions.”
A similar spirit drives Ketan Rahangdale, who’ll earn his MBA from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler School. In 2014, he launched Unitea, which he describes as the “engage-to-earn social platform that connects artists, fans and brands.” Think of it as a web-based loyalty program that rewards fans for streaming and sharing music while helping artists build their communities. Along the way, Rahangdale has partnered with Procter & Gamble on the Capitanes Del Futuro leadership program.
“It gives scholarship opportunities to 150,000 families with multicultural youth across America,” he explains, “We created a fan-engagement solution rewarding multicultural youth soccer fans for engaging on leadership-based content promoted by their favorite teams and players. Utility to students includes personality development achievement badges and official CONCACAF physical and digital twin armbands to families that unlock perks such as [scholarships for nurses and dental hygienists].”
A COMPULSION TO SERVE
At the U.S. Military Academy, Jennie Wunderlich studied nuclear engineering. After five years as an officer, she returned to Iowa, where she is a 4-H leader and “help[s] my kids prepare their chickens and dogs for the county fair.” At the same time, she has built on the family business, a kitchen and bath showroom. Now the company president and co-owner, Wunderlich has quadrupled her staff size and expanded operations to include cabinets, countertops, and lighting. With a degree from the University of Wisconsin MBA Consortium, what does Wunderlich plan to do for an encore? Think the world’s second-oldest profession.
“I am considering running for public office one day, possibly for the U.S. Senate. My goal is to be an impactful leader in an often-negative space, encouraging others to take positive action to improve their families and communities.”
Among the Best & Brightest, Wunderlich wouldn’t be alone in pursuing public service. Stephen Stanwood has worked as trademark examiner for the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office while earning his MBA online at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School. Back East, the University of Maryland’s McGeady Bushnell has been serving as the Congressional and Legislative Liaison for the U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Personnel. Here, he assists in developing policies that support over 450,000 sailors and their families. The Class of 2023 isn’t just making a difference in the public sector, either. Imperial College’s Caitlin Bristol is the director of social innovation at Johnson & Johnson. Here, she helped launch the Johnson & Johnson Center for Health Worker Innovation, a $250 million dollar commitment over 10 years. At Niman Ranch, a provider of “natural, sustainable, and humanely-raised meats,” Jill Bookman created a foundation that provided scholarships to children of ranchers and producers.
“Armed with college degrees, the goals of these future farmers are to return to their family business and strengthen their farming operations,” explains the University of Michigan MBA. “With the formal incorporation of The Foundation as a 501(c)3, we were able to more successfully market this educational program, and as a result, corporate donations increased by 50% in year 1.”
FROM ACTING TO BANKING
This year’s Best & Brightest also features students you might not associate with business school – or business in general. After growing up in Inner Mongolia, Juanjiangmeng Du headed to Europe, where she earned a Ph.D. in Genetics. Soon after, she turned her passions for life science and data science into a consulting career, where she advises biotech and pharmaceutical firms on areas like integrative bioinformatics. Similarly, Anais Koivisto channeled a love for the arts into a career in private equity with BNP Paribas – even working towards a Master’s in Finance to go along with her MBA at Indiana University’s Kelley School.
“I had a prior career as an actor, director, and eventually founder of a theatre company – a background that still deeply informs nearly everything I do in my personal and professional life,” she tells P&Q. “In the corporate and MBA world, I find there’s often a perception that the arts and business are siloed skills, unrelated to one another. My experience has been very much the opposite; I find that skills I developed in theatre – for example empathetic leadership, project management, cooperative teamwork, and creative problem solving – are incredibly applicable to the challenges of both school and work. I am a huge proponent of arts education and I believe the business world could use more creative thinking.”
Go to page 3 to access in-depth profiles for over 50 Best & Brightest Online MBAs.
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