The Best & Brightest Executive MBAs Of 2021

Sunny Kumar, INSEAD


Stetler Thorpe wasn’t the only business leader to stay in the black during business school. At INSEAD, Sunny Kumar started Carbon27, which enables clients to accumulate carbon credits while also supporting local causes. Kumar has already met with Shell and EDF and plans to raise millions in a Series A round next year. At DaVita Kidney Care, Jen Griffin runs a business unit that “delivers life-sustaining dialysis procedures inside hospitals.” When COVID-19 hit, the demand for dialysis skyrocketed — and Griffin’s team stood ready. In 2020, they performed 100,000 dialysis procedures, responding to every single patient request.

“No patient went without care. Our caregivers and frontline leaders were absolute heroes,” emphasizes the Vanderbilt Owen grad. “We took care of each other. We took care of our nurses. We took care of our patients. We lived the mission.”

The mission, grounded in service to country, defined Keith Parry for over 30 years. Over that period, he led teams ranging from 200 to 1,100 members, completing six deployments in the process. Parry even spent the first semester at Texas McCombs as an executive director for special operations at the Pentagon. The University of California-Berkeley’s D’Juan Wilcher approached service in a different way. In Chicago, the senior VP at Associated Bank organized a drive that supplied food to 4,000 families. As a Duke Fuqua student, Laura Payne’s team managed to deliver 1.7 million meals to Philadelphia’s immune-compromised community during the pandemic. And they were able to do this despite an 80% drop in volunteers (and a 40% increase in clients).

Mary McKinney Flaherty, University of Chicago (Booth)


Sometimes, their work wasn’t always been appreciated. That includes Mary McKinney Flaherty, an attorney who was part of a team that represented Yemeni citizens imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay. “I had the privilege of second chairing two of those cases in federal court, prevailing in each. The team was a diverse group of lawyers from varying political backgrounds who all saw a wrong in the world that they felt needed to be corrected and worked tirelessly to ensure that it was. Our clients had been imprisoned for over eight years without a single charge being brought against them and then, after our efforts, were finally free. That feeling was incredible.”

That feeling didn’t always carry over for McKinney Flaherty, who found Friday classes a bit challenging. “No matter how much I try to make it happen earlier in the week, legal cases usually settle on Fridays. I was often sneaking out during class to pitch a proposal to opposing counsel, to get numbers from experts, and to formulate counter offers with clients. It definitely felt like juggling (with more than a handful of dropped balls).”

The path hasn’t been easy for the Class of 2021. After all, life doesn’t shut down for business school. The University of Toronto’s Scarlett Zhang rode out two reorganizations, which ultimately tripled the size of her team. As a single mother, Kyung Yun Lee found herself adapting to a new boss and new ways of doing things when she wasn’t studying at USC Marshall. At the same time, Javi Virk lost his home to fire, uprooting him for six months while he worked as a COO and pursued two master’s degrees at Southern Methodist University. And such disruptions don’t even factor in  COVID-19 and moving classes online — or even the transitions involved in returning to school after a decade or more away from academia.

“Swiss cheese without holes. That is how I like to describe our calendar during the two years of this program,” cracks Cornell University’s Ari Betof. “Executive MBA programs are an obstacle course of readings, presentations, papers, and projects while life moves forward at full steam.”

Still, there is plenty of hope, Betof adds. “For the most part, they are practically useful and fun for nerdy people like me.”


Chiquita Berg, University of Michigan (Ross)

Fortunately, many Best & Brightest EMBAs had a support system to back them up. That was the case for Jen Griffin, who had her CMO to guide her through his own MBA journey. “He said, “You’ll learn to study on the flight to meetings; you’ll learn to complete your assignments in hotel rooms before and after work when traveling; you’ll trade off TV viewing on weekends for case studies; and over time that accumulation of time investments will result in an MBA. You’ll just get it done.” He was right. That’s exactly how it went for me.”

For the Class of 2021, the biggest source of support often came from their families. As an Emory Goizueta EMBA, Sanford Duke found his children were giddy that their father had homework and tests just like they did. At the same time, Georgia Tech’s William Todd applied the lessons from his Negotiations course to motivate his son to buckle down academically…upending the usual “reprimands and rewards” approach. Many times, the EMBA experience helped students grow closer to their families. For Chiquita Berg, this process involved scheduling “date nights” with her children and husband.

“For my 16-year-old son, it meant that I had to play the Xbox with him for at least 30 minutes,” explains the Michigan Ross grad. “This was often torture as I yearned for the 2D video games of old with only a few buttons on the controller. I was terrible and could not figure out how to even work the controller! But my son would laugh so hard, and we both really enjoyed the time spent together. My 11-year-old daughter would often require me to draw anime with her. And since I’m a terrible artist, this meant she also laughed a ton!”

The Best & Brightest also credit their significant others for helping them make it through. Jessica Zeisler recalls finishing off a particularly stressful week. Arriving home, her husband had built a “countdown wall” covering the remaining weeks in the program — with envelopes containing an encouraging message for each week. Early in her MBA program, Anne Tsao had to help relocate her parents to Houston so her father could be treated for a rare type of stomach cancer. Riddled with doubt, Tsao found solace and inspiration in the words of her spouse.

“My husband Mark Clemens, who also is an MIT EMBA 2021 student, held out his hand and simply said, “Everything will be ok. We’ll make it work.” And we did. You learn to lean on others during the program to walk through the tough times.”

Pages 4-5: 102 profiles of this year’s Best & Brightest Executive MBA grads.

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