The Best & Brightest Executive MBAs Of 2022

Gina Calder, Yale School of Management

SAVING THE ECONOMY FROM RUIN

The best business schools attract the top talent. Make no mistake, the 2022 Best & Brightest EMBAs are as accomplished and decorated as they come. This spring, Becker’s Hospital Review named Yale SOM’s Gina Calder among its “75 Black Healthcare Leaders to Know in 2022.” Down the seaboard, Sira Duson founded the Society of Black Vascular Surgeons after entering the EMBA program at the University of Maryland’s Smith School. And Duson and Calder weren’t alone in racking up the accolades. At Mastercard, Amit Tyagi hauled in the firm’s Exceptional Sales Performance Award, which he could place alongside his Investment Caesar from Standard Chartered Bank and Convention Winner Award from HSBC. However, for Tyagi, his biggest achievement isn’t something you can’t photograph or list on a LinkedIn account.

“Most of my clients still remember me as one of the best bankers for my customer-first approach, technical expertise and best-in-class services,” explains the INSEAD grad. “If your clients call you for seeking advice even after 10 years since you left the organization, it means you did your job well.”

Do your job and doing it well also provides solace to Cornell University’s A.J. Jones, who was recently named acting chief communications officer and executive vice president of public affairs at Starbucks. Years ago, Jones served as Congressman James Clyburn’s policy director. When the financial collapse hit in 2008, he was charged with being the lead policy negotiator for the Troubled Assets Relief Fund (TARP). In a historic vote, 228 representatives voted against TARP, a setback that resulted in the Dow Jones plummeting and the capital markets losing over a trillion dollars in market values, Jones explains.

And that’s when Jones really went to work…

“I was embarrassed, frustrated, confused, and incredulous at what had occurred. However, I learned a new lesson about being a leader from this experience. A leader must know how to immediately pivot when the intended plan fails to materialize. I made a point to reach out to congressional, administration, and financial leaders and helped craft a plan to pass the legislation. My actions helped change the vote outcome because I was able to convince the leaders to leverage third parties. These third parties consisted of public pension funds and beneficiaries, small business owners, and local government leaders. On October 1, 2008, H.R. 1424 passed the U.S. Senate, passed the USHR on October 3rd, and became Public Law No: 110-343 at 4:28 pm that same day.”

GIVING BACK TO MOVE FORWARD

The inclination to act is part of Muhammed Usman Afzal’s DNA as well. At Marriott, he was inspired by stories from classmates and faculty – along with the teachings of Clayton Christensen – on one’s duty to leave a legacy. In response, he contracted out farmland in his native Pakistan, with proceeds going to support eight “needy families.” In contrast, Peter Leszczynski shared his love of climbing with two McDonough classmates to practice what they’d learned as EMBAs.

“Despite no climbing experience, we put together a great training program which helped a Jesuit priest and marketing executive summit the highest mountain in Africa [Mount Kilimanjaro at 19,341 feet] in under six days. I couldn’t be more proud of what they accomplished, and the experience was so much more impactful seeing the smiles on their faces in sub-zero temperatures as opposed to inside the classroom.”

Stephen Beaudoin, University of Virginia (Darden)

While the Class of 2022 enjoyed some of their best moments in business school, they sometimes suffered profound losses that required them to pull together. That happened at Notre Dame’s Mendoza’s College, when 46-year-old Michael Carroll – an attorney with a “Texas-sized personality” – passed away at the same age as his father. Such times often bring out the best in people like Ryan McKee – best known for becoming a senior vice president at Fidelity Investments by 30 years of age. Banding together with his Mendoza classmates, McKee decided to fund a Notre Dame scholarship and a memorial bench on campus in Carroll’s honor.

“In less than a year, we helped raise over $370,000 through various fundraising efforts and brought awareness to who Michael was as a person. Michael now has a permanent memorial bench on campus directly across from the Mendoza Business School.”

THE BEST OF TIMES…IN THE WORST OF CONDITIONS

Other Best & Brightest gave back to their classmates by assuming the roles of their faculty members. At the University of Virginia’s Darden School, Stephen Beaudoin turned his nonprofit expertise into MBA programming. His Nonprofit Board and Philanthropy Participation Project included faculty-led talks and a pitch contest that resulted in grant funding. DJ Lakkireddy is partnering with two faculty members of Indiana University’s Kelley School to create a Business of Electrophysiology certificate. As a Haas EMBA student, Kunal Cholera would produce YouTube videos on the lessons he learned. Sure enough, he is returning to Haas after graduation – to help teach its Leadership Communications class.

“It took me at least 2 years to master the skills to teach the class,” admits Mehmet Sevinç, a lecturer and executive coach at Haas for the past decade. “I had been through many trainings and I got to audit at least 3 other facilitators’ classes. Kunal didn’t need that much time. After a short training, he found himself teaching the class and the feedback we heard from his students was amazing. He is a living example of all of the Haas Defining Principles. His students were lucky to have him as their instructor and we are lucky to have him as a team member.”

The path wasn’t as smooth or natural for other class members.  INSEAD’s Amit Tyagi recalls testing positive for COVID right before final exams. Quarantined in his hotel and scurrying to reschedule travel plans, Tyagi managed to ace his exams – despite completing “back-to-back exams for 9 hours, without food, with a severe body-ache and fever.” Of course, COVID was the least of Leslie DeMoss’ worries as a Booth MBA.

Heather Pondrom, Southern Methodist University (Cox)

“I was crazy enough to start this program with 2-year-old twins,” she jokes. “After a full day of work followed by wrangling toddlers for dinner, I’d typically tuck the kids in at the end of the day, jump on group calls to go over homework, go to bed, and get up at 5am to finish my schoolwork or study before work. However, my toddlers always seemed to have a sixth sense for the days I had an exam to cram for or a case due…It created some pretty stressful days. But it also created some profound opportunities for compassion and support among classmates and it showed me I was capable of more than I ever thought.”

A LOOK AHEAD

Even more, the MBA provided a way for parents to connect with their children. Heather Pondrom, a merchandising VP who studied at Southern Methodist University, viewed it as a chance to model critical behavior to her son and daughter: “Dream big, work hard, and anything is possible.” For Indiana University’s DJ Lakkireddy, the program gave him something in common with his children.

“It’s funny; because once they are teenagers, your kids don’t have as much time to talk to you anymore,” he writes. “I made a deal with my kids that we sit down and do our homework together. That’s a win. Now they say, “What was your grade, Dad? Did you make an A or B?” They tease me about my grades, and I tease them about theirs. It was a fun little competition. I would show off my best grades to let them know their old man is still pulling along decently.”

What can we expect from the Class of 2022 in the coming years? Some are looking back to advice they were given by their mentors. For Max Silin, that means living up to his grandfather’s counsel: “Whatever you do after your MBA, make sure that it brings good to people – do something good with it.” For INSEAD’s Karim Awad, a former rugby coach provided the post-MBA advice that resonated with him most: ‘It doesn’t matter whether we win or lose, but leave the field knowing there is nothing more you could have done or given.’

“Wherever my career takes me, for better or worse, I hope to reflect on it fulfilled that nothing was left in reserve,” Awad adds.

Well, maybe leave a little in tank. After all, as Purdue University’s Robin Steininger points out, no one knows what’s ahead on the horizon. “I feel extremely fortunate in my career and hope to continue to learn and be challenged,” she asserts. “When I graduated from undergrad 23 years ago, I would have never imagined where I would be today. I’m excited to see what new challenges the next 20 years will bring.”

Pages 4-5: 101 profiles of this year’s Best & Brightest Executive MBA grads.

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