Best & Brightest MBAs: Class of 2017

Just a few of this year's crop of the best & brightest MBA graduates of 2017. Learn more about this MBA class of 2017 profile

Just a few of this year’s crop of the best & brightest MBA graduates of 2017

Business school can be a time to stretch your boundaries. No one knows this better than London Business School’s Alana Digby. As a first year, she juggled a full load of classes, along with serving as a peer leader and student ambassador. Behind the scenes, the Strategy& consultant was preparing for something even bigger: She planned to swim solo across the English Channel.

That’s no easy task. The legendary 21-mile trek from the White Cliffs of Dover to the golden beaches of Cap Gris Nez is considered the ultimate test of physical and mental endurance. A bustling shipping lane, the channel boasts 50-degree waters and thick fogs, not to mention fierce winds, dicey waves, and unforgiving tides that can yank swimmers miles off course. Beyond powering through these conditions, swimmers must also contend with fatigue and boredom, which often trigger that inner voice urging them to give up and climb onto the boat…like so many others.

London Business School’s Alana Digby

Digby resisted the call, finishing the swim in less than 14 hours. She remembered the 15 hours of training she invested each week and everything she missed so she could savor her moment. Like her fellow MBAs, she pressed on when it would’ve been so much easier to give up. “When you are lonely, bored, tired and cold, you start to question why you are doing something, or whether you can do something,” Digby tells Poets&Quants. “These are dangerous thoughts, and my proudest achievement was learning to quash these bad thoughts and get on with my goal.”


Stamina is a defining virtue of the Class of 2017. Look no further than Northwestern’s Jared Scharen. At J.P. Morgan, he discovered that his true passion was consulting. Thinking big, he targeted McKinsey & Co. — knowing full well the firm had never hired a consultant from his alma mater without an MBA. After 52 McKinsey consultants refused to hear him out, Scharen reached someone who passed along his resume (on the condition that he stop calling). That opening was all the Villanova University undergrad needed. “Four interview rounds later, including one with a 103 degree fever, I became the first,” he beams.

Scharen is hardly the only graduating MBA this year who persevered to beat the odds. Take Brigham Young University’s Autumn Marie Wagner. A fine arts major, she is careful to note that just 6% of entertainers ever find full-time work in the business. You can count Autumn among those fortunate few. She beat out thousands of performers worldwide to land a coveted gig as a lead singer and dancer aboard the Holland America Cruise Line, where she headlined 16 productions and visited all seven continents. For an encore, this decorated scholar and perennial volunteer is transitioning into being a tech strategist.

Meet the Best & Brightest MBAs of 2017. Hailing from 59 business schools across the globe, the Class of 2017 may well be the best crop of business graduates ever. What makes them so special? They’re already role models. In school, they set the tone and expectations for classmates. They are the all-in difference makers, curious and galvanizing go-getters, eager to give back to others–refusing to fit into  any stereotype of the young professionals who pursue a graduate degree in business.


They don’t settle for the status quo, either. Exhibit A: Babson College’s John Kluge and Ross Chesnick. As first years, they quickly discovered how the school sometimes struggled to integrate social innovation and impact across the curriculum. In response, Kluge and Chesnick co-founded The Usurpers, an “underground support group for social entrepreneurs, recovering nonprofit leaders, and wine appreciators.” Their mission: Turn social value creation into the cornerstone of Babson’s mission. After interviewing stakeholders at every level and identifying gaps, The Usurpers sat down with the school’s President and Board, who ultimately bought into their vision. Now, social impact has emerged as the driving force behind both the program’s pedagogy and long-term strategic planning. Even more, the school has added new courses, tracks, “inventureship” scholarships, and even a graduation award honoring a student who best personifies a commitment to social impact. “I feel lucky to have studied at an institution that sees its students not as customers, but as partners who can help co-create its future,” Kluge states.

Andrew Ward of the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business

The Usurpers wasn’t the only new student club mobilizing action on a business school campus. At the University of Chicago’s Booth School, Andrew Ward co-founded Common Chromosome. Think of it as a bridge between your typical Women in Business and “Manbassador” groups, where the goals are to raise awareness and find solutions to workplace gender inequity. In the process, Ward has worked to shed the surface-level noble pretenses to foster deep dives into issues like unconscious bias and parental leave. For Ward, who was raised by a single mom and plans to work in healthcare, such issues are close to his heart. And he’s not the only one. “I have been truly blown away by not only the support we have received from the Booth administration,” he explains, “but also by the immense appetite and enthusiasm my fellow Boothies have shown for these discussions.”

This year’s Best & Brightest weren’t just forming new clubs to re-write the rules and broaden the notion of what’s possible. They’re also launching companies that may someday disrupt entire industries, if not prevailing economic models. That is the transformative potential of RoBotany, an indoor agricultural operation that applies robotics and analytics to boost yields and reduce soil degradation and pollutants. Co-founded by Carnegie Mellon’s Austin Webb, the company has raised over $600,000 and is opening a climate-controlled farm inside a 40,000 square foot Pittsburgh steel mill. Even more, it has developed a steady revenue stream from partnering with Whole Foods to sell produce. The possibilities, according to Webb, are limitless. “This means hyper-fresh, hyper-local produce that can be grown inside any city limits all year round,” Webb explains. “It means beyond organic produce grown in a pure, unadulterated environment that is herbicide and pesticide-free – always. And it means produce grown with 95% less water versus traditional ag, no top soil degradation, and no runoff pollution – all in a world with a fast growing population and the threat of losing potable water and arable top soil across the globe.”


Open. Passionate. Imaginative. Steadfast. These are virtues that united many of this year’s Best & Brightest MBAs. In 2015, Poets&Quants launched this series to celebrate high ceiling MBAs who personify excellence. If these 100 graduates are any indicator, the future is in exceptionally good hands. To compile the 2017 Best & Brightest MBAs, P&Q reached out to 63 full-time MBA programs, with only SDA Bocconi (due to a missed deadline) and Harvard Business School (citing what it believes is a conflict with internal awards) declining to participate. Schools were chosen based on their Poets&Quants’ ranking, with each program limited to four students for consideration.

Because academic cultures vary, the selection criteria was left up to the schools themselves. However, P&Q did suggest that the schools nominate students who exemplified the ideals of their programs, with measures potentially including “academic prowess, extracurricular achievements, innate intangibles and potential, or their unusual personal stories.” Even more, P&Q encouraged schools to factor student feedback into their selections.  Nominated students then completed an entensive questionnaire, which documented both their academic and professional achievements, along with exploring their favorite classes, biggest regrets, and advice to prospective students. We even asked them about the changes they would make to MBA programs in general if they were dean for a day!. Overall, P&Q received 237 submissions, up from 197 the year before.

David St. Bernard of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management

Looking at the big picture, P&Q’s 100 Best & Brightest are as diverse and colorful as they come. They hail from undergraduate programs ranging from the American University of Beirut to Kalamazoo College and locales as night-and-day as Ottawa, Kansas and Cape Town, South Africa. Their undergraduate and graduate degrees cover the usual disciplines, along with agriculture, nuclear engineering, art history, nursing, and astrophysics. And their work experience varies from Barclays to Teach For America to the CIA.

This year’s group boasts 53 women, a sizable number considering female representation in full-time programs stubbornly hovers around a third overall, topping out near 45% at leading programs like Wharton, Stanford, and Dartmouth. That said, this number is actually a small decrease over last year, when 57 women made the list. 32 students were also born outside the United States, the same number as 2016. The 2017 list also skews towards American schools, with just 15 students studying at overseas programs (though only 12 international MBA programs furnished submissions). By the same token, 15 military veterans made the list.


Such numbers hardly do these 100 MBA graduates justice. Let’s take a “real humans” look at what the Best & Brightest are like outside of class. Some have already achieved some measure of notoriety. Babson’s Kluge is the co-author of Charity and Philanthropy For Dummies.  The University of Toronto’s David St. Bernard was a Canadian national champion in track, who competed for Team Canada in the decathlon. Not to be outdone, Oxford’s Ashley Thomas was a bronze medalist in the International Camel Triathlon. While serving in the White House, Northwestern’s Adam Maddock was invited by Heisman winner Desmond Howard to speak to the University of Michigan’s football team. You could say this year’s Best & Brightest are a telegenic bunch too, with the University of Washington’s Joshua Rodriguez being featured in an episode of Deadliest Catch and Dartmouth College’s Tom Allin’s making Vietnamese national television with his rendition of a Backstreet Boys number. Speaking of boy bands, NYU’s Ward Wolff’s brush with fame was literally that: He once ran into Justin Timberlake with a pile of dirty towels. Cry me a river!