There’s no such thing as a “Typical MBA.” That’s the first thing you learn at orientation. Forget those B-school bromidés about babied blue bloods, money grubbing grifters, and dazed and distracted dilettantes. These days, your section mates are more apt to be social advocates, platoon commanders, artists, and global citizens. For them, an MBA is more than a degree. It is a time to pursue passions, find purpose, and devise new life plans.
As first years stream to campus and applicants prep for round one deadlines, it helps to ask this question: Which classmates will become your future co-founders and confidantes in business school? Perhaps the best place for answers is looking back at the dreams and achievements of the Class of 2017. Here, the a-typical emerged as the typical.
HAAS GRAD OPENS UP OUTDOOR ADVENTURES TO THE DISABLED
For some, such as the University of California-Berkeley’s Alvaro Silberstein, entrepreneurship was his means to make the joys we take for granted accessible to all. Confined to a wheel chair since he was 18, Silberstein co-founded Wheel the World, which organizes guided outdoor adventures for those with disabilities. Last year, he organized a 30-mile trek through Chile’s Patagonia, a region in the southern Andes Mountains known for its lush wildlife and striking mountains and glaciers. The first person in a wheel chair to complete the trek, Silberstein did more than just prove the viability of his business idea. He set a tone and served as an example. “With the trek,” he tells Poets&Quants, “I aimed to increase awareness of people with disabilities by showing that we are active and live life to the fullest.”
Silberstein wasn’t the only member of the class to make a statement. At Wharton, Charity Wollensack was disturbed by a rash of police-related shootings in 2016. To raise consciousness, the McKinsey hire organized a school-wide “black out,” where students donned black clothing to show their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. She did not expect, however, that her cause would be taken up at many MBA programs, including Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, and Dartmouth. “Seeing thousands of MBA students not only wear black, but also voluntarily engage in the difficult conversations that followed, made me exceptionally proud to be a part of this community,” she says.
Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a “typical” MBA profile among this year’s “MBAs To Watch” — an eclectic and ambitious bunch who come from seemingly every background imaginable. These top students range from M&A lawyers and government officials to pizza bloggers and movie makers. They’re certainly not who you might expect. Babson College’s Courtney Wilson served as a U.S. Army officer…after studying creative writing at Wellesley. Erica Smith racked up accolades at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business after being a DJ for events held by such clients as Victoria’s Secret. And Brad deBorde enjoyed precious little time during his first year in the MBA program at the University of Florida: He was busy training for the U.S. Olympic Swimming Team trials.
UNCONVENTIONAL MBAs INCLUDE REFORMED POLITICOS, NAVY SEALS…AND DAREDEVILS
This year’s “MBAs To Watch” don’t fit neatly with the conventional narrative. Instead of checking all the right boxes, they often took the roads less traveled. Despite their differences, they shared several striking similarities. These students were often the most sought-after coaches and mentors in their classes. They were the ones who raised their hands, always ready to say “yes” to organizing and leading. Risk takers all, they defied expectations, with a curious and optimistic spirit that steeled their peers’ confidence — and opened them up to new possibilities.
Of course, such students don’t define themselves in such terms. John Rhoden — who came away from BYU with an MBA degree and two children — describes himself as “a former political operative who chose the perfect time to get out of politics.” Cambridge’s Kristina Chiappetta lives a shadowy dual life of a Marvel hero: “Marketing and branding strategist by day, cinephile and creative writer by night.” Chiappetta isn’t the only graduate who’s wrestling with her identity. At North Carolina, Prerana Manvi, an Amazon hire, labels herself as “a passionate idealist seeking to push the boundaries of creativity and pragmatism.” A paradox? Not compared to Emory’s Simone Brathwaite, who flutters “between free-spirited wanderlust and dorky, type A working woman.” Indeed, this is a class that is all too aware of their flaws…and potential. Just ask the University of Texas’ Michael Sarraille, a Navy SEAL and closet Harry Potter fan, whose mantra deserves to be carved somewhere in Rowling Hall: “Too damn stupid to quit and too damn stubborn to accept the status quo.”
Not surprisingly, these “MBAs To Watch” were up for almost any kind of adventure. Georgia Tech’s Farzeen Tejani has gone volcano boarding in Nicaragua, while Babson’s Flora Ekpe-Idang has done a moonwalk on the Great Wall of China. Not to be outdone, Warwick’s Ashima Goyal once hiked through the Indian Himalayas and slept through five below (Celsius) temperatures “just to prove a point that girls are stronger than people think they are.” Point taken! Then again, Illinois’ Brad Miller, a Ph.D. in Linguistics who taught college classes before starting his MBA, once spent ten days paddling down the Ecuadorian Amazon in a dugout canoe. Of course, risk-taking is no big deal for the University of Chicago’s Ramzi Assaf, an entrepreneur no less. “I am a licensed skydiver, a bungee jumper and an intense traveler,” he says. “I do a lot of crazy activities related to flying and throwing myself from cliffs and planes.”
Alas, traveling to exotic locales and cheating death isn’t always that glamorous. Just ask Washington University’s Cambrie Nelson. “I once had a monkey fall on my head in Argentina (no joke).”
MOVE OVER PITCH PERFECT: MEET THE ONE MAN A CAPELLA GROUP
Pretty memorable, right? Then maybe you should step into the shoes of the University of Toronto’s Aqeela Nanji. As a teenager, she spoke at the United Nation’s World Urban Forum. Then again, who wouldn’t trade places with Stephann Balthazar, a Carnegie Mellon grad who rode a Harley into Milwaukee Brewers Stadium three times to deliver the game ball? Handing off baseballs is one thing, but can you solve a Rubik’s Cube in under a minute? Peter El Khoury, an HEC Paris grad who helped organize this year’s MBAT, the annual tournament that pits students against each other in sporting events, can. Not impressed? Just wait until you meet Purdue’s Justine Weatherman. She earned a college scholarship thanks to rapping, served as an Indy 500 Princess, and even managed to become a tour guide — despite being legally blind! Then there is Ohio State’s Julanda Al-Riyami, who built an electric guitar from scratch before learning how to play it — all when he was 15 years old!
In fact, many of these “MBAs To Watch” expressed themselves through their art as much as their case summaries. In theater, the University of Iowa’s Charles Schaller starred in 70 performances of a one-man play that he produced. In a similar spirit, Oxford’s Constance Kratsa authored an award-winning play and formed a theater group to raise money for the homeless. Vanderbilt’s Michael Foster has gone on tour as a guitarist, while Kenan-Flagler’s Manvi sang and played drums for her band when they played 30 shows across India. And how is this for talent: Manvi’s classmate, Robert Rowe, is literally a “one-man a capella group.” A physician by trade, Rowe possesses the range to record the different voice parts and layer them! The Barden Bellas have nothing on Rowe!
The business programs attracting such atypical business students tended to be a bit unconventional themselves. “Our communication training was conducted by a stage actor, our leadership journey was aided by a professor who has built a reputation as a leading hostage negotiator and one former British Olympic athlete,” explains IMD’s Kunal Chandra. “We spent a week in the mountains interacting with a Jesuit priest turned investment banker and learning from him the art of striking a balance. These encounters emphasized the parallels between the business world and so many other disciplines.”
NEXT PAGE: The class’ biggest achievements (Go to pages 3-4 for student profiles)