In business, you’re always tempted to stray from your roots. Who can resist chasing after the shiny new object? Who doesn’t dream of evolving into a household name? The best companies know who they are — and they’re great at what they do. Despite the pressures, they reinforce their strengths and hold onto their identities, watching as competitors crumble under the weight of trying to be what they’re not.
It would be easy for Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Business to fall into a similar trap. Its namesake is referred to as the “Harvard of the South” thanks to academic rigor and selective admissions…not to mention its brick-laden Victorians and arboretum-style walkways. With applications up 6% over the past two years, Owen could easily trade on the Vanderbilt name by jacking up enrollments for quick cash. However, Dean M. Eric Johnson carries a different vision for Owen, one he called personal scale — “a high-touch MBA program that is young, small, well-funded and at a university and in a city that has witnessed a resurgence.”
It is a formula that has been the cornerstone of the Owen MBA experience. Johnson enjoyed it as a professor at Owen and later as associate dean at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College — a program that mirrors Owen’s student-centric structure that’s anchored to a collaborative ethos and a transformative spirit. At Owen, the people make the program. This wrinkle ranks among the top reasons why many top professionals are lining up to become Commodores.
A CLOSE-KNIT FAMILY ATMOSPHERE
Count Julia Brown, a 401K project manager from Louisiana, among them. A 2019 recruit, she noticed an immediate difference when she would interact with prospective Owen students, whom she described as both “down to earth” and “intelligent.” However, the real selling point came when she tapped recruiters for advice. “They mentioned that Owen students were particularly helpful to each other and not as cutthroat as those at other schools,” she says.
In fact, the concept of “family” comes up quite a bit with Owen students — past and present. Take Caroline Collins, a 2017 Best & Brightest MBA who joined Microsoft after graduation. She found that the school’s size and culture fed into each other, creating a network that looks out for each other.“With 170 people in a class, you get to know everyone,” she observes.”The personal scale played a large role when I was recruiting – every alumnus I reached out to went above and beyond to help.”
Fast forward to the Class of 2019 and Moheb Abdelmaseeh, an architect-turned-investment banker, has already witnessed this “tight knit community” spirit in his class. “It’s among us, the new family members, where we will be tapping each other in the future for advice, co-investing, joining ventures, etc,” he explains. “That is extremely hard to accomplish unless you complete your MBA program in a community like Owen!”
COULD OWEN BE THE B-SCHOOL ANSWER TO HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL?
Size matters. In the MBA world, smaller can often be better. Emily Redfield, a strategy and analytics manager at Frito-Lay, wanted to join a smaller community so she could “build an intimate network with heightened access to faculty.” Odelia Lao plans to “make a greater impact in smaller classes” after studying business at the University of California-Berkeley and managing fashion lines at New York & Company. Similarly, Bernie Goldenberg, a guerilla marketer at a startup, joined Owen because he didn’t want to become “just another number/statistic like at other programs.”
Then again, in tune with Owen’s family feel, Ecuador’s Alejandra Martinez came for the most personal reason of all: “Owen made me feel included from day one.”
If Owen is family, then the Class of 2019 would make for one entertaining reunion. The stories could go on for days. Not surprisingly, a music destination like Nashville attracts business students by day and talented entertainers by night. Raj Majumder, who holds degrees from Dartmouth and Harvard, spent eight years touring as a saxophonist in a professional funk band, where he played over 650 shows. Perhaps he could pair up with Nile Marshall, who once helped to found the first urban a capella group at Georgetown University, which was versatile enough to perform jazz, gospel, R&B, and soul. Maybe they could enlist Goldenberg as part of the act. He spent a decade competing in Latin ballroom dance, even making an appearance on FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance.
This talented troupe may be so impressive that perhaps they could cover for Reed Hayes, a Special Forces Commander. “I am an awful singer,” he admits. “I sing to my children (ages 4, 2 1/2 and 8 months) in what could only be generously described as ‘Off-Key.’ I live in a neighborhood full of musicians, in Music City, and I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.”
SOCIALLY RESPONSIBLE GROUP WITH BIG TIME CREDENTIALS
That’s just a drop in the bucket. Brown lived her dream by making it to the Showcase Showdown on her favorite television show: The Price Is Right. Jose Espinosa ran for public office in his native Ecuador when he was 18 years old. Despite losing, the experience came with a silver lining: “[It] allowed me to become a better leader as I improved my persuasive skills, public speaking skills and teamwork skills.”
Then again, not every member of the 2019 Class are celebrities…some just pal around with them. “I once sat next to Jon Stewart and chatted with him throughout an entire Knicks game,” shares Lao, “but didn’t realize it was him until after the game because I was too busy cheering on Steph Curry and the Warriors. I even ate his popcorn!”
Despite the class’ exposure to entertainment, its passion and purpose lies squarely with social responsibility. Brown raised $125,000 in donations and committed $40,000 in materials to re-build a bridge near a Honduran orphanage where she volunteers each year. Martinez developed a cooperative microfinance solution to support over a thousand small share farmers overseas. In Washington DC, Marshall raised standardized test scores by 15% in her classrooms, which were located in the poorest neighborhoods of the city. At the same time, Majumder designed a study on detecting brain cancer in a non-invasive fashion, which could potentially reduce the heavy costs associated with practices like performing imaging tests or collecting tissue samples.
That’s not to say the class isn’t packed with master marketers who know how to turn a profit. Love Cheetos Sweetos? Then, be sure to thank to Redfield. Do you stream fuboTV? Chances are, you were enticed by the guerrilla tactics waged by Goldenberg, who doubled the company’s subscriber base on one shoestring campaign. Are you sporting an Allison Wrap Dress with D’Orsay Pumps? Then, you’re certain to get Lao’s attention. She launched and managed the Evan Mendes apparel collection, turning a $10 million dollar investment into a $50 million cash cow that ranks as New York & Company’s most profitable line.
APPLICATIONS UP AS GMAT SCORES SLIP
Despite the Class of 2019’s impressive credentials and entertaining stories, its overall numbers lag behind previous classes. On the plus side, applications rose again in 2016-2017, up 4% to 936. At the same time, the school produced a 43% acceptance rate for its 172-member class, down a point over the previous year. That said, average GMATs slipped from 691 to 688, though its median GMAT held steady at 690. In turn, average undergraduate GPAs also tumbled from 3.39 to 3.31. The percentage of women also fell 4% from the previous year, going from 30% to 26%. That pales in comparison to the number of international students, which plummeted from 28% to 18% in the past year alone. The class boasts students from 23 countries, including Sri Lanka, Haiti, Uzbekistan, Nigeria, and Vietnam.
The incoming class also features some subtle changes over years past. From an educational standpoint, business was again the most common major. Coupled with economics and accounting, it represents 50% of the class, down just a point from the previous year. Engineers account for 19% of the class, up from 16% from last year. That said, STEM and social sciences each dipped by 4%, going to 8% and 6% respectively. The humanities and fine arts held steady at 12%.
The big news, however, came in professional backgrounds. This year’s class arrives at Owen from 140 companies ranging from Bank of America and PwC to the U.S. Marine Corps and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Last year, healthcare accounted for the largest bloc of the class at 14%. In 2016-2017, that number slumped to 8%, a major shock considering that healthcare ranks among Owen’s signature specializations. High tech took a similar spill, going from 10% of last year’s class to 4% of the current one. In the end, government was the most common background of the Class of 2019 — and just 11% at that. Finance and consulting each constituted 10% of the class, with the percentage of consultants doubling over the previous year.
GO TO PAGE 2 FOR PROFILES OF 12 FIRST-YEAR OWEN STUDENTS