Meet Virginia Darden’s MBA Class of 2019

Some of the MBA students in the Class of 2019 at UVA’s Darden School of Business

You wouldn’t think anything could scare Taylor Sheppard. Let’s face it: It took her a day to realize she’d broken every rib on her right side after a spearfishing accident. We’re talking about a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine officer who was trained to be a walking scientific encyclopedia who could instantly rattle off intricate procedures. On the USS Georgia, Sheppard faced cramped quarters and lengthy deployments –working under the crushing pressure of 800 feet of ocean…and carrying payloads capable of leveling major cities.

As an MBA applicant, however, she admits to being “terrified” of one aspect of business school: the case method. That’s one reason she initially steered clear of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. “I didn’t want to be in a program that was exclusively case method,” she explains. “I didn’t like the idea of being put “on-the-spot” or having to openly debate an opinion, especially with others whom I considered much more qualified to have opinions.”


In an educational climate where experiential learning is all the rage, Darden is a bit of a throwback with a general management program that relies heavily on cases. While the program has increasingly embraced projects, employer partnerships, and learn-by-doing simulations, the curriculum is rooted in the give-and-take of argument, where students must engage in intense preparation, defend their positions, absorb opposing viewpoints, and outline solutions that embraces a range of experiences. In other words, the case method prepares students for the real world, where their value will be measured by their influence. This requires them to step forward with a vision and frame issues – all while staying composed when they’re pressed for details, precedents, tradeoffs, and outcomes.

This was the epiphany that Sheppard experienced as she evaluated business programs: true learning comes from confronting her fears and pushing herself into situations she’d normally avoid. Once she visited the Darden campus and witnessed the case method in action, the decision to join the Class of 2019 was easy.

The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business

“I knew that I could most likely succeed in a lecture-based curriculum; it would be very easy for me to sit back and take notes, speak occasionally, and work on projects,” she says. “The case method, on the other hand, would be much more challenging because it would force me out of my comfort zone every single day. The challenge excited me and made me nervous, but I felt welcomed in Darden’s close-knit and supportive community.”


You don’t head to Charlottesville, Virginia to play it safe or blend in. Here, students are expected to speak up and engage, knowing their viewpoints will sometimes be exposed as incomplete or dated. That’s part of the learning process, where repetition enables students to quickly get better. This case-driven methodology demands a heavy reading load, but it also comes with a focus on teaching. At Darden, professors take pride in questioning over lecturing and guiding over researching. Not surprisingly, MBA candidates respond favorably to the approach. In the newly-released Economist student survey, Darden again ranked 1st in personal development educational experience, while finishing 2nd in the most recent Bloomberg Businessweek student satisfaction survey.

“While we don’t skimp on the elbow grease — with a dedicated party in October for the first-year students completing 100 cases — Darden creates an environment of creativity and rational trade-offs through time pressure,” shares Buzz Becker, a 2017 graduate and member of Poets&Quants’ Best & Brightest MBAs. “It is a phenomenal place to learn life balance in our future careers, no matter how demanding our schedules may be.”

Darden may carry the reputation for academic rigor, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a stereotypical student in the 2019 Class – or any Darden class for that matter. Think you need a business background to thrive at Darden? Don’t tell that to Mercedes Rodriguez, an art history major at Yale who transitioned from teaching to digital marketing after graduation. A fellow Yalie, Cecily Sackey, majored in African history before moving on to Google. Liberal arts graduates weren’t the class members switching careers.

Michelle Gauthreaux, an industrial and systems engineer by training, eventually moved over to the consulting side. After serving as his high school’s de facto class clown, Derek Debruhl found his way to West Point, eventually rising to become a platoon leader and helicopter pilot.

 That’s just scratching the surface! Togo’s Amevi Agbogbe started his career with Deloitte and Coca-Cola before eventually landing in the humanitarian sector with the United Nations, where he worked in areas like agriculture and food security. If finance is the language of business, then golf is easily its most popular dialect – and that gives Ki-Shui Liao a major advantage over her classmates. After graduating from Stanford, Liao turned pro, winning two titles in the National Women’s Golf Association – with her first victory coming when she sank a birdie on the first playoff hole. That may not be her most memorable title, however. “I won a professional U.S. Championship, but it was in hickory golf, where players dress in traditional 1930’s golf attire and compete using antique wooden-shafted clubs and vintage replica golf balls,” she jokes.”


Think that’s fun? “Jersey girl” Kimberly Diaz made it on MTV’s Total Request Live and got an audience with Aliyah. Ashish Singh – who describes himself as an “eager beaver” – has a twin brother who is also left-handed and shares a mutual love of cooking. If Rodriguez decides to run for student government, she can just recycle a theme from an old campaign. “I was once elected to student government with help from my imaginary friend,” she reminisces. “In elementary school, I resurrected my dear friend — gave him a personality, drew pictures of him and placed him all around campus with chat bubbles convincing fellow students to “Listen to Percy, and vote for mercy.” One might call that my very first marketing campaign.”

University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

In fact, marketing is a passion for Rodriguez. To pursue it, she made a leap of faith, leaving a comfortable teaching job because she “was craving the fail-fast, high impact role you can only find in a small company with lots to gain or lots to lose.” She found it in the New York tech scene, where she sharpened her digital skills and eventually proved the naysayers in her life wrong. “I remember encountering a lot of people at the beginning who questioned whether my career switch would pay off in the end,” she says. “I’m happy I stayed my ground, leaned into my work, and was OK with the fact that I might be misunderstood for awhile. It happens when you make risky moves!”

Many times, making a commitment requires heavy risk. I is a reflection of a hard-won respect and trust. Sheppard had earned this faith from her subordinates on the USS Georgia. – and she derived her greatest satisfaction during those times when her sailors would re-enlist with her, validating the investment she had made in them.

“This is a huge milestone in their careers and it is extremely personal for them – they get to choose how they want their re-enlistment done, right down to the location and dress-code, as well as an officer they admire to read them their oath. I’ve re-enlisted sailors on a water trampoline in the middle of the Indian Ocean, in a radiation laboratory, and in a bilge in our submarine’s engine room, all of which were fantastic ceremonies. Mentoring the sailors in my divisions and working with my crew makes all the deployments, shift work, and high-stress scenarios on the submarine worth it.”


By the numbers, the Class of 2019 lives up to Darden’s usual high standards. After two years of stagnation in terms of application, the school received 2,736 applications during the 2016-2017 cycle, up 10.8% from the previous year. In the process, Darden continued its yo-yo class size trend. The incoming class features 326 students, down from the 345 students who arrived in Charlottesville in 2016…but still larger than the 316 students who enrolled in the program four years ago. Overall, Darden accepted 24.5% of applicants, putting it in the same company as Chicago Booth, the London Business School, and Michigan Ross.

Academically, the class’ performance mimicked its predecessors, with a 713 GMAT that’s a point higher than the 2018 Class (but a seven point improvement over the last graduating class). For the fourth straight year, undergraduate GPAs remained at 3.5, with the lowest reported average being 2.1 and the highest coming in at a perfect 4.0.

This steadiness also comes through in the class demographics. Women again comprise 39% of the class, a nine point improvement in just four years. By the same token, international students make up 34% of the class for the second straight year. The same is true for American minority students, who hold the same 20% of seats as the 2018 class.

Go to page 2 to see in-depth profiles of incoming Virginia Darden MBA students.

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