At Poets&Quants, we appreciate the game-changers. Austin Webb is a game-changer. Or, at least, he attend B-school to become one. We first learned about Webb and his agriculture technology company, RoBotany, in the summer of 2016. We were working on an article based on more and more MBAs forgoing tradition summer internships between their first and second years to work on their own businesses. Over lunch near our headquarters in Oakland, California, David Mawhinney, the entrepreneurship guru at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business told us about the larger number of MBA students he was seeing “stick it to the man” for the summer. Webb was his current example.
A native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Webb enrolled at Tepper specifically to “start a high growth company that solved a big, important problem,” he told us in his 2017 Best MBAs profile last May. He left his young career in investment banking to do just that. RoBotany is using software analytics and automated robots to change the farming industry. According to the company’s site, they produce “perfect, pure produce no matter the season or location,” using “smart indoor farms.” In half a year, Webb and team had built miniature prototype farm using their patent-pending technology, raised over half a million dollars in funding, and launched their produce brand, Pure Sky Farms, into Whole Foods. Grown in an “unadulterated” environment, the produce is pesticide and herbicide-free and uses 95% less water, according to Webb.
“Upon arriving at the Tepper School, Austin immediately established himself as a leader at Carnegie Mellon and the Tepper School by becoming the President of the University-wide Graduate Entrepreneurs Club,” Mawhinney told us last May. “But what impressed me the most about Austin is that during his first year when he entered our annual McGinnis Venture Competition with his startup RoBotany – an indoor vertical farming company powered by robots – and did not pass through to the second round because the idea was early and still forming, but instead of quitting or pivoting, he doubled down in his efforts and built a valuable growing company.”
Richa Gangopadhyay is a pure Michigander. Born in New Delhi, her family moved to Pittsburg and then Pennsylvania when Gangopadhyay was young. “I’m also a huge fan of the Red Wings, Pistons, and, of course, Eminem,” Gangopadhyay told us in March, giving shout-outs to Michigan’s professional hockey team, professional basketball team, and famed rapper, respectively. But that’s not what the majority of the world knows Gangopadhyay for.
In 2007, around the time Gangopadhyay enrolled at Michigan State University to study nutrition and dietetics, she won one of the oldest and most prestigious Indo-American competitions — the Miss India U.S.A. pageant. At 21, Gangopadhyay took a “sabbatical” from college and moved back to India to pursue a career in acting.
“Everyone thought I was crazy. My friends and family were definitely skeptical,” Gangopadhyay told us. “When it came to Indian cinema, there are 22 languages spoken in India and there are several big regional industries within the country. At the end of the day, I think my parents saw how determined I was about pursuing it, so they allowed me to give it a shot.”
But a shot with a caveat. Gangopadhyay had to move in with roommates to an apartment in Mumbai, take three months of acting classes, and land a big-time gig within a year, otherwise, she had to come home. She didn’t have to go home. Gangopadhyay landed gig after gig in commercials and modeling until she was cast for a big role in the movie, Leader. “I was famous overnight,” Gangopadhyay recalls. “One thing I was always very sure of was staying grounded. I was the same Richa that I was when I was back as a college student at Michigan State, maybe just more worldly-wise and mature.”
After becoming an award-winning actress for her work in Mayakkam Enna, and at the peak of her acting career, Gangopadhyay left it all to finish her undergraduate degree at Eastern Michigan University and eventually her MBA at Washington University in St. Louis’s Olin Business School. “I think my MBA degree is going to help me augment my business leadership and collaboration skills. In the long run, I want a career in the entertainment, media or sports sector,” she said.
At age 30, Ani Haykuni was at a prime in life. She had been accepted at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. She was working a dream position at a nonprofit. And she spent a lot of her time going on hikes and enjoying the personal side of life. Then, in a flash, Haykuni was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. “When the doctors gave me their diagnosis, I asked two questions,” Ani recalled in August. “What are my chances of survival? Secondly, can you treat me within two months? Because I have to go to Oxford.”
The answers to both were not great. Oxford agreed to defer the admissions for a year. But the cancer was “very fast-spreading” and according to Haykuni, if untreated, she wouldn’t have much time left. Haykuni spent a year fighting the cancer. The first few months of the chemotherapy were rough. She’d go a week without being able to eat after a chemo treatment. But one thing she held closely to was her impending time at Oxford.
“When I would receive that email from the admission team or recruitment department, keeping me up to date about the program, it helped me a lot,” Haykuni said.
“I was telling myself, you’re not going to give up, you’re going to recover and you’re going to go to Oxford. You’re going to do what you wanted to do. You know, I had many goals. And that helped me a lot. It was one of the reasons I am alive. I think one who has goals, who reason to live, and passion to help others and create, that helps and it helped me a lot.”
In 2016, when the year was up, Haykuni still had the cancer in her. But she was well enough to pack up, move to the U.K. and attend and graduate the full-time MBA program at Oxford while continuing treatment. As Haykuni continues to battle the cancer, she doesn’t plan on slowing down. While at Oxford, her and a team of classmates established the Ani Haykuni Cancer Treatment Support Foundation, which provides financial and psychological support for cancer patients in Armenia, her home country.