2018 Best & Brightest: Ilja Orre, University of Virginia (Darden)

Ilja Orre

University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

Positive, disciplined and hard-working. Always looking to improve and be of greatest value to others.”

Age: 29

Hometown: Helsinki, Finland

Fun fact about yourself: Back in my junior years of playing competitive tennis, I gave tennis lessons to two CEOs of Nokia (this was when Nokia was the powerhouse brand of the tech world). I wish I could reverse roles now and have them teach me lessons on how to build a global business and also what they learned from the failure of Nokia.

Undergraduate School and Degree: College of William and Mary, BBA in Marketing

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? I worked as a Segment Marketing Manager for an industrial company, Ferguson Enterprises. I started in a Trainee-program, working my way up from the warehouse to a B2B sales role and later to marketing management. Prior to that I served in the Finnish military working on the Army’s social media communications strategy.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2017? Bain & Co. in Helsinki, Finland

Where will you be working after graduation? Consultant at Bain & Co. in Helsinki

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: VP of International for Darden Student Association

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? It’s an incredible honor to be elected to serve in Darden’s student leadership by my peers. Student leadership is a big part of how Darden operates, and I am proud of the fact that my classmates have put their trust in me to serve the interests of our international student community. I consider it a great privilege to have the opportunity to spearhead initiatives that help Darden evolve into an even better experience for our current and future international students.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I’m proud of succeeding in a demanding and rather technical B2B sales role at Ferguson despite having English as my second language. I was terrified of calling on customers in the beginning of my sales career, but fortunately I had a great team around me to help build my confidence and skills every day. It was very satisfying to overcome my fears and notice that with hard work, determination and the right team I could succeed at a task that seemed daunting at first. It’s a lesson that I will carry with me, and promote to others, for the rest of my professional career.

What was your favorite MBA Course? I really enjoyed my leadership laboratory course that I got to share with Darden’s military veterans from all over the world. Each week we got together over lunch and discussed leadership themes like character, integrity and inclusion, and what those might mean for us as future business leaders. The key takeaway for me was to never lose sight of the fact that as a leader, you are always leading real people who have real hopes, dreams and fears. It’s easy to think about leadership just from your own perspective and assume everyone else acts and thinks like you. But the reality is that people are different and as a leader it’s your job to find a way to inspire them and help them reach their full potential.

Why did you choose this business school? It took me one visit to the Darden classroom to know this was the school where I wanted to pursue my MBA. I think I raised my hand multiple times in class, even though I was just visiting. That’s how engaging and dynamic the case method experience was (sadly I didn’t get called on though). After class, I could feel the energy in the community as students gathered to start the morning together at what’s called “First Coffee” at Darden. I knew I wanted a close-knit community and Darden fit that bill perfectly. I’m really fortunate to get to re-live that first visit every day.

What is your best piece advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? At Darden, students work extremely hard for their classes and the case method forces us out of our comfort zone on a daily basis. I’d encourage those who want to get into Darden to emphasize the skills and qualities needed to survive the rigors of the program in their application and interviews. Selflessness, team working skills, resilience and a desire to pursue a professional transformation are key themes that Darden looks for in each candidate and applicants should really focus on demonstrating those in their application.

What was your biggest regret in business school? Given my decision to financially invest in an MBA, I think I’ve always prioritized my academic and recruiting responsibilities, sometimes perhaps overly so. I may have missed out on some of the social aspects of an MBA experience along the way. Then again, the only good direction to move is forward and I’ve been fortunate to end up in a really good place so I think it’s all been worth the work.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I definitely admire our international students, especially those who come to the US for the first time in their lives to start their studies. I went through that experience nearly 10 years ago for my undergrad degree. I know how difficult it can be to move far away from family and friends and to figure out how everything works. I don’t think many people recognize how challenging it may be for international students to integrate into the culture, combat the language barrier and succeed in academics and recruiting. I’m inspired by the energy and the attitude that my international peers bring to our community and how they constantly seek for opportunities to grow in order to succeed in the US despite being out of their comfort zones.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? I’d say it’s two-fold. My dad worked in business his entire life so I think he had a big impact on my orientation towards business studies. He was a very level-headed thinker and exceptionally good with people. He encouraged me to leverage my talents in areas that I felt most interested in and to think how I can do the most good for others through my choices. Business seemed to offer me both. In college, my decision to pursue business was solidified by my marketing professor, Bob Williams, who worked as the VP of Marketing at DuPont during his career. He encouraged me to think of the bigger picture, and not solely rely on the numbers. He was also a highly charismatic business person, and I figured maybe that kind of charisma would eventually rub off on me if I worked in the business world.

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…hopelessly trying to figure out how to optimally allocate my marketing budget without all the great tools and techniques I now know!”

If you were a dean for a day, what one thing would you change about the MBA experience? I think one of the most important issues at hand for any MBA program is how to keep the education affordable in the global context. An MBA degree is a great launchpad to successful careers, but the cost of the degree is creeping up. I think schools should actively combat tuition inflation. I think about this issue particularly from the perspective of international students who want to pursue their higher education in the US. I can see the cost of an MBA becoming an inhibiting factor for some international students, especially when the path to a high-paying US job is uncertain because of the H1B-visa process. If I were the dean, I would be pulling every lever possible to raise scholarship funding and using that money generously to attract the best and the brightest student talent.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? Hiking Kilimanjaro and obtaining my private pilot’s license.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? As someone who always found a positive side in people and life, was a loyal friend, and made a real difference in the lives of our international students.

What would your theme song be? I’m kind of a square, so definitely “Hip to be square” by Huey Lewis & The News.

Favorite vacation spot: Anywhere with blue skies, sunshine, palm trees and crystal-clear waters. I went to Croatia this past summer and absolutely loved it.

Hobbies? Competitive tennis, gym and reading. I’m also an aspiring traveler and I’m glad I now have a really good excuse to travel the world to see my classmates.

What made Ilja such an invaluable addition to the class of 2018?

“Now in my 25th year on faculty at the Darden School, I can say without hesitation that Ilja is an invaluable addition to his Class of 2018. Although a Finnish stoic, his heart and actions are that of a passionate servant of the school, a clear voiced advocate for fellow international students, and a most outstanding student leader within the Darden Student Association. I have only known Ilja since July 2017, when I introduced myself via Skype, in the newly created position as Assistant Dean for Global Advising. Ilja was elected VP of the Darden Student Association–International in spring 2017. His first conversation with me was that of sharing his vision: “I want Darden to become the first-choice MBA School of all international students.” I knew right away that he would take charge and call upon the support the school could offer.

Ilja knew that such significant change would not occur in a year, or unlikely even in just a few years; but his background of competitive success on the court, in the field of marketing and sales, and in his securing of a top consulting firm position at Bain, gave him the can-do attitude for international student-led improvements at Darden that were all guided towards the vision. He began by advocating for what his Class of 2018 International Students did not have – a specialized multi-day International Student Orientation for the incoming Internationals of the Class of 2019. He worked closely with the Career Development Center because he knew that their preparation of students was the first key to international student success in recruiting. Ilja convinced several of his fellow international student classmates to come back early from their internships in order to be panelists for multiple interactions with the new class of international students of the Class of 2019.

Ilja serves as team leader, cheerleader, and consultant-style investigative confidant. As a team leader, he chairs a committee of student leaders from each of nine international student clubs or internationally focused advisory groups. In each meeting, he seeks their advice for a difference that can be made now and a difference that can be made for future students; and then he secures their efforts toward these goals. Right away in his tenure, he noticed that international students were vastly under-represented in elected leadership positions. Recognizing the failures of e-mail and social media in conveying information, he sought as a mouthpiece, key international constituent members along with himself to speak personally to first-year international students about running for elected positions and bringing their unique diversity to leadership decision making. This would be a first step of continued improvements for the Class of 2019.

As a cheerleader, he shows up at almost everything. Ilja is far from a social butterfly. In fact, I am confident that he would rather not be amongst the crowd, but he attends to demonstrate to all students that international students are active and participative in service, social, and the sporting arenas of the extracurricular activities at Darden. His presence allows him to encourage the participation of all international students at the school. It also allows him to identify areas where international cultural differences many not be recognized and he can call for accommodations. One example is that students from non-drinking backgrounds did not have many choices of non-alcoholic beverages, just water; so he advocated to the student leadership, giving guidance to all social events, to think broadly about the variety of non-alcoholic beverages that could be served, making the events even more special and welcoming to all students who do not drink.

Wearing his consultant hat, Ilja has relished the opportunity to create listening posts and make personal inquiries as to how things can be improved. In addition to his group meetings, he also scheduled individual meetings including academic, student affairs, and career administrators with each student club leader individually to ensure that administrative school leadership was also ‘hearing the message’. Ilja also kept up his connection with the first-year Class of 2019 by scheduling five quarterly lunches with the international students, by section, continuing to include the administrative leadership as listeners. Finally, as any good consultant, he conducted an objective survey to best understand the magnitude of challenge and combined it with the interview results.

Data synthesized, Ilja then requested an assembly of a cross-functional administrative team of decision makers (composed of Deans and Director level from Academics, Admissions, Career Development, and Student Affairs) with whom to share the aggregated qualitative and quantitative findings, as areas of improvement for international students. His ask of this new committee was to hear the findings, “treat everything with positive intent”, and to help define action items, delineated as either low-hanging opportunities that could be accomplished within a year, or opportunities that could be started but had a longer runway.

Ilja recognized, all along, that he had a vision for the Darden School that faculty, staff and students would all embrace. He also knew that it would be an effort that would take time to accomplish, but believed it needed to begin immediately. He initiated our efforts to become the first-choice MBA school of all international students, raised the bar for student leadership engagement with faculty and staff, involved all the constituent students; and now prepares for succession by a new student leader, by creating the encouraging documents and detailed history of the first year of this effort, in order that this vision might be carried forward.

Lest it be thought that Ilja simply has one focus; it should be known that he has been a great servant beyond his leadership. He conducts many mock interviews for students interested in both full-time and internships with consulting firms, provided a briefing to our First Year students in a Kaizen class going to Helsinki Finland, and continues as a strong performer in the classroom.

Please accept Ilja Orre as my highest recommendation for recognition as a Poets&Quants Best and Brightest for the MBA Class of 2018. Ilja is and will always be recognized as an invaluable addition to the Darden Class of 2018 and to the Darden School as a whole; as we continue to strive to be “the first-choice MBA School of all international students.”

Laurence G. Mueller

Assistant Dean, Global Advising


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