2018 Best MBAs: Catherine Aranda, University of Virginia (Darden)

Catherine Aranda

University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

A mission-driven and entrepreneurial public servant, committed to life-long learning and building community.”

Age: 30

Hometown: El Paso, Texas

Fun fact about yourself: As I child and young adult, I was a classically trained violinist. While receiving instruction from various professors, I taught private lessons to children and performed in a quartet. During my first semester at Stanford, I joined the Introduction to Mariachi Ensemble class offered by the music department. On day one of class, I learned I could sing, and haven’t stopped since! I performed with Mariachi Cardenal for four years, during which I met my fiancé, and then in salsa music ensembles in San Francisco for several years. Today, I sing with the faculty Bluesjam band at Darden, and on my own in whatever genre that inspires me.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Stanford University, Class of 2010 – B.A. International Relations

Where did you work before enrolling in business school? Citizen Schools, a national education nonprofit organization; served as Deputy Director of Corporate Partnerships

Where did you intern during the summer of 2017? Bank of America, Charlotte, North Carolina

Where will you be working after graduation? Actively recruiting for Strategy Consulting and Design Thinking firms in San Francisco Bay Area and Washington, D.C.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:


  • Full Tuition Scholarship by The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management
  • Forté Foundation Fellow
  • Stewart Sheppard Distinguished Service Award


  • Student Liaison, The Consortium for Graduate Study in Management
  • Board Member, Hispanic American Network of Darden
  • Founder, Darden Mental Health and Wellness Initiative
  • First Year Orientation Committee

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Surviving Darden’s rigorous academic core should be the top-ranking source of pride for me, but I am most proud of the opportunity to work with stakeholders across the school to launch the Darden Mental Health & Wellness Initiative.

Since being at Darden, in the background of preparing cases and recruiting, I have had one constant driver: to establish authentic relationships and help the individuals around me develop the best versions of themselves. Over time, through the “Darden Stories” series and at a Board of Trustees dinner, I shared my personal journey.

After many months of listening, visioning, collaborating, and planning, on October 23, 2017, we launched the first-ever Darden Resilience Week. During my public address to the school, I shared: “I lost my mother to suicide when I was 17 years old, fell in love with public service as an undergraduate student at Stanford, came to Darden as a nontraditional candidate, and for most of my First Year, felt like a failure and imposter in the halls of Saunders. Each and every one of us has a story.”

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am most proud of my first full-time professional experience working at Jumpstart, a national education nonprofit. In four years, I played various roles and studied nonprofit anatomy: Program, Development, Operations, Marketing, Human Resources, and Finance. Change was constant. Two months into my AmeriCorps term, our supervisor resigned, and I was promoted to lead my peers. As a too-young first-time manager, I aimed to build credibility by advocating for and learning alongside staff, giving them opportunities to assume greater responsibility. Before long, I was a Program Director navigating 13 staff through rampant turnover and financial hardship. Working alongside mission-driven educators offered some of the most rewarding years of my young career. I will always be grateful for that experience, as it inspired me to pursue my MBA to learn how to apply business principles to the social impact sector.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? I had the privilege of learning from Michael Schill who teaches First Year Finance and the Second Year Managerial Finance course. Michael is one of the gentlest souls I have ever met and a genuinely stellar teacher. Because of his warm approachability and patience, I learned the core principles of finance and came to enjoy the process of creating financial models, calculating weighted average cost of capital, and understand that valuation is both art & science.

What was your favorite MBA Course Yael Grushka-Cockayne’s Project Management course, which is one of the most popular electives at Darden, and should be a mandatory course for all students. For me, one of the most valuable lessons was exemplified by the rebuilding of a New York metro station after 9/11. There are rare times when project teams bond together inspired by a seemingly impossible mission. Under the standard Project Management principles, the project should fail miserably (run over budget, deviate drastically from scope, and/or not meet the projected deadline). Despite the odds, the project is completed on-time because

Why did you choose this business school? After interviewing at Google’s Mountain View Headquarters with Darden alumni and interacting a second time with Admissions Director Sarah Neher, I had a gut-feeling. I knew that Charlottesville could become a second home for me; indeed, Darden is a place where students are encouraged to drive change and where faculty are some of my best friends and most trusted advisors.

What is your best piece advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Darden is an academically rigorous program – in order to thrive here, you need to be thirsty for challenges and being uncomfortable. Come ready to work, individually and in teams.

What is the biggest myth about your school? One myth is that Darden is just about academics. While our school offers an academically challenging core, there is so much at Darden that happens outside of the case-method classroom, including club activities, entrepreneurial ventures, and self-started initiatives.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Mick Denner. Mick was my first-year “Section E” Representative, but over time he has become a close friend. Mick is a spirited young man, a United States military veteran, and a classically trained opera singer. As a bonus, he is the loving-husband of another trusted friend and fellow Darden classmate and Stanford alumna, Kelly Denner. I have grown to respect Mick and admire both his leadership skills and sense of duty. Singing with him is one of my favorite memories from Darden. I look forward to a life-long friendship with The Denners.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? I made the decision to pursue an MBA mostly on my own, when I was serving a Regional Program Director of a national nonprofit called Jumpstart, but have been supported by dozens of advisors, including my family, mentors in the MLT and Consortium networks, Stanford alumni, and respected colleagues from my 6+ years in the social impact sector.

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…an Executive Direct of a nonprofit in the San Francisco Bay Area.”

 What are the top two items on your bucket list?

  1. Recording original albums in Spanish and in English, in a self-designed home music studio that is open to youth artists.
  2. Owning a top-rated restaurant and performance space that is designed for mission-driven/nonprofit events and fundraisers.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? A woman on fire who used her MBA to generate value for society and one of the kindest and most authentic people I’ve ever met.

What is your favorite movie about business? Chef (2014) written and directed by Jon Favreau. Chef Carl Casper quits his job at an up-scale Los Angeles restaurant and rediscovers his love for cooking when he starts a Cuban cuisine-inspired food truck. This heartfelt and comical story offers many lessons in entrepreneurship, harnessing raw talent, and pursuing your passion.

What would your theme song be? At Darden, my theme song is “Try Everything,” by Shakira, written for the 2016 Walt Disney Animation Studio’s film Zootopia

Favorite vacation spot:

Domestically: Carmel Valley, California

Internationally: San Sebastian, Spain

Really…anywhere near water, nature, and access to a spa!

Hobbies? Singing and jamming with other musicians, learning how to cook new cuisines, hosting dinner parties and holiday events, family time, and babysitting my beautiful nieces and nephews, going to musicals and concerts, listening to political shows and podcasts like “Meet the Press” and “Pod Save America,” going on new adventures with my college-sweetheart and soon-to-be husband

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

Catherine has had a profound effect, both directly and indirectly, on the lives of every student at Darden – from organizing programs that highlight the importance of building resilience to sharing her amazing singing voice at events to demonstrating care and concern for issues of inclusion and respect.

Catherine is a natural leader with a particular talent for being flexible, inclusive, and caring. I think her most lasting legacy at Darden is her work on resilience. I was a speaker at one of the events she organized as part of the Darden Resilience Week (itself part of the Darden Mental Health and Wellness Initiative that Catherine founded) and was impressed by two things. First, the events emphasized the link between self-care and performance to ensure the events were seen as relevant. This was a critical decision since resilience and, more broadly, mental health are important issues that are often overlooked – precisely because we are all so often over-extended and busy. Second, the events focused on building practical skills. The week of activities Catherine organized were not a feel-good exercise in appreciation – there was equal emphasis on seeking and implementing solutions.

As a proud Hispanic woman, Catherine has been a beacon of inspiration and a readily accessible role model. She fully recognizes the challenges facing minority students and women both at Darden and the workplace and is a graceful, though no less impactful, advocate and supporter. She is not shy about who she is but also manages to ensure that she is not solely defined by this identity. Both formally and informally, she has advance the causes of our minority students.

I should note that Catherine overcame a difficult childhood to achieve a string of successes: she graduated from Stanford and is now on her way to graduating from Darden; she has had positions of responsibility at Bank of America and Citizen Schools; and as a minority student and the first to go to college in her family, she has had to overcome obstacles many of us are unaware of. I mention this because her willingness to share her experiences, both informally and very much in public as part of a compelling and emotion Darden Stories event in which she was one of two featured story tellers, has helped foster understanding and compassion among our students.

I mentioned at the start her singing. She has a great voice and a repertoire of songs from her background. The point, however, is not the voice but the willingness to take the stage and share. I have had the pleasure of performing with her, but also being in the audience and feeling the electric charge that comes from her passion and poise. It is riveting – and becomes a vehicle for engagement and learning.

To summarize is easy: Catherine cares deeply about the emotional wellbeing of everyone around her and is not afraid to put herself at emotional risk to help others. She naturally understands the importance of taking care of one’s mental health as a way to boost performance, the importance of embracing one’s difference as a source of pride and motivation, and the importance of mutual support and respect so we can all achieve our potential. I know that I am a better person for having known her – and Darden a better place for her leadership and example.”

Marc Lars Lipson

Robert F. Vandell Research Professor and past Associate Dean of the MBA Program


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.