Best & Brightest MBAs: Class Of 2018

USC Marshall’s Darlene Zephyrine

The Class of 2018 is also accustomed to standing in the spotlight. Michigan State’s Mohamed Hrezi, for example, competed in the 2016 Olympics as a marathon runner – and even set two national records while he was a business school student. Long before he became a business student, Booth’s Jonathan Osser was a child actor, whose credits include playing a young Adam Sandler in Anger Management. Carnegie Mellon’s Emily Gennaula made the front page of the New York Times, while USC’s Darlene Zephyrine was featured in Ebony magazine as one of America’s top high school students. How is this for grace under pressure? After receiving a kidnapping threat, Vanderbilt’s Mabel Gomes managed to keep the con men on the phone for six hours while police set up a sting to arrest them.

The class also boasts some unique stories. In seventh grade, Northwestern’s Carr Lanphier endured reconstructive surgery after being accidentally shot in the face. Georgia Tech’s Declan Nishiyama makes homemade ice cream as a hobby, while Melody Akbari sells original watercolors of famous pop culture characters (when she isn’t studying at UCLA, that is). Whenever Ivey’s Jay Kiew travels, he makes sure to take pictures of himself cartwheeling in front of famous landmarks, which now include the Roman Colosseum, the Eifel Tower, and the Great Wall of China (among others). His reason? “Because of my history with cancer, I really wanted to encourage others to make the most out of their lives by seeing the world and being goofy by cartwheeling as they did it.”


The Best & Brightest have certainly made the most out of their opportunities. For many, that started with the courage to take risks. After graduating from college in Beijing, Faith Xu took the road less traveled. At 21, she moved to Germany – where she didn’t know a soul – to spearhead an e-commerce startup’s entry into the Chinese market. Within three years, the firm was generating over $91 million dollars in sales, with China accounting for over half of the company’s revenue. However, it wasn’t until this IESE MBA interned at Amazon that she understood what she had truly achieved: Amazon considered the operation she built to be one of its biggest competitors in China!

Impressed? Chances are, you’ll be blown away by Warwick Business School’s Leen Issa. She started volunteering when she was 12, tutoring Iraqi refugees on English and math. Education soon became her passion, a means of giving back and expressing her life-long belief that “change starts with me.” At Caritas Jordan, she managed a 12 member team across seven cities to deliver educational and psychological services to Syrian children escaping from civil war. Her biggest achievement, however, wasn’t enrolling 80% of these refugee children in formal schooling or winning an extra $4 million dollars in funding. Instead, it was seeing how her work changed lives through another’s eyes.

MIT Sloan’s Isabelle Cox

“The most touching moment I had during one of my field visits,” she says, “was when one of the students’ mother came crying and showing me the notebook of her son who passed successfully an English test and who was able to read and write after quitting school for two years between the age of 6-8. That was one of the happiest moments that made me feel that all the hard work and effort I put in was worth it!”

That’s not all. At Citi, Columbia Business School’s Ryan Ripp partnered with his boss to develop a valuation methodology that was featured on Jim Cramer’s The Street. Want a real challenge? Try getting 34 countries to agree to implement 25 recommendations involving staff diversity and inclusion. That was Isabelle Cox’s challenge at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Not only did they eventually sign off on this MIT star’s action plan, but she saw results: The percentage of women in senior management climbed by 15%! As the second employee hired by a test prep startup, Melody Akbari turned its LSAT product into the most downloaded app in its niche on both the Apple and Android app stores. How is this for complicated? As a consultant, Carlson’s Ashley Ver Burg Soukup led an effort to help the State of Minnesota identify where to invest over $20 billion dollars in highway funding – a project that required collecting input from over 12,000 people. Sure enough, her work proved so valuable that it won a Government Innovation Award.


However, it was on campus where the Class of 2019 truly came into their own. Many times, the class’ commitment to service and inclusion were reflected in the programming they developed for future students. Not surprisingly, the Best & Brightest were often the builders and unifiers in their classes – the ones who’d ease the transition for their peers and make sure their voices were heard.

That was Prathama Nabi’s mission. A Wharton MBA from Bangladesh, Nabi came to the United States at 19 without any support system around her – an experience that was “daunting” for her from a “social, professional, and academic standpoint.” Hearing her peers share how difficult it was for them to acclimate, she partnered with the Office of Student Life to create “One World @ Wharton,” a program where 2nd year international students mentor their 1st year peers so they can better adjust to cultural differences.

Toronto Rotman’s Varun Chandak

Nabi wasn’t alone in finding ways to ensure her classmates were part of the community early on. At CEIBS, many international students struggled to understand Mandarin. As a result, they gained little when Chinese executives would come to speak there. To compensate, Richard Higgs created a language translation service for events, so international students could better learn alongside their Chinese peers. For Varun Chandak, the objective was increasing access and inclusion for MBA students with disabilities. To achieve this end, this Rotman MBA started a non-profit, Access to Success Organization, which quickly raised $43,000 for programs ranging from conferences and workshops to mentoring and recruiting support. Thus far, it has served 250 students and spread to other business schools across Canada. “It is fulfilling to have brought accessibility into the fold of diversity and inclusion,” Chandak says, “to have meaningfully helped my friends and classmates who have a disability, and to have got many others interested in accessibility and universal design by making every event exciting and relevant for everyone.”


At New York University, Francis Varrichio connected his classmates in two key ways. First, the U.S. Coast Guard veteran headed the Fertitta Veterans Program, where he developed three days of programming for veterans transitioning from military service – not to mention treks to Google, Barclays, and Bain. In addition, he kicked off Stern Chats, a popular student-run podcast where the Stern community shares their stories with classmates. Thus far, the series has generated over 20,000 unique downloads from listeners in 50 countries, regularly ranking among the top 200 podcasts on iTunes. In the process, Varrichio adds, the podcast has become a “staple” of the Stern experience – and a powerful recruiting tool too.

The Best & Brightest’s leadership doesn’t end with supporting their classmates. At one time, Christopher Staten was a defensive lineman whose backfield breakthroughs gave nightmares to NFL star Jimmy Garoppolo. As an MBA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, he serves as the President of the Graduate and Professional Student Government, where he wrestles with issues ranging from student debt to research dollars on behalf of 10,000 students. At Stanford, Animesh Agrawal is so respected that he is part of the program’s Future of Management Education Committee, an exclusive 16 member panel consisting of the dean and senior faculty members. How do you know that a student has the “it” factor? In Katherine Miyamasu’s case, she was able to start a leadership lecture series at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business – and landed former Secretary of State Colin Powell as the first speaker!

End-to-end, the Class of 2018 was highlighted by servant leaders, whose commitment to impact, fairness and community enabled them to elevate and rally their classmates. Call them the Beyond Business class – men and women who recognize that true and transformational leadership requires more than big ticket releases and sprite balance sheets. You could also describe the Best & Brightest as all-in, role models who understand that speaking up and taking action simply makes it easier for their classmates to do the same.


Texas A&M’s Jana Soares

As the Class of 2018 prepares to exit the stage with diploma in hand, they have set the bar high for the next class. At the same time, they have also set an example for what it truly takes to make a difference. For Dr. Shannon Deer, who heads Texas A&M’s full-time MBA program, it means always pushing forward like Jana Soares. “Jana brings it, every hour, every day, every assignment, every project,” writes Deer. “Her intellect, energy, collaborative spirit, and passion for excellence consistently inspire those around her to reach higher and work harder.”

David Wood, director of Ivey’s MBA program, believes the best MBAs set the tone by finding time for everyone. For him, Jay Kiew, an advocate par excellence, has deepened this cultural foundation in word and deed. “Jay has worked tirelessly to ensure that every student feels at home at Ivey: every culture is celebrated, every interest is given time and attention, and every student is permitted to pursue their passion.”

In the end, the 2018 Best & Brightest are a mix of contrasting qualities, ones that support, if not amplify, the very best of business. At their best, says MIT’s Jason Liu, MBAs are “Bright yet humble, articulate yet willing to listen, “in the know” yet willing to admit ignorance if it leads them to new learning, eager to explore and develop new possibilities for business success yet aware of the value of established institutional models.”

More than that, they care. They act. They fight. Ultimately, they prevail.

Congratulations, Class of 2018! We can’t wait to see what you do next.

Go to pages 3-4 for 100 in-depth profiles of this year’s Best & Brightest MBAs.




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