Everyone loves a good comeback. The story is hardwired into our psyches: After a fall from grace, a hero will wander the wilderness until fate offers a shot at redemption. From Abraham Lincoln to Steve Jobs, the comeback reminds us that setbacks are temporary and possibilities are infinite.
Just ask Dan Stern.
Three years ago, this gifted entrepreneur was riding high. Stern had built, he says, a “growing company with ten employees and a robust portfolio of clients.” Just one problem: his forecasting couldn’t divine the bankruptcy that was bearing down on him. After wrestling with regret and self-doubt, Stern joined MIT’s Sloan School of Management. Here, he was picked for the deltaV acceleration program, a collection of MIT’s 20 most promising scientists and business leaders. In the process, he co-founded Alba, a matchmaking platform that connects families and babysitters – a venture that already boasts 1,000 paying customers. He also gave back by mentoring 85 of his peers, making Stern “one of the students most admired by faculty and students” according to senior lecturer Donna Levin.
BUSINESS IS NO JOKE IN IMPROV CLASS
How was Stern able to overcome such a jarring blow? Simple: He understood that success was ultimately rooted in his reaction. “It took me a while to overpass this situation and understand that what defines a person is how it reacts to adverse situations and not necessarily its achievements,” he writes.
Coming to terms wasn’t the only way that the Class of 2018 dealt with failure. Phoebe Luk, for one, would simply laugh it off. At the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, she originated a four-week improv-driven program to enhance student leadership skills. How does the art of tossing the script to bring out spontaneous reactions prepare students for business situations? The stage and the suite actually require many of the same skills, says Luk.
“I had seen personally how transformational improv training is in changing attitudes and approaches to communication, teamwork, and collaboration,” she explains. “However, much of improv comedy training is centered around stage performance readiness. By combining my background in improv comedy, design thinking, and leadership, I created a 4-week program to empower students with the skills and mindsets necessary for effective leadership.”
A CLASS OF CATALYSTS
Stern and Luk personify the spirit of this year’s MBAs To Watch. It isn’t hard to find words to describe these uber-achievers– inventors, starters, builders, and catalysts. They are the sparks who forge new ideas and rally their peers around them. They are the free thinkers who embrace ideas and people very different from themselves. They are the strivers who observe and question – and whose optimism, energy, and talent bring new enterprises to life.
You’ll find the 2018 MBAs to Watch come from nearly every corner of life. Before enrolling at the University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business, Brant Faulkner spent a decade as a professional online poker player. As an undergrad, Ivey’s Carlos González Meyer was an aspiring filmmaker who waited tables and snuck into off limits sites to pursue his art. Columbia Business School’s Nathaniel Franks even made the Olympics – twice – as a coach for the U.S. Olympic Women’s Field Hockey team.
Indeed, you won’t find the traditional consulting and banking credentials on many of their resumes. After studying English at an Ivy, Emory Goizueta’s Katie Hoppenjans started out as a writer, authoring horoscopes for a teen magazine before moving onto the fashion and beauty beat for Bridal Guide. Before moving to Austin to study at McCombs, Laura Richards launched an NGO, Business Innovations for Good, which trained Eastern African women on startup fundamentals like budgeting, marketing, and management. Although Courtney Wenneborg’s resume boasts both Amazon and Nike, her first love was conservation ecology, where she conducted research everywhere from the shadow of Mount Rainier to penguin colonies in Argentina. Turns out, it was perfect preparation for business school – and beyond.
TOP PERFORMERS INCLUDE MILITARY VETS AND ENTREPRENEURS
“It may not seem like experience in penguin research would be a great precursor for a successful business career – but as it turns out, understanding how a species differentiates itself in an ecosystem isn’t that different from identifying a company’s unique competitive advantage,” notes the University of Washington Foster MBA. “The key is in being able to take what you’ve learned, strip away the context, and apply the meat of a framework in a completely different environment.”
That’s not to say the MBAs to Watch didn’t feature the usual staples of business school communities. Take the military. Vanderbilt Owen’s Jon Cobb, trained Kurdish forces to fight ISIS – all while parenting three daughters who were five years or younger. “If you can manage little kids, you can manage anybody,” he quips. At the same time, the University of Michigan’s Chris Monti turned himself from worst-to-first in his Air Force class, eventually becoming an AC-130 Gunship Pilot who has witnessed both the Aurora Borealis and St. Elmo’s Fire during flights.
Similarly, the 2018 class featured a wealth of accomplished entrepreneurs. Notably, Patrick Murray co-founded one of Australia’s largest renewable energy retailers and wholesalers before signing on at the University of Melbourne. While INSEAD’s Paul Warren may consider his first venture to be a failure, he managed to bring an app to market that generated millions of downloads and ranked #1 on the app store during the height of the Pokemon Go craze.
DELOITTE RECRUITS MOST STUDENTS FROM MBAs TO WATCH LIST
The 2018 MBAs To Watch were culled from the 239 nominations submitted for the 2018 Best & Brightest MBAs released in May. It consists of graduates from 57 MBA programs, including Stanford GSB, Northwestern Kellogg, MIT Sloan, Chicago Booth, INSEAD, and Columbia Business School. By the numbers, the ‘Watch’ list features 51 men and 49 women – nearly the opposite of the 52-to-48 ratio in the 2018 Best & Brightest that favored women.
Graduates from international MBA programs account for 24 spots on this list, up from the 19 who made Best & Brightest. By the same token, the MBAs To Watch boast 44 students who were born outside the United States, also up from the 35 in Best & Brightest. Five military veterans are also found among the MBAs To Watch.
Overall, 85 members of the class had landed jobs by spring (though six of those were still in school through the fall). Deloitte was the largest consumer of MBAs to Watch talent, landing five members of the class. Bain, McKinsey, Microsoft, and PwC reeled in three graduates each, with two each going to Amazon, AT&T, BCG, CitiGroup, Deloitte, Ecolab, ExxonMobil, and KPMG.
FROM PRODIGIES TO LATE BLOOMERS
The MBAs To Watch may be builders and drivers – but those qualities stem from something deeper. At their heart, the Class of 2018 are risk-takers…to an extent. Outside the classroom, Northwestern Kellogg’s Nishant Rastogi has bungee jumped off New Zealand’s famed Auckland Harbor Bridge, while Notre Dame Mendoza’s Sarah Shoemaker has gone body sledding in Antarctica. Georgia Tech Scheller’s Anna Babinets has taken deep dives to explore shipwrecks and hand-glided at 3,000 feet. Despite this, she still closes her eyes and plugs her ears when movies get scary. In contrast, Warwick’s Mayank Kapoor tackled his fear of heights by riding the 2nd and 4th highest thrill rides. He survived…but not before screaming for help the whole time!
Cool hobbies? Well, Sara Axelrod competed as a synchronized swimmer before her MBA days at Texas McCombs. Her classmate, Laura Richards, spent a decade as a drummer, while Columbia Business School’s Conor Leary still believes playing the French Horn makes him “cool.” Before Ivey, Beckie Thain-Blonk’s dance prowess earned her a spot in the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Closing Ceremony. Not to be outdone, Purdue Krannert’s Steven Sanders is a self-taught composer whose song based on Indiana’s state poem has been performed at the U.S. Capitol. Speaking of notoriety, the University of Pittsburgh’s Jake Sondergard enjoyed his 15 minutes of fame by appearing with his wife on an episode of DIYNetwork’s First Time Flippers.
NEXT PAGE: The class’ biggest achievements (Go to pages 3-4 for student profiles)