Meet Cornell Johnson’s MBA Class Of 2020

You could call Cornell University’s Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management a tale of two campuses. A study in contrasts, the program boasts homes in upstate Ithaca and New York City. On the surface, they couldn’t be any more different. Ithaca is a mix of The Saturday Evening Post and campustown – a throwback to a simpler times…with choice restaurants to boot. And New York City is, well, high tech and high finance, a metropolis steeped in energy, creativity, and opportunity.

In other words, Johnson offers the best of both worlds to prospective MBAs. Aside from a world class education, Ithaca boasts the Finger Lakes Region, a year-round outdoors Shangri-la, replete with gorges, waterfalls, hiking, and skiing. Four hours south, on New York’s Roosevelt Island, students can flock to the Cornell Tech campus for a curriculum devoted to interdisciplinary, project-based learning – often in partnership with leading tech employers and plucky startups. That’s two very different experiences, one that blends a small school community spirit with a big city surplus of access and networking.


“Johnson’s Full-Time MBA students can now spend time on both our Ithaca and New York City campuses,” explains Mark W. Nelson, the school’s dean, in a statement to P&Q. “Ithaca-based MBA students can join their NYC-based colleagues for weekends or a semester at the Cornell Tech campus, making Johnson the only school to offer a true “one-school, two-campus model.” This was made possible through the Johnson NYC curriculum launched last year to create business education in fintech, digital marketing, and other aspects of the digital economy. This exciting new dimension adds to Johnson’s strength in performance learning, building on its eight first-year immersions, the Cayuga Fund, Big Red Consulting, Big Red Ventures, Big Red Tech Strategy, and many other programs.”

The Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island in New York City

Cornell Tech is really two programs. The first is a one-year tech-focused MBA program. Focused on product development and management, Cornell Tech applies a studio-based, team-driven, experiential learning model to train students how to take ideas to market. Working with firms like Google, JP Morgan, and the New York Mayor’s Office, student teams survey the market, develop strategy, prototype solutions, and present their work to executive leaders. Afterwards, students take their shot at launching their own venture. Over 60 students strong, the program is designed to both plug Cornell students into New York’s startup scene and tech powers. In fact, Citigroup and Cigna occupy the top floors of the Roosevelt Island campus.

One-year MBAs aren’t the only students who benefit from Cornell Tech. Ithaca MBAs can also opt to spend their final semester at Cornell Tech, including seven week intensives for fintech and digital marketing. At the same time, two-year MBAs can complete weekend electives on Roosevelt Island related to areas like design thinking and cryptocurrencies. Bottom line, however, it is a program that taps into the organizational structures and creative processes that serve as the backbone of the digital economy.


“It’s about building things with multi-disciplinary teams, putting into practice the classroom instruction. That is the core part,” says Mukti Khaire, a professor of practice at the school in a 2017 interview with P&Q. “It enables all of the students on campus to work really hard at building things and to learn the relevant soft skills to be really effective. This is the future of the workplace because problems will always have a better outcome when they are approached from different perspectives and expertise.”

That’s not to say that every Cornell MBA is itching to race down to the New York City. Just ask the Class of 2018, who were plenty busy in their Ithaca digs. Forget early nights and long weekends. The Ithaca bunch found plenty to fill their schedules, whether it is the endless dinner parties or winery visits. Forget FOMO. At Cornell, you encounter AAMO – an abundance of activities, merriment, and opportunities.

“Not only is there plenty to do in the area, but we also have full access to the larger Cornell community, which draws so much talent and activity,” writes Lucie Coats, a 2018 Best & Brightest MBA. “In the past two years, I have gone sailing on Cayuga Lake, (kind of) learned to ski, taken salsa classes, and signed up for a rock climbing class…to name a few. Ithaca has plenty of restaurants, festivals, hiking trails, performances, and more to keep anyone busy.”

You can expect the Class of 2020 to follow in Coats’ footsteps. Starting out, many are already heralding Cornell’s trademark small college feel. “I wanted a program with a “bunker mentality,” where all students are invested in seeing their peers succeed,” writes Steven Van Vechten. “Many programs tout their schools’ “tight-knit community,” and this idea rang truest at Johnson.”


Interior of the business school

Thus far, Serena Elavia has met most of her classmates. She describes them as “generous” and “always willing to help out. By the same token, Grace Ko, who holds a master’s in accounting in the field’s top program (Texas), calls her classmates “diverse and intellectually curious.”

“Ranging from wine marketers at Napa Valley to dental school students from Harvard, my Cornell classmates bring so much passion and energy from their respective fields and I look forward to learning from their experiences as well as sharing my own,” she says.

The class has plenty of great stories to share. Ko, for one, is a professionally-trained sushi chef. A curious class, you say? Carlos Acevedo is the class Anthony Bourdain. He samples all kinds of foods…including a scorpion. “It was delicious,” he says. Then again, Australian Alyssa Johnson brings a certain bravado to the dinner table too. “I love eating at restaurants that don’t have a menu in English and picking a dish at random.”


Those are just the start. By day, Luis Carlos Sarmiento III worked as a mild-mannered financial associate. Outside the office, he was a professional soccer player for Miami United FC. Believe in serendipity? You might after introducing yourself to Sarah Doyle, who met her husband in the Philadelphia airport when they were both on their way to the Peace Corps. Serena Elavia practices a special faith – Zoroastrianism – which traces itself back to the Persian Empire and counts just 200,000 followers worldwide. If you want to learn business in college, Steve Van Vechten suggests the best place might under a mascot costume.

“As a freshman undergrad, I auditioned and was selected to become “Bart” the Statesman, the school mascot and singular personification of Hobart College,” he explains. “A great way to get comfortable with laughing at yourself is to dress up as an eight-foot-tall colonial patriarch and dance in front of hundreds of sports fans. I never expected “mascoting” to change my career path, but while sweating profusely under the layers of the woolen costume and peering out through a nine-inch-wide smile, I discovered the power of a brand. “Bart” sparked my passion for branding.”

Their achievements would also make for memorable cocktail banter. Take the political realm. Thomas Stelle, a restaurant consultant, was responsible for overseeing the logistics of President Obama’s final state dinner. As a FOX Business reporter in 2016, Serena Elavia thought he landed a scoop: a one-on-one with Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who was running for president that year. Despite a last minute cancellation, she wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, choosing the “Blue Ocean” strategy of hanging out by the exit door instead of the stage where the other reporters waited.


Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management i

“He would have to walk past me,” she recalls. “My strategy worked and he stopped to answer my question. I was the only reporter he spoke to at the event. Later, I published an exclusive quote in the story, and it was the most read article on the website that day. It might have been a brief episode, but I learned not to take no for an answer and find another way around obstacles.”

Sarah Doyle’s rite of passage required far more perseverance. During her first month in the Peace Corps, some locals had stolen her “bed, suitcases, and electronics.” Feeling betrayed, she weighed whether to return to home. Instead, she toughed it out, inspired by a student who was expelled from school for getting pregnant.

“From that moment, I was committed to equipping my students with life skills necessary to excel,” she shares. “I rewrote lessons for my English classes to incorporate topics like goal setting and I adapted the Peace Corps GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) program and planned a camp for 60 girls. My three years with the Peace Corps serve as the foundation for who I am today. Beyond learning to listen more and take the time to connect with people, I learned that I can overcome adversity and be comfortable in the most uncomfortable of circumstances.”


The inputs for Johnson’s Class of 2020 were a mixed bag during the 2017-2018 cycle, no different than most top MBA programs. The big news involved the percentage of women, which jumped from 27% to 33% with the incoming class. It also eclipses the 31% and 30% marks set by the Class of 2018 and 2015, respectively. The school also experienced a 3% increase in the percentage of underrepresented minorities over the previous year. In fact, this percentage more than doubles to 32% when all U.S. minorities are factored into the equation – the largest class share since 2015. At the same time, Johnson followed the general trend when it comes to international students, with the percentage tumbling seven points to 27%.

In terms of applications, Johnson witnessed demand dip from 1,653 to 1,600. However, the class actually grew from 277 to 280 members over the previous year. This number also contributed to the school’s acceptance rate rising from 30% to 33%. Academically, the 2020 Class measures up closely to its predecessors. Average GMAT did slip from 700 to 699. More striking, median GMAT dropped from 710 to 700. In contrast, average GPAs climbed from 3.36 to 3.41.

Academically, the class lines up in neat, even blocs. Like previous years, business majors comprise the largest segment of the class at 29% – a 12 point drop over the previous two classes. Social sciences and engineering account for 21% and 20% respectively, with science, humanities, and “Other” each coming in at 10%.  Professionally, nearly a fourth of the class worked in financial services, followed by consulting (17%), technology (6%), and healthcare (5%)…with 41% being covered under a mishmash “Other” category. That number includes U.S. Military veterans, who represent 7% of the 2020 class.

Go to next page to see 12 in-depth profiles of Cornell Johnson MBAs. 

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