Meet Columbia Business School’s MBA Class Of 2020

New York City is a melting pot. Home to 200 languages, nearly 40% of the city’s population was born outside the United States. It is a city of outsiders – many starting anew – working feverishly to find their voice and carve out their space. It is also a city of fusions, where people pluck from various ideas, styles, and heritages. In the process, they take everything from music to fashion in stunning new directions.

Columbia Business School taps into this melting pot spirit – just not in the way you might expect. While 42% of the incoming class hails from overseas – and another 33% is comprised of U.S. minorities – the richness of the class mix is based on something altogether different. Here, you’ll find Juilliard-trained pianists and Broadway actors sitting alongside McKinsey consultants and investment banking VPs. Like the city around them, CBS is a place for encounters from every side and every level – where the best practices are often stitched from a pastiche of backgrounds.


Of all the programs I applied to, I felt that Columbia was the one that really saw my unconventional background and the power of diversity as a true asset,” says Edward Kim, a Dartmouth-trained anthropologist turned pianist who joined the full-time MBA program this fall. “Ultimately, I wanted to be at a school that believed in me and what I could bring to the table. Columbia’s location in New York City – the “center of business” – was also a huge pull. There was no doubt in my mind that this was the place to be, to learn, and to thrive.”

Looking for a word to describe the Class of 2020? One might be storyteller. Their stories speak heavily to what you can expect to see at Uris Hall over the next two years. Take Halle Morse, a self-described Broadway actress, singer, dancer turned producer/director.” A graduate of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, Morse has sang and danced her way through 1000 performances in Broadway’s Mamma Mia! as Lisa. In addition, she has served as assistant director of Jagged Little Pill, the Alanis Morisette musical, and helped develop 3/Fifths, hailed as a “Must-See-Show” by the New York Times.

For her, it was in a first-time producing role that put the “business” in “show business. Bringing The Colored Museum to life required holding auditions, managing actors and designers, and then choreographing and directing the show. In the end, the sold-out performances paled in comparison to the other rewards from the show. “It was a leadership experience that solidified my personal mission to utilize the arts as a tool for diverse voices to be heard,” she asserts. “Although I set out to be on Broadway, I realized that my lifelong commitment to the arts was about the pursuit of something far more transcendent than just myself in the spotlight.”


Another word for the class might be trailblazer. Beverly Leon certainly fits the bill. Three years ago, she ditched a cushy job as a Morgan Stanley analyst to play professional soccer. Here, she achieved something most athletes – men and women – only dream of doing. She took control of career and negotiated her own contract to play in the Women’s English Premier League. “A recent FIFpro survey revealed that 50 percent of professional women’s soccer players are not paid to play and that nearly 87 percent of women leave the game early due to lack of financial and job security,” she explains. Given this, I am extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to even sit at the negotiating table.”

One of many photos posted to Instagram by celebrating Columbia Business School MBA students

Another word? How about entrepreneur? The school ranks 5th over the past five years for VC-backed startup capital. However, entrepreneurial is as much a state of mind as a physical venture. Few students personify that more than Shrey Gupta. Starting out in the seed stage at OYO, one of India’s largest and fast-growing hotel chain startups, Gupta paid his dues in operations, supply chain, market expansion, and product marketing before rising to be a VP. In one year, he led an expansion from 100 hotels in five cities to 2,000 in over 100 locations. Should the hospitality industry be bracing for a game-changing startup after Gupta graduates in two years? Not necessarily, as Gupta plans to channel his knack for systematizing and growing ventures into Asian city life.

“We are seeing signs of a massive wave of transformation hitting urban life,” he writes. “With a huge population migrating to cities in Asia and the developing world, these cities will struggle to support this population. Technology and capital will play a pivotal role in shaping the quality of life in the cities of tomorrow and I intend to be in the thick of that action.”


Then there is Martin Palmer, a Special Forces Detachment Commander with the Green Berets. He represents the penchant for listening and partnering within the class. Serving in Afghanistan, he worked with village elders to build up a police force. Eventually, this 25-man force was able to take the reins from Palmer’s platoon and fend off the Taliban themselves. That wasn’t the only time when his ability to connect with people far different than himself came in handy. During a campaign against ISIS in Syria, Palmer managed to keep a Syrian resistance commander fighting, even after their unit had suffered terrible losses in a bombing. Just a few hundred meters from victory, Palmer helped turn a retreat into an assault that led to what he calls “a major blow to ISIS in the region.”

However, this victory was rooted in something far more enduring than strategy or grit. “This success in our campaign against ISIS was only possible because I and my team had spent the previous four months establishing trust, credibility, and dependability with our Syrian partners,” he explains. “While this event unfolded over the course of only a few hours, to me it signified the success of my tireless efforts to establish this trust and credibility.”

Storytellers…trailblazers…entrepreneurs…listeners. That’s how the Class of 2020 may look from the outside. Among the students, you’ll find several other descriptors. Halle Morse, for example, labels the incoming class as “fierce.” “The students I have met so far possess an insatiable appetite for growth and intellect,” she observes. “While currently scholars first, they are perfectly suited to take on the concrete jungle of NYC as well as the world stage. Witty, thoughtful and dynamic, they are also humble, hungry and focused on their future success. They are, after all, Columbia Lions — roar!”


One word Morse neglected: passion. ” That’s OK – a “passion for driving change” is how Michelle Forman, a V.P. from Houlihan Lokey, sees her classmates so far. Then again, says Rona Mattew, just one word is hard to come by for a class this diverse and accomplished. “My CBS classmates are very complex,” she notes. “They are superstar overachievers, from all of the world, ready to tackle a demanding curriculum in a hyperactive city, while somehow maintaining a warmth that makes anything possible.”

Either way, adds Christina Charlery, the class has reinforced one truism that nearly every business student quickly experiences in Morningside Heights. “Everyone I’ve met so far at CBS has broken all stereotypes of “a serious business school student,” she says. “They’ve been wildly charismatic, caring, and open individuals.”

Columbia trekkers at Autodesk in San Francisco, in front of a giant Lego dinosaur. Courtesy photo

That’s just the start. Want to meet a true career transitioner? That’d be Olamide Bada, who went from being a lawyer to a managing director in a food company…when she wasn’t busy being an R&D music producer, that is. Christina Charley broke a few stereotypes herself, founding a mentoring program in Harlem to help high school and middle school girls prepare for long-term careers. If you followed the business pages, you might be familiar with Michelle Forman’s work.

“I worked on the sale of Gawker Media Group, the famous online media company, to Univision for the $135 million purchase price. I managed interactions between Univision and Gawker during the court-approved marketing process and led a team of analysts and associates to manage extensive due diligence from potential buyers.”


The Class of 2020 is divided into two clusters thanks to CBS’ two term entry system. In January, the school enrolled 204 students, followed by another 552 entering in August. This produced a 756 member class in total, three students more than the previous class. Together, these classes number 1,500 students – making it the third largest business school for full-time MBAs.

Overall, CBS received 6,029 applications for the two terms. On one hand, this is 159 fewer applications than the previous year. That said, it is just a 2.6% decrease in applications – a percentage that pales in comparison to similar programs like Harvard Business School (-4.5%), Wharton (-6.7%), and Chicago Booth (-8.2%). In other words, Columbia Business School’s allure is as vibrant as ever. As a result, it remains one of the most difficult programs to gain admittance. Just 17% of 2017-2018 applicants earned an acceptance. Even more, it ranks just behind Harvard Business School, Stanford GSB, MIT Sloan and U.C.-Berkeley among the most selective MBA programs.

It also remains one of the most popular MBA programs, with 73.5% yield rate (the percentage of students who ultimately accept an offer). Critics argue this number is abetted by the school’s early decision (ED) process, where applicants are able to certify in their application that CBS is their first choice. However, this is just another piece of the puzzle, says Chris Cashman, the school’s executive director of public relations, in a 2018 interview with Poets&Quants.

“Regardless of when you apply,” he notes, “every student who joins our community shares certain defining traits, such as being driven by a strong work ethic, being ready to build and foster professional and personal relationships, and are determined to make a real impact on the world through their chosen field.”

Go to next page for 11 in-depth profiles of incoming Columbia Business School students. 

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