Meet USC Marshall’s MBA Class Of 2020


To say USC’s Marshall School of Business is on a roll would be an understatement. In fact, Marshall may have snatched the torch as this year’s “it” school. Just look at the MBA rankings. In U.S. News, Marshall cracked the Top 20, after ranking 31st just two years ago. At the same time, it rose eight spots in Bloomberg Businessweek and 25 more with The Economist.

Alas, rankings are lagging indicators. To truly appreciate Marshall’s momentum, start with the here-and-now. Take this spring’s graduating class. In newly released data, the school reports average base pay for the Class of 2018 rose $4,500, with average signing bonus increasing by another $4,500. This news comes in the wake of a banner 2017 Class, whose $172,627 in total compensation outpaced programs like UCLA Anderson, Duke Fuqua, and Yale SOM. Better yet, 96% of 2018 grads landed jobs within three months of graduation, putting Marshall among the top MBA programs for job placement.


What’s Marshall special sauce with employers? Mark Brostoff, assistant dean and director of the graduate career services, credits this success to front end admissions – concentrating on the applicants with the right talents and intangibles to become Marshall material.

Mark Brostoff, assistant dean and director of MBA career services at USC’s Marshall School of Business. Courtesy photo

“Our admissions team has selected a student body with a wide variety of diverse backgrounds, not only in terms of years of work experiences, but in life experiences, as well,” Brostoff says in a statement to P&Q. “The core values of the Marshall MBA – Transformative Courage, Collaborative Ambition, Impactful Service and Unwavering Integrity – are the foundation of what empowers our students to connect with the marketplace as well as the Trojan Network….thereby opening the doors to consider a wider variety of opportunities beyond SoCal, including the rising demand for talent in the evolving tech ecosystem.”

Make no mistake: Marshall is working overtime to deliver talent. In the process, it made headlines as the first Top 20 full-time MBA program to reach gender parity. In the 2020 Class, 52% of the students are women. Call it a major leap forward, considering most major business schools remain stubbornly stuck in the 40%-44% range. At Marshall itself, women had traditionally accounted for less than a third of each class. By sheer size, Marshall women now possess the type of influence, not to mention support systems and networking opportunities, that their predecessors could only imagine.


It was a team effort top-to-bottom, says Anne Ziemniak, assistant dean and director, of the full-time MBA program. To make it happen, students, alumni, staff, and faculty banded together. The result, Ziemniak believes, will enrich the entire class. “The benefits of gender parity,” she tells P&Q, “include greater diversity in perspectives within the classroom and on teams, more creative problem solving and decision making, significant progress in establishing an inclusive, truth seeking community, and greater options for career engagement and development.”

The Class of 2020 won’t be the only ones to benefit, adds Brostoff. “As we go to market with internship opportunities and full-time jobs, employers are going to be very happy that we have a 50-50 split in the class,” he noted in a 2018 interview with P&Q. “They want more women in their pipelines. The resumes requested most often in the last couple of years are of female candidates.”

According to Ziemniak, the Class of 2020 was derived from the “highest quality applicant pool in Marshall’s history.” It’d be hard to argue the point. This year’s class posted a 705 median GMAT – a watershed for the school. Just three years ago, that number was 673. Over the same period, cumulative undergraduate GPAs have surged from 3.3 to 3.5. Demographically, the class also sets the bar for the highest proportion of underrepresented minorities at 22%. At the same time, the school weathered this year’s steep decline in international students. The incoming class boasts a 30% share of international students, just a point down from a year earlier. That wasn’t the only trend that Marshall upended during the 2017-2018 cycle: The school was only one of two Top 20 programs to actually increase the number of applications it received.


The class isn’t historic just by the numbers. This fall, the class will be the first to brave Marshall’s revised core curriculum. Ziemniak tells P&Q that the core is based on three guiding principles: “to develop and solidify analytical thinking skills, to enable greater self-awareness, and to give students more gestation time to understand and grapple with course material.” She adds that, under the new programming, first-years devote more time to accounting and communication. It also fosters greater “synergy” between corporate finance, data analytics, and marketing. In addition, the core now closes with a new course called Structured Analysis for Unstructured Problems, which Ziemniak says pulls everything together so students can practice what they learn against complex business issues.

“Marshall is committed to preparing students with knowledge and skills needed to succeed in the current and future business environment, to be able to build and work in high-performing teams, and to develop personal strengths including personal integrity and a sense of purpose,” she adds. “The revised core curriculum seeks to prepare students in these ways.”

USC’s Anne Ziemniak

That’s the 30,000 foot view. What about the Class of 2020 itself? Tina Cook, an actress who transitioned into the non-profit sector, describes her classmates as “fascinating.” “There are people from all walks of life with very unique backgrounds,” she says. “From a cryptocurrency pro to a former jazz singer to a prosecutor – I didn’t expect such a wide variety of experiences. It keeps discussions rich and lively!”


Stephen Manney, a sports anchor and reporter, applies a different term. He calls his peers “accomplished.” In his words, the class is a collection of “221 motivated business professionals, each bringing a unique experience and perspective that will help us expand our individual networks, thrive outside our comfort zones, and gain a more holistic understanding of the global business landscape.”

Another word? How about “collaborative?” That’s the word that first comes to mind for Alex Peiffer, a U.S. Air Force veteran and marketer who is open to everything and anything in business school. Thus far, he has been struck by how much students look out for each other. “It is truly amazing to experience how much time and effort classmates and second years are willing to dedicate to helping each other while expecting nothing in return,” he shares.

Then again, it’s not just the supportive culture that surprised the incoming class, but also how quickly bonds formed at orientation. “Fast forward to one-and-a-half weeks into our program and we are laughing, learning, struggling and growing together,” observes Alexandra Pinckney, a digital media entrepreneur from Philadelphia. “We’re celebrating weddings, internship offers and have already planned a big family-style trip to Vegas for an unforgettable triple milestone birthday celebration.”


It is also a class that comes from all walks of life: consulting, entertainment, finance, teaching, and the arts. Rafael Liou de Oliveira is the class Lawrence Olivier – a professional actor when the work day ends. Guess that would make Tina Cox into the class’ Courtney Cox, with the former playing  Dora the Explorer in Dora’s Pirate Adventure. Speaking of celebrity, just ask Stephen Manney about his baptism by fire.

“My first ever TV interview was with Senator John McCain. I was a college intern, who was very nervous to be on camera, especially with a former Presidential candidate!”

Craving Mexican? Chances are, the class will turn to Gaby Omenn, a Teach for America and Google vet who makes award-winning guacamole. Think you have an identity crisis? Just try being Sophia Lin: “I’m Taiwanese but don’t speak Taiwanese, and a Canadian who has never lived in Canada.” If you’re looking for the class do-it-yourselfer, you’ll want to meet up with Justin Gordon.

USC Marshall students in the courtyard.

“Immediately after watching The Social Network for the first time, I turned to my best friend, asked if he wanted to build a website, and spent the next few months learning HTML and CSS to build a site from scratch. Within six months we created our first website with no prior coding experience.”


This can-do spirit might also explain why Gordon built a nationwide training firm from scratch. He wasn’t alone in notching some impressive accomplishments. Stephen Manney, for one, rejuvenated his station’s fledgling high school football TV special. With viewers bailing and advertisers howling, he charted an unconventional path: fewer stars and more benchwarmers, fans, and cheerleaders. The result? The ratings jumped and the show still runs today.

Think that’s impressive? Take a page from Jessica Hong’s guerrilla marketing handbook. She managed to organize a 900 attendee conference (with another 4000 interview viewers) with a budget of $0. She wasn’t alone in creating something from nothing. Two years ago, Alexandra Pinckney founded RootsxWings Digital, a platform that celebrates African teenage girls and brings their experience to life.

“Being able to create a vehicle for girls across the African Diaspora to see themselves and build a community through original written and video content means I get to be at the frontline of the change that I want to see,” she explains. “RootsxWings, for me, is more than a business venture; it is my legacy and statement to the world that WE ALL have a unique story that deserves to be shared and acknowledged.”


So what drew the Class of 2020 to University Park? Well, Marshall is far more than a football school that’s sunny year-round. Instead, it is the home of the famed “Trojan Network,” an alumni base – 88,000 members strong – that truly looks out for students. No ordinary network, the alumni is almost fanatical about opening doors and looking out for Trojan MBAs who follow. In fact, “Trojan Network” might be a misnomer, says Tina Cook. She uses “Trojan Family” instead – and it was a dynamic she noticed early on in her selection process.

“I couldn’t help but notice that in every interaction with current students, alumni, faculty, and staff, there was a real sense of pride and belonging to the family that is the Marshall School of Business,” she observes. “B-school is meant to be rigorous and challenging, but having a support system of peers who genuinely want to see you succeed helps give you the extra boost on the days when it’s hard to tap into that energy on your own.”

Go to next page for 12 in-depth profiles of incoming USC Marshall MBA students. 

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