Every product has a selling point. It is that exclusive feature that seizes the imagination. It is the catalyst that drives people to brave risk and discomfort to make a change. Call it what you will – branding, positioning, or value proposition. In the end, this differentiator defines how customers see a product…and sets the expectation for what’s to come.
At Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, the selling point is unquestionably “class size.” Boasting 179 students in the Class of 2020, Owen is a “small school” par excellence. However, size alone isn’t why so many top students migrate to the “Harvard of the South.” Instead, it is the execution of this selling point that has earned effusive praise from classes past and present. In a nutshell, Owen’s allure is best summed up by first-year Colleen Flynn…
“I wanted to be a name, not just a number.”
OWEN KNOWN FOR PERSONAL ATTENTION AND “CONNECTEDNESS”
What exactly does this mean? Shanah Gaskill, a senior marketing manager from Uber, cites one of Owen’s values: “We take business personally.” In her experience, that means Owen takes a “people-first” approach where she has felt “exceedingly welcome and wanted.” Known for their personal touch and southern charm, the small school vibe offers an academic benefit that few MBA programs can match – particularly for students looking to switch careers.
“Being on a first-name basis with faculty and the ability to approach them was something I was certain I would need,” explains Raúl Méndez, an insurance executive who joins the Class of 2020 from Panama.
“Having no business background, I felt it was important to be able to count on peers and professors for additional opportunities to learn beyond the classroom.”
The small class size also creates a certain “connectedness.” says Bennet Hayes, a 2018 grad and P&Q Best & Brightest who joined the Boston Consulting Group this summer. Rather than the anonymity inherent to a larger program, Owen is a place where students can engage in “meaningful conversations” with everyone in the class instead of “just getting acquainted with hundreds of people,” says first-year Brittany Hunter. For Tiffany Stillwell, a former U.S. Army Paratrooper, this dynamic has taken her back to her days at West Point.
“Sitting in a class at Owen during my interview visit, I was reminded of my time as a cadet in the classroom. Students were genuinely being themselves: relaxed, engaged, and comfortable in sharing their opinions during class.”
100% OF STUDENTS LAND INTERNSHIPS
This “team spirit” is carried outside the class too, observes Deepa Tudavekar, an aspiring entrepreneur from India. The school’s “close-knit” and “collegial” culture has reminded her of an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Her classmate, Gina Hisgen, uses a different simile to describe her experience so far at Owen. “If this program was a race, I felt like we would all be starting together, and rather than trying to beat each other, we would be encouraging and helping each other get to the finish.”
Alas, the small school experience always brings up the inevitable question: will fewer students mean fewer opportunities. That certainly wasn’t the case for the Class of 2018. In newly released employment data, the class notched average base pay of $111,168, supplemented by average bonuses of $26,415. By the same token, 92% of the class had landed jobs within three months of graduation – the sixth consecutive year of 90% or better placement during that timeframe. That’s not the most impressive streak at Owen. That honor belongs to internships, where 100% of students seeking internships landed one for the seventh straight year.
Give credit to Owen’s career services center, which ranked among the ten-best in The Economist’s most recent student survey. “Owen may have slightly fewer companies coming to campus than its larger peers,” Bennet Hayes concedes, “but I’ve seen countless classmates carve out paths to dream careers, even if their company didn’t have a huge recruiting pipeline at Owen. The Career Management Center and a supportive and increasingly expansive alumni network can more than offset any limitations the class size introduces.”
TOP BASKETBALL RECRUIT TURNS TRAUMA INTO TRIUMPH
So who makes up the Class of 2020? You can start with Gina Hisgin. Before she moved to Nashville, she taught Arabic at a U.S. Army language school, where her work enhanced the nation’s intelligence readiness. She wasn’t the only class member to do that. Tiffany Stillwell served as the associate dean for the U.S. Army’s Korean Language School. You can add Curtis Duke to the group. A U.S. Army project engineer, he was selected to lead clean up operations after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in the Caribbean last year.
“By the time I was returning to the Corps of Engineers District, our team had removed over 100,000 cubic yards of debris, installed more than 2,000 temporary roofs, and installed a multitude of generators for critical public infrastructure,” he says.
The class also features some impressive athletes. After suffering a devastating injury in high school, Crosby Wright walked onto the Purdue Boilermakers. By the time he left, he was a starting tight end and team captain on teams that upset Ohio State and Michigan. Then there’s Brittany Hunter. In 2003, she was the nation’s top women’s basketball recruit armed with a scholarship from powerhouse Connecticut. A year later, she was out of the sport after suffering a career-ending injury. That didn’t deter Hunter, who forged a new identity off the court. She became a vice principal whose biggest achievement (so far) has been helping her 4th grade class achieve a 100% pass rate on both the New York State Math and English Language Arts exams.
“The road was long and beyond difficult, but one that has shaped who I am today. I was forced to find other passions and open my mind to other interests and various paths I might have otherwise never taken, hence this MBA!”
A CLASS THAT BRINGS PEOPLE TOGETHER
This path less traveled has exposed Hunter to some amazing people. Shanah Gaskill, for one, was among the leaders that Uber chose to spearhead projects designed to boost the development, retention, and morale of employees in light of several lawsuits faced by the firm in 2017. When Colleen Flynn worked for the Nashville Predators NHL franchise as a marketing activation manager, she admittedly went from “Hockey for Dummies” to “Manager of the Year” in her first season. Flynn wasn’t the only class member who only needed a year to make a deep impact. In that time, Deepa Tudavekar built a business that served meals to over 200,000 people.
The class also made this impact in a variety of industries. Take Ishan Saran. He describes the social sector in India as a vicious circle, where non-profits lack the funding to raise awareness; companies fail to properly invest in causes; and volunteers struggle to find organizations who can channel their passions. To build synergies between these parties, Saran created a platform – Those In Need – that brought them together.
“Since 2015, we have been able to provide financial and operational support to more than 200 non-profits, channel corporate social funds more innovatively, and efficiently, and help 6,500+ people to find skill-based volunteering opportunities,” he says.
Crosby Wright also possesses a knack for bringing people together. At Nike, he developed a platform that connected and developed employees at the company’s 1,000+ retail stores. “This new product, which was a back-of-house digital touchscreen with a robust set of content management tools, became the primary way that Nike delivered communications, training, and other forms of digital content directly to their retail employees across the country” he says.
“This group will definitely give you FOMO”
Outside work the class is equally compelling. Tiffany Stillwell managed to jump out of several military planes…despite being terrified of heights. During her very first pickup as an Uber driver, Shanah Gaskill got nailed with a speeding ticket. Each year, Brittany Hunter gets her 15 minutes of fame when ESPN broadcasts the 2003 McDonald’s All-American Dunk Contest, where she was a participant…along with LeBron James. In many classes, Ishan Saran might win an award for endurance. He consumed 3.3 pounds of stuffed flatbread in 30 minutes during an “Eating Champion” competition. However, most classes don’t have a Deepa Tudavekar in them.
“I have travelled solo for more than 135,000 miles in my lifetime,” Tudavekar asserts. “That’s about five times around the earth. I backpacked for three months along the lengths and breadths of the United States, and I have travelled to central parts of Europe and almost all of India. Experiencing and exploring and over seven countries solo, I learned to face my fears. I got mugged, missed flights, and even got stalked by drug dealers. I learned to work through uncertainties, in cultures foreign to me and in languages that I couldn’t fathom.”
Thus far, the Class of 2020 has made a strong impression on each other. Mackenzie Craig, a Cornell grad photography director from Time, Inc., has been struck by how outgoing and supportive her classmates have been. “I recently moved to Nashville, and I was posting silly Instagram stories about the struggles of settling into a new place,” she recalls. “A girl in the class ahead of me reached out and offered to send a classmate to help me hang curtains! It was such a thoughtful gesture, and the thing is…she really meant it. To me, that sums up the Owen spirit.”
Friendly and helpful, yes. That doesn’t mean the class is afraid to step forward when it is warranted. “People have been very open and honest about giving positive and constructive feedback,” writes Deepa Tudavekar. “It is easy to applaud and praise your classmates, but it takes courage to honestly assess and critique them while having their best interest at heart. It is because of them that I have already been able to improve myself every day. I am a better version of myself since I first started.”
Perhaps the best description of the Class of 2020 was delivered by Brittany Hunter. Her assessment of her classmates? “This group will definitely give you FOMO.”