That could be the new tagline for the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. That, or you could call it the Disneyland of MBA programs – “The happiest place on earth.”
Who says? The students themselves, actually. In the bi-annual Forbes survey of MBA alumni, Darden ranked 2nd in student happiness in 2017…after finishing 1st in 2015. Forbes wasn’t the only place where alumni voiced their support. In the 2018 alumni survey by The Economist, the school topped all comers in the Education Experience category…and placed third for Professional Development.
A STUDENT-RUN, STUDENT-CENTERED APPROACH
What’s behind Darden’s success? For one, the school doesn’t just pay lip service to being student-centric. Darden lives it – and the Class of 2020 took notice early in the recruiting process. “Every time I met or interacted with a Darden Admissions officer, career counselor, financial aid advisor, or professor, it was clear to me how genuinely dedicated the entire school is to the success and happiness of its students,” says Lauren Sless, an MIT grad and dog lover who plans to pivot into marketing. “Right away, I knew this type of environment would give me the freedom to sculpt my own MBA experience and the support and expertise that I would need as I start the next stage of my career.”
Freedom? That’s an understatement at Darden. The program is predicated on the Jeffersonian ideal of self-governance. That translates to the student body running everything at the school – a ‘my money, my rules’ ethos where students enjoy wide latitude and wield ultimate authority. For example, one club manages a chunk of the Darden Fund, which amounts to $15 million dollars, says Dean Scott Beardsley in a 2017 interview with Poets&Quants. In addition, MBA students administer the school’s honor code, where students hold the hearings and mete out the sanctions on their peers for violations.
In other words, students learn how to manage…by actually managing at Darden. The program is also known for its academic rigor. Think 500 cases minimum before graduation. That demands preparation like no other, with class time considered so sacred that students cannot miss it even for extracurriculars! Alas, Darden first-years enter the program with eyes wide open. They “self-select,” says Ron Wilcox, senior associate dean for degree programs at Darden. By that, he means that Darden students understand heavy workloads and expectations are part of the Darden culture – and necessary to achieve the outcomes.
A “SELF-SELECT” SCHOOL
For one, Wilcox notes, students learn how to make decisions in ambiguous situations because they repeat the process over-and-over through the case method. This enables Darden grads to start fast out of the gate. “In my mind, a student who chooses Darden is usually the same type of individual who is going to add a lot of value to a company right off the bat because they have the type of psychological makeup where they just want to dive in and start working,” Wilcox observes in a 2018 interview with P&Q.
Indeed, Darden represents the proverbial chicken-or-the-egg argument. Do first-rate students who hold themselves to a higher bar attract stellar faculty – or vice versa? Either way, Darden is best-known as the MBA program where teaching excellence is prioritized, celebrated, and rewarded. Among Darden faculty, a mind-altering classroom exchange is the goal – and a thank you note for a happy alum is the ultimate reward.
“We don’t graduate a lot of students who regret coming here – very few do,” Wilcox adds. “That is due to long-standing norms we have around here, where we evaluate faculty very seriously on the teaching dimension. We hold up that standard and what develops over the years is a cadre of faculty who self-select to come to Darden because of that and it produces outstanding results in our classroom and also very loyal alumni.”
FIRST COFFEE BRINGS THE DARDEN COMMUNITY TOGETHER
Beyond personal empowerment and teaching excellence, Darden’s high satisfaction is centered around a sense of shared mission and family. It is a fun-loving culture, where you’ll find students engaging in sack races and egg tosses for the Darden Cup. At the same time, the students are fostering stronger connections through Darden Stories. Here, students drop their guard to share their defining moments with peers, creating a deeper intimacy between classmates that filters into activities like First Coffee. A Darden staple, this gathering brings faculty, students, and staff together at 9:30 sharp for croissants and fruit – further tightening the personal and cultural bonds that define Darden.
In the end, Dean Beardsley likens the Darden community to a “big family.” That’s exactly the impression that the school has left on first-year Alexander Gregorio so far. “What sold me on Darden was the fact that I was going to a school that prioritized building relationships between students as much as the activity in the classroom,” he writes. “Darden wants the students to learn from each other inside and outside the classroom. And as much as I love the classroom, the most memorable insights I’ve learned have come from outside with my peers over lunch, during late nights at the library, or in the hallways between classes.”
In these locales, the Class of 2020 is bound to hear from Evan Covington…literally. “I have one of the most distinctive and hearty laughs around – it is almost like a GPS device for others to find me in a large crowd,” he cracks.
Then again, Carissa Sanchez was born to get an MBA. Her interest in business, like some, started early on the farm. “I raised pigs for auction and received my first lesson in accounting and finance,” she reminisces. “My step-dad taught me how to calculate profits based on my costs (building a pig pen, food and medication purchases) and my revenues (price per pound I was able to sell my pigs for at the county fair). I was hooked.”
GOVERNMENT WORKS INSPIRES A MOVE TO BUSINESS
You could say the same for Kelly Bonilla, a Teach for America veteran and third generation entrepreneur. She finds inspiration in her grandmother, who started as a Cuban exile and ended up owning a company with 200 employees. Alexander Gregorio honed his critical thinking skills as a competitive boardgamer – and won a world championship in Churchill. Who knows, maybe Ashton Daily will give First Coffee a run for its money? He is “a self-styled Texas BBQ pitmaster.”
If anyone in the Class of 2020 is hoping to build their brand, they may want to look up social media mavens Metasebia Aberra and Adam Miller. The former hosts a YouTube channel on Ethiopian cooking, while the latter’s iTunes podcast, The MBA Candidates, interviews business school students from top programs.
Of course, the Class of 2020 already brought 335 impressive brands to Charlottesville. As a senior manager of emerging technologies at Ford, Alexandra Medack worked with stakeholders ranging from environmentalists to policymakers to pass legislation that opened roads up to self-driving vehicles. At the U.S. Department of Justice, Alexander Gregorio drafted a policy that shaped antitrust regulations. His work on payment rail systems impacted more than just national policy.
“Doing months of research, interviews, and discussions with attorneys and economists paid off when the decision our team reached was published and signed off by the Assistant Attorney General,” he explains. “Taking a topic I knew nothing about and becoming familiar enough to discuss it, working with a skilled and dedicated team, and seeing those recommendations adopted was an incredible experience. The experience of thinking like a businessperson, determining where the incentives were to act anti-competitively, and addressing them explicitly in the letter inspired me to go to business school.”
INFANTRY COMMANDER RETURNS TO THE FIELD AFTER A NEAR FATAL WOUND
In the finance sector, Trenton Hegseth ‘quarterbacked’ the sale of a portfolio company when he served as an associate at Windjammer Capital. He wasn’t alone in pushing a last-minute drive into the end zone. As part of a design lab team at Hewlett Packard, Ammar Khan helped produce the test chip for “The Machine,” an initiative, he says, will fundamentally alter computing. Sure enough, his team delivered this proprietary technology in six months instead of the projected twelve.
Some achievements were more personal in nature. After his stint at Teach for America, Aman Malik is proud to learn some of the 150 high school algebra students he taught are now collecting their undergraduate degrees. Ashton Daily commanded 150 infantry soldiers in combat operations in Afghanistan, where he was seriously wounded. This setback only made Daily more determined.
“My road to recovery included six reconstructive surgeries and one year of occupational therapy,” he explains. “Eventually, I was able to rejoin my unit and re-earn my position as a light-infantry company commander. That experience refocused my life’s priorities, illustrated the network required for real resiliency, and gave me perspective for future challenges.”
HELPING STUDENTS “FIND THEIR WHY IN LIFE”
In fact, you could say the Class of 2020 comes to campus with a broader perspective on their careers – and their lives too. Lauren Sless describes her classmates as “grounded.” She describes them as students who know their “true north” and have already plotted out “how they want their lives to end up and how they want to change their corners of the world.” That fits the Darden profile, says Dean Beardsley, who notes the program recruits a “different kind of student” – one who is more than just “a brain on a stick.”
“We want people with drive, we want people with integrity, interesting people that have global experiences that they can share with their classmates,” he shares. “We want people who know how to be on a team, who want to contribute and who have a desire to improve themselves and to really go on and be responsible leaders in the world… They are trying to do something for a reason. We are all about that at Darden, helping people find their why in life. Their raison d’etre, as we say in French.”
Aman Malik has also been struck by how supportive his classmates have been. For him, that started at Darden Before Darden, a pre-MBA program that provides a foundation in core business concepts. In the finance module, for example, section-mates would go out of their way to help Malik, often offering to work with him after class. This outreach, observes Ron Wilcox, is par for the course at Darden.
“Darden students are intensely committed to each other’s success,” observes Wilcox, who has taught at the program since 2001. “We teach primarily via the case method, and the unscripted learning experience produces an intense, and intensely rewarding, classroom environment and truly breeds a culture of positive intent. Students get to know their classmates — and their professors — extremely well. Students enjoy and appreciate each other’s company, even when they disagree. They coach each other on interview prep, even when competing for the same position. They study together, eat together and play softball together. In short, people tend to really like each other, and they love their time at Darden — one of the reasons we always rank at the top on student satisfaction.”
To read 15 in-depth profiles of Class of 2020 students, go to page 3.