2019 MBAs To Watch: Samantha Barlow, ESMT Berlin

Samantha Barlow

ESMT Berlin

“Entrepreneur and board game enthusiast wielding market-based tools to create economic opportunity and empower women.”

Hometown: Lyme, New Hampshire

Fun fact about yourself: I am learning Twi, a regional Ghanaian language.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

Colorado College, Colorado Springs, U.S.A.

Bachelor of Arts in Political Science

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Community First Foundation, communications and programs associate

Where did you intern during the summer of 2018? N/A

Where will you be working after graduation?

Impact Hub Accra | Health Innovation Consultant

(One of six Responsible Leaders Fellows sponsored by ESMT Berlin)

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

  • Class Representative: Conveyed class concerns and interests to appropriate bodies; helped instituted two elected representatives to address and promote diversity among students and staff; represented MBA class at events and meetings
  • Entrepreneurship Club: Participated in events as a volunteer and attendee, including presentations from large, Berlin-based startups and a session on the Business Model Canvas from Alexander Osterwalder
  • Social Impact Club: Participated in programs ranging from startup consulting to a mentoring program with an undergraduate university in Cape Town
  • Responsible Leaders Fellow: Currently conducting a six-month social business project in an emerging economy; only fellow to have recruited a five-person project team from the Master’s in Management class at ESMT to complete a consulting project with my host organization
  • PANDA Women Leadership Competition: One of five award winners out of more than 50 competitively selected participants
  • Graduated with Honors: Ranked 9th in the class

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? During the last two months of our MBA, the class was asked to select professors and classmates for annual awards. After nominations were completed, several of my classmates and I noticed a striking trend – of the 12 nominees for two awards and two award presentations, only one woman was represented, even though more than a third of our class was female. I decided we couldn’t let this slide. The other class representative, Ingo, and I coordinated action with the MBA Office and the two new diversity representatives for the class. We held several meetings to research whether this was a problem over time or unique to our year, and brainstorm possible solutions.

It felt like the culmination of a year’s efforts to create change. I was part of a larger effort to incorporate more geographic, racial, and gender diversity into the curriculum, spearheading the effort to encourage professors to include and potentially write business cases in collaboration with us. The cases were to feature underrepresented populations, such as protagonists who were female or from developing countries. In fact, one of the cases I helped construct about sexual harassment was adopted by our Ethics in Business professor. Additionally, I organized the elections for two “Inclusive Leadership” representatives for the MBA class in July 2018. These representatives joined a board of advisors on diversity topics at the school, and Ingo and I called upon them to be part of this awards discussion at the end of the year.

Out of these meetings with administrators came five tangible action items to create lasting change. We did not want to drop the ball, so we created the MBA program’s first-ever orientation guide for new class representatives and included the action items and contextual details to ensure follow-up. It was fulfilling to see our institution embrace diversity concerns so seriously and to see our entire class rise to the challenge.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? The moment we won our first pitch competition for Kadi Energy Company, the international social enterprise I helped found, is another example of a culmination of months of hard work and planning. The founder, Paul, and I had completed the business plan for the company, finished creating our Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and video, and courted investors at Harvard’s Africa Business Conference. However, nothing had yet come to fruition. Winning the pitch competition for 25,000 USD was our first big win and when the dominos began to fall. While I am no longer part of Kadi Energy Company, I am still close with Paul and happy to see Kadi succeeding in West Africa. While the pitch competition was five years ago, it marks a major pivot point in my career.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Guillermo Baquero, our corporate finance professor. His variety of teaching mediums and commitment to student success was unparalleled. I remember after his classes I had to shake out the muscles in my hand from so much notetaking and felt like my brain couldn’t possibly squeeze anything else into it. I loved it.

He was one of few teachers who assigned daily homework submissions in place of readings to ensure students had grasped each concept. I remember the first assignment was particularly long – a multi-tab spreadsheet that took more than six hours to complete. I had trouble with the last section of the assignment. When I emailed him the Excel spreadsheet, I included an explanation of what I had tried and where I had failed. We were only graded on completion, so I expected him to reply that we would go through it together as a class. I was wrong. He provided line by line edits and instructions tailored to my spreadsheet within 24 hours. It must have taken him an hour, and the amount of dedication to my success he displayed made me re-double my own efforts.

Guillermo is truly remarkable and was runner-up for the Faculty Award at the end of the year. He also gave our class tango lessons as part of a fundraiser, and it doesn’t get much cooler than that. I count myself lucky to have taken his class.

What was your favorite MBA Course? I loved our very first course, Managerial Analysis and Decision-making (MAD). The professor began the class with a case study about a newborn girl who needed heart surgery and had us calculate her chances of survival at different hospitals. The decision tree he taught us yielded surprising results and impressed upon us the importance of making logical, measured decisions in business. At the end of the class, the professor revealed the case was based on a true story and the newborn girl in question had been his (now eight-year-old) daughter. Each class was as striking as the first. We were challenged mathematically and psychologically, and I felt like each lesson mattered.

Why did you choose this business school? As a U.S. American with Swiss heritage and citizenship, I sought MBA programs in the DACH region. I pursued an MBA because I wanted to pivot my career path from the world of nonprofit foundations to social enterprise. ESMT Berlin, with its Social Impact Club and location in one of the most entrepreneurial cities in the world, made it the perfect fit. I knew I wanted classes small enough that I could truly grow and come to know my peers, with a diversity of countries and backgrounds that would challenge me.

What is your best advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Think about fit. There are a number of prestigious, international MBA programs around the world. ESMT Berlin has unique qualities and an entrepreneurial flavor that the website alludes to, but can only be truly understood through conversations with the admissions office, alumni, and other front-line individuals. Make sure ESMT’s focus areas and culture are aligned with what you’re looking for.

What is the biggest myth about your school? Perhaps that it is in Berlin. While this is geographically accurate and a great calling card, ESMT figuratively belongs to Europe and the world at large. Inside ESMT’s walls are faculty and students from almost every country imaginable. I am not sure how ESMT has been able to recruit so far and wide.

Think back two years ago. What is the one thing you wish you’d known before starting your MBA program? An institution’s unique, supplementary offerings can make a big difference. For instance, I became the fortunate recipient of a Responsible Leaders Fellowship from ESMT Berlin. It has allowed me to pursue a consultancy in West Africa that is unquestionably transforming my career path. I am working on behalf of a social enterprise in a low-stability environment I would not be able to afford were it not for ESMT’s sponsorship.

While I was lucky enough to attend a school with stellar extracurricular offerings, it is not something I considered hard enough when comparing MBA programs. Once enrolled, it is easy to become entrenched in academics and career services activities. I wish I had known the power of these clubs, competitions, and other opportunities for networking, broadening one’s perspectives, and advancing one’s talents.

MBA Alumni often describe business school as transformative. Looking back over the past two years, how has business school been transformative for you? The transformation was certainly as a leader and learning to hone practices in light of cultural differences and contexts I had never encountered before. Receiving feedback from peers with backgrounds wildly different from my own was delightfully challenging and humbling; it inspired me to think about my leadership strategies in different ways.

For me, though, the transformation was also knowledge-based. As an entrepreneur with Kadi Energy Company, we often needed outside expertise to help with financial projections. As a program manager for foundations, I did little beyond crafting project budgets. At ESMT I learned nitty-gritty accounting tactics and quantitative methods. Who knew regression analysis could be so fun?

In my current consulting role with Impact Hub Accra, I am helping draft financial statements and create financial projections. Without the knowledge acquired during my MBA, I do not believe I would ever have found myself in this role.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I admire Camilo Vesga Mahecha for his measured, humble approach to leadership. Camilo has clearly thought a lot about his values and sticks to them. Everyone knew Camilo as a man of his word, never missing a group submission deadline, and building trust from day one. He went way out of his way to help others. I remember after one particularly exhausting class, several of our friends decided to go out for Taiwanese bubble tea. Camilo refused, though he really wanted to come, saying he had promised another classmate he would tutor her on the finance homework. I did not find out until days later that she forgot and didn’t show up, because Camilo doesn’t complain or put others down.

I am also impressed by how Camilo follows his passions. He loves cars and worked for General Motors in Bogotá before coming to ESMT. When he was a little boy, he climbed into his grandfather’s lap and helped to drive their tractor. He says he has been hooked on vehicles ever since.

Camilo is the kind of person you want to follow, but he doesn’t force himself into leadership positions. All of a sudden, he is just explaining concepts using the whiteboard and the whole study group is hanging on his every word. I sought his advice on presenting a case study for a consulting interview once and was struck by the depth of his knowledge on a variety of management topics. The greater lesson was that because Camilo doesn’t flaunt this wisdom, it feels even more impressive when you realize he has it.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? Paul Miki-Akpablie, the co-founder of Kadi Energy Company, introduced to me the power and sustainability of the business model to address social problems. When we attended the Africa Business Conference together at Harvard Business School – my first time on a business school campus – I was enraptured with attendees’ perspectives and by the power of investors. We applied at approximately the same time, helping each other with the application process, and Paul is actually now at Stanford GSB.

What is your favorite movie about business? 9 to 5 was one of my earliest favorite satires. Dolly Parton and Lily Tomlin taught me about overcoming obstacles in the workplace at a young age.

More recently, Inside Job impressed the importance of people and decisions over the invisible hand. Managers matter. Leadership matters. I’ve seen the movie several times and believe it subconsciously influenced my decision to pursue an MBA.

What was the goofiest MBA term or acronym you encountered – and what did it mean? It’s not an acronym, but my favorite MBA-isms are the Iceberg and the Valley of Death metaphors.

The Iceberg represents how much of a situation – whether it is a negotiator’s intentions or workplace culture – is not immediately apparent.

The Valley of Death refers to the fundraising gap entrepreneurs encounter when resources from family and friends have dried up but the company is still not financially viable enough to attract venture capitalists and other later-stage investors.

Our class had a good time comparing Arctic Ocean landscapes and canyon photos from various professors’ PowerPoints.

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…in the United States of America.”

I am happy to have left the comfort zone of the familiar, of home. I’ve been stretched and challenged in ways I would never have been had I stayed at my previous job. Among other things, the MBA was a platform for me to live and learn internationally.

What dollar value would you place on your MBA education? Was it worth what you paid for it – worth more or worth less? The things I value most are intangibles like relationships and lessons learned about cultural sensitivity and ethics in negotiations.

I found the relationships I built with professors, administrators, and especially classmates from around the world were a greater takeaway than any one classroom experience, upon which it is much easier to place a dollar value.

While it is very un-MBA for me to say so, I find it difficult to think in terms of dollar value for these items unsuited to market pricing tactics.

What are the top two items on your bucket list? Skydiving and participating in an amateur dance competition.

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I dream of being remembered as a woman who lived before her time. 

Hobbies? I love salsa dancing, anything outdoors – backpacking, jogging, tennis – and, of course, board games.

What made Samantha such an invaluable addition to the class of 2018?

“Samantha managed to combine her passion for social engagement, a willingness to take responsibility for her classmates and a positive energy in a way that I have rarely found in 20 years working with MBA students. She clicked with everyone, disarming us with a polite, inclusive, and progressive manner, always with the common good in focus. She was elected class president early on in the program and re-elected halfway through. Instead of focusing on the commercial challenges of a large corporate during her consulting project phase, she worked with Transparency International to develop their future model of financial sustainability. Instead of taking on a high-paying job in industry or finance after her MBA, Samantha chose to work with Impact Hub Ghana, moving to Accra to work on business model innovation with social enterprises in Africa as part of ESMT’s Responsible Leaders Fellowship program. Since moving there in January 2019, she has already hired a project team of Master’s students to work with her in Accra as part of their Social Impact Project module, creating opportunities for others to be a force for good. I look forward to seeing where life takes Sam in the future. I am sure she will continue to be a credit to our school.”

Nick Barniville
Associate Dean of Degree Programs