2019 MBAs To Watch: Svitlana Niskoklon, North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

Svitlana Niskoklon         

University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School

“Confident, strong-willed, critical thinker, trailblazer – Inspired by emerging technologies to solve socio-economic problems.”

Hometown: Donetsk, Ukraine

Fun fact about yourself: Lived for a week in a house of a random tuk-tuk driver in Sri Lanka thinking that it was a hotel, and it was not.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Combined 5-year BS/MS in Accounting and Management from Donetsk Technical State University

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Piraeus Bank, Director of Small and Medium Enterprise Business Development

Where did you intern during the summer of 2018? Business and Technology Development Center, Raleigh, North Carolina Technology Commercialization Consultant

Where will you be working after graduation?  I haven’t made a final decision about where I will be in the emerging technologies world, but I am excited about the future.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: (Include school awards and honors),

  • Blockchain Club – Co-founder and President
  • Adam Smith Society – Executive Vice President
  • Program Coordinator – Kenan Institute Emerging Tech Research Program
  • UNC Kenan-Flagler Merit Fellowship

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am most proud of the work I’ve done for the Blockchain Club. I co-founded the club in April 2018, and despite being a new organization, we’ve already engaged 120 students, organized the first Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence Conference, built connections with leading FinTech and blockchain industry players, organized a blockchain VC competition and hosted lunch and learn sessions. As a result of these efforts, UNC Kenan-Flagler has allocated resources to a newly-instituted FinTech curriculum, as well as launched an emerging tech research program.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? During my last role prior to b-School, I was tasked with transforming a small-and-medium enterprise business line that had been losing money for years. I built a strong, talented and passionate team that helped bring the business to profitability in less than six months. I left that job two years ago, but my team is still successfully growing and driving business. The best part though is that every member of that team is now my friend.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? I first met Professor Ghysels, Edward Bernstein Distinguished Professor of Economics and Adjunct Professor of Finance, when I was searching for a faculty advisor for the Blockchain Club. He expressed interest in incorporating FinTech into the MBA curriculum and, as the blockchain club president, I wanted to increase awareness to FinTech, but more specifically, Blockchain. I had the pleasure of working with Professor Ghysels on building the curriculum for the newly launched FinTech class, as well as assist him in launching an interdisciplinary emerging tech research program, which led to a partnership between the MBA and Computer Science programs at UNC. This partnership has resulted in a series of interesting innovative events such as the Blockchain Symposium and FinTech Conference. Professor Ghysels is not only a pioneer in his field, but his energy and expertise are also inspiring for me as a student.

What was your favorite MBA Course? My favorite MBA courses, by far, are those that teach students how to think differently.

If I had to pick one course, it would be Technology Strategy and Business Innovation taught by professor Albert Segars. While most classes allow students to better their technical skills and knowledge – whether finance, accounting, marketing, etc. – Professor Segars course forced you to think in a non-traditional, outside-of-the-box kind of way that will prepare students to become extraordinary leaders. He pushed us to think creatively, analytically, and far beyond the confines of the classroom. Not only did we have fun learning about innovative technologies, but we also used and explored some of those technologies, such as Google glasses and an AI-powered robot, in addition to examining the different tools and techniques, such as Paradox Matrix, Narratives Plot, and Investment Triage, which were created to transform the ways we think about solving business problems.

Why did you choose this business school? When evaluating business schools, it was important to me was to feel welcomed and accepted. I was looking for a school that had a tightly-knit community and a family feel on campus. UNC Kenan-Flagler had just that. Throughout the application and interview process, I spoke with both students and alumni and found that everyone was so genuinely nice, helpful, and caring. I felt as though the community truly wanted to learn about me and also wanted me to feel comfortable and at home. As an international student, I didn’t have a support network set up before I arrived at school, and when I arrived, I have felt at home from day one.

What is your best advice to an applicant hoping to get into your school’s MBA program? Leadership has always been something I learned by doing and having an established background of leadership before school made it easier to grow as a leader at UNC Kenan-Flagler. I believe that having strong leadership experience before school will allow candidates to make the most of the opportunities they have on campus, and truly unlock their potential as leaders of the future.

What is the biggest myth about your school? There is a myth about UNC Kenan-Flagler that you would be bored in a small-town like Chapel Hill. From my personal experience, I can say that I wish I could add a couple of additional hours to my day to attend all events taking place in Chapel Hill.

Think back two years ago. What is the one thing you wish you’d known before starting your MBA program? I wish somebody told me that it is okay to ask for help. I grew up in a culture where people rely on themselves and don’t expect any support from the community.

In my experience at UNC Kenan-Flagler, I learned that there are many people around who are willing to help you and who want you to succeed. For example, last year I was invited to be a speaker at the largest FinTech conference in Europe called Impact FinTech. It was a great opportunity and I was going to speak about blockchain to over 1,000 people. The conference offered to pay all expenses, but they couldn’t pay for my airfare and I couldn’t afford it myself. My friend Michael Goodwin started a fundraising campaign among our classmates to buy the plane tickets without even telling me. I later found out that the money was raised from over 50 of my classmates. Future MBAs, you will meet so many people who will be willing to help you and it is okay to ask for help!

MBA Alumni often describe a business school as transformative. Looking back over the past two years, how has business school been transformative for you? I came to the school planning to continue a career in banking or finance, something I was comfortable with and knew. Within the first semester, I became fascinated by emerging tech, learned a lot about it through class, classmates, and self-education. This transformed my trajectory and my development as an individual. I am passionate about using these technologies to improve the world and have become a leader in the field not only at UNC Kenan-Flagler but in the world, speaking on big platforms and stages. The transformation might have started while attending business school, but I know it is going to continue and I am very curious about where it will take me in the years to come.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? There are many people who I admire and who inspire me in the program. But if I had to choose one person, the classmate I admire the most is Jonathan Gamliel. Jonathan became my best friend at school and my biggest supporter who always stayed by my side. He patiently explained American traditions, made me watch American football for hours to understand the importance of sport in the U.S., helped with my study, and was my support when I went through periods of homesickness. Jonathan is very passionate about helping our classmates at UNC Kenan-Flagler to succeed. He spends hours writing perfect resume walks, crafting STAR stories and practicing answering interview questions, and preparing UNC Kenan-Flagler students for interviews for the jobs of their dreams. He has a big heart and his numerous friends know that they can rely on Jonathan in any situation 24/7.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? The first person who inspired me to pursue a career in business was Scarlet O’Hara from the book Gone with the Wind. I was 12 years old, and it was the first time I realized that a woman can have power, run a successful business and make people treat her equally.

What is your favorite movie about business? As of today, my favorite movie about business is FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened on Netflix. What the movie demonstrated so well is that in the 21st century the power of social media enables charismatic business leaders to shine so blindingly that people forget to critically think about other elements of the business (i.e. financials, product, or strategy). In the movie, Billy McFarland’s fans, employees, and colleagues and even professional investors continued to follow the charismatic Billy even though there was compelling proof that the festival was a scam. Advice: Work with leaders who chase value and substance, not fame.

If I hadn’t gone to business school, I would be…going into politics in Ukraine.”

What dollar value would you place on your MBA education? Was it worth what you paid for it – worth more or worth less? The value of an MBA can be calculated in a variety of ways. For example, if you choose to go to school to get a higher paying job, you simply need to compare your pre-MBA salary with your post-MBA salary. In my opinion, an MBA is much more than just a salary increase. For me, my MBA marked the start of a new chapter in my life. I got a chance to change my career, live in a new country, immerse myself into a new culture and make new friends. I don’t know how nor couldn’t put a price tag on my experience at UNC Kenan-Flagler. So for me, it has definitely been worth more. That said, I wish the MBA cost less. I was fortunate enough to receive scholarships that helped pay for school.

What are the top two items on your bucket list?

  1. Visit all 195 countries
  2. Fly to space

In one sentence, how would you like your peers to remember you? I would like to be remembered as an ambitious and inspiring person who left a positive impact and legacy at the school.

Hobbies?

  1. I read approximately 30 books every year.
  2. Traveling and asking the question “What is happiness?” I have traveled to 45 countries, and my favorite part is not only enjoying the architecture and eating the local food but also asking the question “What is happiness?” I am always astonished at the spectrum of answers and they constantly help me to reevaluate my value system.

What made Svitlana such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2019?

What makes Svitlana Niskoklon remarkable among her peers stems from the sheer abundance of personal and professional development, experience and opportunity she has leveraged and created for herself during her tenure as an MBA student. Svitalana’s background provides sufficient support for recognition – born and raised in Ukraine, starting her career in the throes of the Ukrainian Revolution and subsequent intervention by Russia in Crimea and with all the pressure, stress, fear, danger and dislocation that these events entailed. But her background makes for but one slice of her reality: If her present is any indication, her future is bright indeed.

Svitlana arrived at UNC Kenan-Flagler along with hundreds of classmates, scores of whom are also international students, with typical excitement and apprehension about the looming MBA experience.  She ran fully into the face of challenges with a fervor I have rarely seen, as she dove head-long into her classes, embracing the rigor. She, as fewer MBAs do, simultaneously engaged one of our most challenging career paths in investment banking.  And, as but a handful of MBAs do, she sought to supplement an already strenuous program with as much more education, experience, interaction and insights as she could.

A great example of Svitlana’s self-piloted, above-and-beyond excellence would involve her blockchain work. She knew of the burgeoning potential of blockchain and cryptocurrency and, like many of us, she was mostly oblivious to the particulars – until she engaged, on a whim, a weekend-long blockchain hackathon. That event set her course: from that day (just over a year ago) until now, Svitlana has learned all she can about blockchain, embracing every resource that UNC Kenan-Flagler, and several of our peer institutions could offer to the point that she has secured her Six Sigma certification, collaborated with individuals from MITs Media Lab and IBM’s Watson project, the Adam Smith Society and others. She led the creation and implementation of a blockbuster conference on the power of AI and blockchain here at UNC Kenan-Flagler, advised and supported a collection of FinTech startups, and offered a plenary address at the international ImpactCEE’18 conference in Krakow last fall.

From novice to thought leader – following her own instincts, making her own opportunities, engaging our community and others, extending the UNC Kenan-Flagler brand, gaining and offering insights in equal measure – all amazing accomplishments.  In summary of her work with IBM’s Call for Code 2018 (solutions to respond to natural disasters) Svitlana wrote: “It is hard to find a more fulfilling activity than creating a solution that would save people’s lives.” Given her background, that phrase carries immense weight. Looking to the future, that perspective carries immense value.”

Tim Flood
Associate Professor of Management and Corporate Communication

Are you a friend of Svitlana? Leave a comment to congratulate her.