Best & Brightest Online MBAs: Class Of 2019

“MBA Lite.”

That’s what critics call online MBA programs. It is the place for professionals who want to check a box. Just play the lectures, take notes, and finish the readings, they’ll say. You’ll add “MBA” to your business card in no time.

Funny, Dr. Owen Ellis never experienced these ‘degree mill’ standards at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Isenberg School. A 2019 online MBA graduate, Ellis studied from Colorado, where he serves as the medical director for Boulder Community Health’s perioperative services. For him, the return was immediate. Ellis learned how a business should run – a mindset that “is different than how a physician thinks a business should run,” he notes. Such insights didn’t come from just showing up. Instead, they are the result of deeply engaging with classmates and coursework alike.


“This is real school, not merely continuing education,” Ellis emphasizes. “Be prepared to meet deadlines, take tests and generally add a second job to your life. Otherwise, you could fall hopelessly behind.

No MBA wants that, not with students like Drexel University’s Duriel Holley on their heels. Based in Texas, Holley spent his time outside class testing F-16 and F-22 fighter jets for Lockheed Martin. As an MBA student, he thrived in a collaborative online environment, featuring highly-active discussion boards and real-world projects. While Drexel’s program was demanding, it included a flexibility that fit Holley’s hectic schedule and restless spirit.

Drexel University’s Duriel Holley

“I wouldn’t have been able to make it through regular classes or sitting through classes all weekend, he admits. “My work schedule wouldn’t allow it and neither would my soul!…For me, there were fewer distractions than in a normal classroom and no need to watch the clock waiting for the end of a lecture class. When I was ready to study and learn, I could do it then, and not on someone else’s time.”


Holley and Ellis are just two members of Poets&Quants’ 2nd annual Best & Brightest Online MBAs – the students who were “so fundamental that you can’t imagine the class without them.” Like last year, P&Q reached out to the top programs in its online MBA rankings, asking for two nominations from each school. Targeted to 2019 online MBA graduates, schools were encouraged to consider students based on “academic performance, critical and consistent contributions, personal narratives, or innate potential.” Overall, P&Q extended 29 invitations, receiving nominations back from 24 online MBA programs. This includes 8 of the 10 highest-ranked programs – and 16 of the Top 20.

This year’s Best & Brightest acted as the standard bearers of their online MBA classes. Despite being separated by hundreds of miles from their classmates, they were the leaders, organizers, and mentors of their cohorts. They include engineers, entrepreneurs, sales directors, and military commanders. Ranging in age from 28-65, they hold key roles at companies like Google, Citigroup, Apple, Nike, Disney, Cisco, and General Motors. Some wanted to climb to the next level in their organizations. Others were making a career transition – or stepping up to bring their dreams to life. They understood, in the words of Auburn’s Eric Hensley, that “The work only begins when the lecture ends.” They were, according to Drexel’s Cindy Moser, the students whose viewpoints and contributions, enabled their peers to get the most out of their MBA experience.

“I loved finding those 4-5 peers in each class who you knew would help challenge you to think about the topics more strategically and from different perspectives,” Moser adds.


This year’s Best & Brightest are a diverse lot, hailing from locations as different as Kazakhstan, Arkansas, Ireland, and North Dakota. Their backgrounds are equally as colorful. Take the University of North Carolina’s Chris Venditti. Before business school, he was a musician who played venues like Carnegie Hall and holds a Master’s degree from the Juilliard School in the trumpet. For the past eight years, he has headed field music operations at West Point, where he performed “Taps” hundreds of times. While Venditti is hanging up his bugle to start work as an investment banker, he will never forget one particular veteran’s funeral.

“I arrived at the cemetery and discovered the deceased had no family,” he remembers. “The honor guard team and I performed honors for this veteran with the same dignity and respect that would be given to a general. I was incredibly proud of this moment because we fulfilled and honored a sacred promise even though no one would ever see or know.”

Northeastern University’s Michael Thomas Schermuly

Northeastern University’s Michael Thomas Schermuly is also a musician. In high school, this guitarist dreamed of heavy metal stardom. Sure enough, he was talented enough to play with Jeff Olson, a legendary drummer, on his side band Retro Grave. Outside the studio, Schermuly broke into the music industry through media relations, working alongside a team that represented artists like Ringo Starr and Paul Simon.


Admittedly, his musical talents didn’t take him as far as he’d hoped. In fact, Schermuly graduated third from the bottom of his high school class – with his guidance counselor hectoring that he’d never amount to anything. For many years, his admonition proved prophetic. Then something clicked with Schermuly a dozen years after high school. He enrolled in college, eventually making the dean’s list and serving on the student senate. Despite failing algebra to start school, he eventually emerged as the class math whiz.

“I started below my peers, but I ended up earning cum laude at graduation. I did this all within three-and-a-half years. Not only that, but I became a business tutor so that I could help my fellow classmates with math (business stats) and accounting.”

Looking for smarts? This year’s Best & Brightest has it. The University of Arizona’s Samuel Speet is literally a rocket scientist, serving as a senior systems engineer at Raytheon Missile Systems. Not to be outdone, Jeremy Searer, a 2019 University of Delaware grad, oversees the control room at an atomic power station – an honor that the powers-that-be don’t confer on just anyone.

“I’m most proud of obtaining my senior reactor operator license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to allow me to control and operate both reactors at Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station I’m most proud of this accomplishment because after a stringent selection process, I spent two years in initial license training to learn this special and unique technology. Throughout the training process, I was continually tested and challenged, as I was required to pass a multitude of in field job performance measures, simulator scenarios, written examinations, and oral boards.”


How do you know an online MBA program is strong? It attracts good teachers. That was the case for Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School, whose 2019 class includes John Campion – a senior instructor in political science from the U.S. Naval Academy. He wasn’t too far from the University of Maryland, where Kathleen Finnegan, a U.S. Air Force Intelligence Officer, completed her online MBA this year. If you’re looking for big titles, check out the University of Illinois’ Daniel Prorok. He serves as the senior vice president and global head of hardware planning and vendor management at Citigroup. His claim to fame? He has built several tech organizations across the world. That’s not his accomplishment, however.

“Years later, I still have an engaged and world-class team, exemplified by the zero turnover I have had since assembling the teams,” he says.

Prorock isn’t alone in being known for a long list of accolades. Dr. Michael E. Silverman holds board certifications in Emergency Medicine, Internal Medicine, and Undersea and Hyperbaric Medicine – not to mention being the Vice Chair of the emergency department at the Morristown Medical Center. Like Prorock, he takes pride in something far more fundamental than his jaw-dropping resume.

IE Business School’s Chiara Molena

“My most significant achievement was being named Educator of the Year for our Emergency Medicine residency program,” writes the Jack Welch Institute MBA. “As a highly motivated and self-proclaimed “fixer,” having the patience to ensure you are training others can take practice…Being named Educator of the Year was validation and recognition that the extra time and effort had a real effect on others and potentially saved lives.”


Potential is encouraging. Many times, the Class of 2019’s contributions can be measured in hard numbers. For example, it only took IE Business School’s Chiara Molena 10 months to turn around the fortunes of a global spirits brand in Australia, going from annual declines to a 36% uptick in sales. That number was 21 for Matt Franz. That is the number of metric tons that this Penn State MBA cut per 1,000 miles driven in his fleet. In terms of real responsibility, it’d be hard to beat Franz’s classmate Ariel Prochowski. As a senior global sourcing manager, she oversaw a global $3.1 billion dollar supply chain that touched all of Apple’s product lines. Through her negotiation prowess, Prochowski was able to save the company over $200 million dollars…annually.

“Bringing-up a strong second supplier source in the OLED module display market was a critical driver behind these cost savings; this was one of my first major contributions to the company.”

Sometimes, just surviving is an accomplishment in itself. Meet the University of Maryland’s Terri Jarboe Farri, the CEO of a titling business she has grown to three locations and ten employees. That’s time-consuming enough – and it doesn’t even include her roles as wife and mother, let alone being heavily involved in community organizations. In other words, to say Jarboe Farri is busy would an understatement. That’s one reason why she ended up on a Dr. Oz show dedicated to stress. His prescriptions, ranging from riding a bike to eating butternut squash, obviously resonated with Jarboe Farri.

“I guess I thought I could push my stress level a little higher and enrolled in the MBA program shortly after,” she jokes.

Go to page 3 for 50 in-depth profiles of this year’s Best & Brightest Online MBAs.

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