The Best MBA Alumni Networks

Students working on a group project at the Ross School of Business

Ross’ Alumni-In-Residence program also fosters deeper connections between students and alumni. Basically, alumni volunteer three hours of their time, with MBA students able to meet with them in 20-minute increments. However, this isn’t a platform for students to pitch themselves for an internship or a job. Instead, says Wendy Correll, it is a place where students can have candid and confidential conversations to better understand what matters and how to proceed from successful graduates who once filled their shoes. Entering its third year, Alumni-In-Residence now ranks among Ross’ most popular programs according to student surveys.

“The students love it because they can explore career pathways and make connections – not for a job or internship directly but to get counsel on the career path,” DeRue explains. “How did they make it work? What were the lessons learned? When you take the job internship off the table, it reduces the risk. You can have a really honest conversation about the ups-and-downs and twists-and-turns. It takes less of a networking approach and is much more about alumni being a coach, guide, and partner.”


Notre Dame’s Tim Ponisciak

This program also benefits alumni, DeRue adds. Interacting with students who have no ulterior motive, alumni are able to drop their guard in a way that’s problematic in a more conventional job matching process. That has been the key from DeRue’s perspective. “The alumni has to see it as valuable. Otherwise, we can’t sustain the momentum. We’ve created these opportunities where alumni can immerse themselves in the student experience – and provide that guidance that builds relationships that we’re finding lasts well beyond graduation. You put that together and you have a nice journey, both for the alum and the student.”

At Notre Dame, the administration recently rolled out a new tool: Irish Compass. An online portal, students use it to reach out to like-minded alumni for mentoring. The best part? They are almost guaranteed to get a response, says Tim Ponisciak, Director of Mendoza Graduate Alumni Relations.

“One of the things that makes Notre Dame’s network so strong and valued is the willingness of our alumni to answer the phone or respond to an email whenever a student has a question, is looking for a mentor, or wants to have a conversation about a career…One of our current MBA students reached out to a dozen alums. She was surprised that she heard back from every single one of them. She had a 100% response rate and saw how strong the network was. It was her first opportunity to experience what being a part of the larger Notre Dame community really meant.”


John Rooney cites consulting as an example. To land a job in this field, Rooney believes, students must understand the differing roles, expectations, and verticals in various firms. That doesn’t even count each firm’s recruitment process, which often encompasses cases and behavioral interviews. Navigating all this, Rooney says, involves alumni at these firms lending a hand to interested students.

“One of the ways that students get that here at Notre Dame is alumni come back during the fall. A lot of great networking does happen around football games and sports in general. That’s something that pulls the university together and helps with all this, but you see a lot of alums come back on Fridays and work individually with students to get them prepared for the consulting trek.”

You’ll find this same formula applies to investment banking and technology, with the latter going above-and-beyond to host treks in the Bay Area. More than that, Rooney adds, Mendoza alumni also get their hands dirty when it comes to career clubs. “Alums dramatically help the finance club, the consulting club, and the technology club in those areas of preparation, and really understanding the more detailed elements of the job description and how they’re going to have to be performing in an interview.”

University of Michigan’s Wendy Correll


Along with signature experiences, Ross MBAs are also key players in several annual events. Dean DeRue points to the Michigan Business Challenge as an example. In this competition, MBA alumni serve as judges along with being involved in business development. In addition, alumni serve as panelists and speakers for the 20 or more student-run conferences held each year.

“Over the course of those 20-30 different programs, we’re bringing in approximately 100 different alumni,” adds Wendy Correll. “Typically, when they come in, we try to piggyback that with an alumni-in-residence program or speaking to a student club just to enhance their time here at the school.”

Mendoza also uses events to closely connect students and alumni. Each year, the school hosts three tailgates at home football games for alumni. When the program holds alumni events in nearby locales like Chicago, they bring MBA students along to network. Throughout the year, Mendoza also runs a series called Ask Me Anything, the public equivalent to Ross’ Alumni-In-Residence program.

“We have alumni come back and the students set up a list of things that they’d like to know about, like ask me anything about working with career services, negotiations, or transferring my skills into a new industry,” explains John Rooney. “It’s a really unvarnished way for students to have a safe environment to talk to a thought leader – an alumnus – on a particular category.”


In the spring, Mendoza also holds Becoming a Domer. In this event, alumni speak on how to leverage the alumni network and get involved with their local alumni chapter before meeting with students for informal cocktails. This event also coincides with the week where the graduate alumni board meets in South Bend, enabling students to interact with many of the school’s most active and accomplished alumni. Earlier in the fall, Mendoza hosts an Alumni Awards Luncheon, where the school honors graduates with awards ranging from overall achievement to running mission-driven businesses. To John Rooney, the event spotlights what it means to make a larger difference while staying connected to the university.

“Some of the criteria that we look at for giving out those awards is what that alum has done as far as volunteering with the university or giving back to the university. So having students being able to attend that event, I think, is a great way to showcase the strength of the alumni network.”

Another way is to have alumni help teach class. That’s the case at Ross’ ever-popular Business Leadership in Changing Times – affectionately known as the “CEO Class.” Held every term, the course features eight c-suite alumni, who will share a challenge their companies faced in advance of class. Think of it as a living case study, where students ultimately come face-to-face with their case protagonists…and their leadership teams too.

Ross students preparing for a presentation


“The students essentially write the case in advance of the class,” Dean DeRue explains. “So imagine you have the alum and the leadership team in the room and you have students role-playing them, while others represent entities like the media, board of directors, and investors. They do that for half the class. In the second half of class, the alum and his or her leadership team get up with the professor and share what it was really like and why they made the choices they did. We’re doing that now at scale. That has been a great way to get our really senior alumni involved in the student experience in really immersive and powerful ways.”

Such collaborations have been easier to build thanks to a recent development at the Ross School. Noting that Michigan is home to the largest alumni network in the world, DeRue worked with Wendy Correll to build an alumni engagement office inside their development and alumni relations operation. In the process, they created a central point of contact for faculty and students to bring alumni into various activities, clubs, and courses.

“This helps us organize across all these various activities so we could maximize their value for students and alumni,” DeRue emphasizes. “If we have an alum coming in for a one hour keynote, wouldn’t it be great for that alum if they also had an alumni-in-residence lineup, participate in another course, or talk to a student club that was connected to their industry or some passion they have. Creating that office and positioning it as a broker to really support and enable these connections has been a sea change for us as an organization.”

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