Ying Men grew up feeling isolated in China. Despite reforms, women didn’t enjoy the same privileges as men. Many were relegated to being vendors or administrators, left behind by social customs, stunted educations, and lower pay. That sense of futility never seeped into Men – her mother wouldn’t let it. That’s why she named her “Ying” or “Firefly” in Chinese.
To her mother, a firefly represented potential – “a creature though small and weak that has the ability to light up the darkness.” Over time, Men adopted the spirit of a firefly, proving her name to be both mission and prophecy. At 14, she entered Peking University. There, she collected Bachelor’s degrees in economics and pharmacy and a Master’s in Pharmaceutics, even publishing research papers in two top Chinese medical journals. Eventually, she set a company record for the fastest promotion to project manager before earning the role as a CEO’s assistant. She has even published a book of research and cases in the pharmaceutical industry.
Now, Men hopes to maintain this torrid momentum as a first-year MBA student at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “I hope I can light the darkness for more people just as fireflies do in the future.”
LEARNING DISCIPLINE THROUGH BALLET
The thing about fireflies, their glow is even more dazzling when they gather. In many regions, they radiate a comforting yellow or green. Some fireflies even emit a blue hue to brighten the world around them. You could say the same about Kenan-Flagler’s Class of 2021, a group whose aura breathes life into the school’s principles of leadership, integrity, teamwork, excellence, and community.
Take Breanna Johnson, a Harvard graduate who is earning her MD alongside her MBA at the University of North Carolina. As a third medical student, she organized a Women’s Wellness Day at a behavioral health facility to increase pap smears and mammograms among patients while providing tools to enhance their nutrition and exercise. She even enlisted Uber to help with patients’ transportation needs! Her efforts won her an award from the North Carolina Academy of Family Physicians.
Still, this was a far different path than what this firefly planned to pursue growing up. Back then, she had her sights set on becoming a ballerina. She was talented enough to earn spots with the School of American Ballet in New York and the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle. Although she ultimately pursued medicine, she remembers the self-control inherent to ballet as a cornerstone of her success.
“A childhood of painful blisters and grueling workouts taught me the importance of discipline and focus as well as the value of flexibility and strength,” she tells Poets&Quants. “In order to live immersed in the worlds of both artistry and academia without late-night studying and sleep deprivation, I had to master the art of balance. Time management became a virtue as I learned to juggle a plethora of demands. Although my interests and passions have transformed throughout the years, I have still held onto that belief of balance as a method to maintain a healthy and fulfilling life.”
GIVING UP THE REINS TO GO TO BUSINESS SCHOOL
Men and Johnson are hardly the only intriguing fireflies in the Class of 2021. Anuradha Gadre is a former national level badminton player in India. After competing in marathons around the world, she now trains runners and serves as an ambassador for Adidas India. That is, when she isn’t busy opening new markets for Garmin. Notably, she created a million dollar a month market for race-based trackers in India. What’s more, she helped make Garmin the GPS navigation providers for the Indian Defense System.
Robert Ejupi is more of an intrapreneur in his family’s retail franchise. In 2018, he spearheaded the development of Kosovo’s first e-commerce platform in the sporting good’s industry – one that has already attracted 500,000 visitors and accounted for 10% of his business’ sales. For Ejupi, returning to school was a difficult decision: the family business has been nearly doubling in sizing each year recently. Still, Eljupi views his Kenan-Flagler MBA as an investment that will pay dividends long-term.
“I felt it was the right time to gain the skills and knowledge required to sustainably scale the organization and continue to dominate the market for many years to come,” he explains. “I do believe the value added by the MBA over the long-term will make up for the two years I’ll be missing from the family business. In many ways, training my employees to take over my duties during this transitional period has already proven to be a valuable experience.”
A CONSULTANT…AND A LEAD SINGER
That’s just the start for these fireflies. Aaron Capelli describes himself as an amateur fisherman, hunter, and sustainability enthusiast. Not surprisingly, he found a home in Anchorage, where he helped build utility systems for rural native communities. As an investment banker with J.P. Morgan, Caroline Gill built million-dollar deals in the real estate and lodging industries. If you visit the U.S. government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website, you’re looking at Rebecca Jordan’s handiwork. She created many of its interactive resources as a Deloitte consultant.
Oh – and Jordan was also the lead singer in Deloitte’s rock band, which once played Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. That’s just one of the fun facts about this year’s classroom. Caroline Gill, for example, has explored every inch of New York City – along with walking the length of Manhattan Island. “I’ve even admired the skyline from a rooftop trapeze,” she adds. Robert Ejupi collects sneakers, while Kelly Whelan made the hike to Mount Everest Base Camp. Despite being a financier in practice, Pedro Alhanat Dias de Souza considers himself a philosopher at heart.
“A refusal to think and act is a refusal to exist. I choose to be,” he writes in his best René Descartes imitation.
THE CAROLINA WAY
Of course, de Souza isn’t the only class member who carries dual identities. Aaron Capelli, for one, has been struck by the number of classmates pursue dual degrees in areas like law and medicine. However, the biggest surprise came with what’s called the “Carolina Way” – the welcoming warmth of openness and optimism that defines the Kenan-Flagler culture.
“The classmates I’ve met so far truly bring the phrase “Carolina Culture” to life,” says Kelly Whelan. “These people bring incredible personal ambition along with a desire to help others succeed alongside them and remain humble despite having achieved great successes.”
Ran Levinsky, an Israeli financial analyst, adds “collaborative, friendly, and diverse” to the list of qualities he loves about his 2021 classmates. “The admissions office did an incredible job of choosing smart and friendly people from diverse backgrounds,” he observes. “I learn something new from their experiences every day. Chapel Hill and the UNC Kenan-Flagler full-time MBA program combination creates a unique environment that cannot be achieved in any other place.”
Go to Page 3 to access in-depth profiles of the Class of 2021.