Meet UNC Kenan-Flagler’s MBA Class of 2021

Aaron Cappelli

University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School

Describe yourself in 15 words or less: Amateur fisherman, hunter, gardener and forager who is passionate about sustainability.

Hometown: Glenwood Springs, CO but most recently spent 6 years in Anchorage, Alaska

Fun Fact About Yourself: I had 5 wisdom teeth!

Undergraduate School and Major: Dartmouth College Class of 2012. Double major in Geography, and Asian and Middle Eastern Studies

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Alaska Rural Utility Collaborative – Regional Manager

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: As a regional manager for rural utility systems, I devoted myself to building relationships with community leaders in the eight remote Alaska Native communities that I managed to ensure that their utility systems remained solvent despite the many challenges they faced. By establishing trust with the community leadership and instilling new managerial practices, we were able to increase community reserve accounts by 47% in 2 years, preparing them for crucial utility upgrades.

What quality best describes the MBA classmates you’ve met so far and why? My classmates are incredibly friendly and all have fascinating pathways that they traveled to get to business school. There are many dual-degree students who are also working to become doctors, pharmacists, and lawyers. I am continually impressed by their talent and excited to see how they approach business problems. I have already had my new classmates go out of their way to help myself and others get some more practice on material that they had seen professionally but we had not. The spirit of collaboration and support is invigorating and has me even more excited about Kenan-Flagler.

Aside from your classmates, what was the key factor that led you to choose this program for your full-time MBA and why was it so important to you? I am passionate about issues surrounding food, water, and agriculture in the context of sustainability. I wanted an MBA that would give me the skills to influence sustainability topics in a meaningful way. Kenan-Flagler has a strong Sustainable Enterprise concentration that I am excited to pursue because it will give me the foundation to understand these challenging problems and come up with actionable solutions through the lens of business.

What club or activity are you looking most forward to in business school? I am interested in joining the Net Impact Club to create relationships with fellow students interested in business and sustainability. I also want to join the Veterans Association to learn from the leadership experience of my fellow veterans and continually improve upon my own leadership style.

What was the most challenging question you were asked during the admissions process? I come from a non-traditional professional background and it took me a while to craft my experiences into stories that demonstrated that I was ready for business school. Once I figured out how to do that, I felt ready for the admissions process. One question I think most people receive is the one about describing a professional failure. Failures are important steps in the process of becoming a better leader, so I had to make sure I adequately described the actions I took to remedy the mistake and come out of the experience stronger.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? While I felt that I had developed many intangible skills to varying degrees over my career, I still wanted the toolkit that I knew business school could provide. I have many ideas about how I want to make impacts in the sustainability space, but all of those ideas required a foundation in business fundamentals that I did not have and that I hope to soon acquire!

What other MBA programs did you apply to? Michigan Ross, Duke Fuqua, Berkeley Haas, UVA Darden, Dartmouth Tuck

How did you determine your fit at various schools? I looked at schools that either had programs directly linked to sustainability or had alumni who had success in that space. Three of the schools to which I applied had three-year dual MBA and environmental degree programs. The ones that did not have explicit degrees generally had other dedicated sustainability centers or programs. Since I want a career in sustainability, I prioritized programs that had made investments in developing those types of opportunities for their students.

I researched culture by reaching out to classmates from Dartmouth undergrad who had recently completed or were currently in Business school. They gave me insight into school culture and the tools their programs provided that had helped them excel.

What was your defining moment and how did it shape who you are? I don’t have a single defining moment. Rather, I can identify many small but significant events throughout my career that have led me to where I am today. In the Army and in my role as a regional manager, I enjoyed the process of personally mentoring and coaching those on my team who were struggling and helping them make the changes that led to immediate and future successes in their careers. Helping soldiers on my teams increase their physical fitness scores, and later helping water plant operators execute new preventative maintenance plans in their communities were small highlights that demonstrated to me the importance of focusing on building productive relationships that increased personal confidence and performance and ultimately benefited the entire organization or community.

Where do you see yourself in ten years? The food industry is experiencing an inflection point with regard to sustainability and is primed for operational and technological innovations that can reduce environmental impact while still providing quality products and services to consumers. There are many crops that have been under-studied but could have broad food, agricultural, and industrial impacts. Helping develop those products and markets would be an exciting way to be a leader in the food industry. Alternatively, I see myself being a Chief Sustainability Officer at a food or CPG company, leading the effort to apply new sustainable technologies and best practices across the business.

Leading by personal example in this regard is extremely important, so I also hope to have the best and most productive garden in my neighborhood, wherever I end up!

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.