Perception is reality in business. Companies can pore over data and invest millions in R&D and promotion. In the end, a happy customer is the best advertisement: a parable, pitch, and proof all rolled into one. The customer was referred to as the “boss” by Walmart founder Sam Walton. They were so powerful, he joked, that they could fire the CEO by simply taking their business across the street.
Read any case study and one lesson becomes clear: every failure is rooted in taking the customer for granted. That lesson has never been forgotten at the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. Nestled in the Finger Lakes region of New York, the school is known for Ivy League rigor and small school closeness – not to mention a natural waterfall running through campus. More than that, Cornell Johnson has developed a reputation for happy students and alums.
HAPPY STUDENTS, HIGHER PAY
Take the annual Bloomberg Businessweek student survey, which was released in June. Here, the school ranked in the top three for Inspiring Faculty, Right Mix of Faculty, and Diverse Recruiters – a student nod to both the quality of education and variety of opportunities they received. At the same time, Johnson MBA students gave Johnson the 6th-highest score for Applicable Skills, with the school also ranking among the best for Career Development according to alumni surveyed by Bloomberg Businessweek.
Those numbers matter. Johnson MBA alumni, for example, saw their pay rise by $78,300 within five years of graduation according to 2019 Forbes data – an increase that topped programs like Yale SOM, Michigan Ross, Berkeley Haas, and Virginia Darden. In other words, well-prepared and satisfied Cornell MBAs make attractive employees with strong long-term prospects.
What’s behind the upbeat atmosphere in Ithaca (and New York City)? Drew Pascarella, associate dean for MBA programs at Cornell Johnson, believes high marks in faculty quality stem from faculty engagement. “Our excellent faculty are attracted by the prestige of working at one of the world’s elite research universities, and the successful track record of research productivity at Johnson,” he tells P&Q. “They are invested in the Johnson community and in the learning, support and growth of our students. Success begets success; our faculty hiring pipeline benefits from this prestige and success each year.”
CONTINUOUSLY EVALUATING AND TWEAKING THE PROGRAM
As a whole, Cornell University ranks among the largest Ivy League schools, enabling Johnson to pull resources from an array of avenues. In business, willpower can be an even greater force than scale. When it comes to skill development, Pascarella adds, Cornell Johnson’s success is a reflection of its intense focus on providing in-time support that MBA students need to excel.
“We are deeply connected to industry, which allows for open, honest, and up-to-the-minute feedback on required skills, and our curriculum is highly flexible and agile. If there’s a skill or functional area our students need, it doesn’t take us years to develop a class to teach it. We created and developed our FinTech and Digital Marketing Intensives in just a matter of months. We augment our regular course roster with a Managerial Skills Program, where we can deliver short-burst training on a range of skills that may not fit easily into a traditional class format, including Tableau and SCRUM. Our leadership program begins pre-orientation with a 360 assessment that leads to individualized developmental goals and a cycle of instruction, experience, and review that ensures development. These are just a few examples of the many dimensions of our program that are devoted to each student’s development.”
No one can say Cornell Johnson has rested on its laurels in recent years. In 2017, the school launched Cornell Tech, its one-year interdisciplinary MBA program on New York City’s Roosevelt Island – a venture that has been recognized as P&Q’s Program of the Year. That came after a curriculum revamp and new building projects on the Ithaca campus, not to mention the merging of its business school with its vaunted School of Hotel Administration and Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. However, these developments haven’t taken away from Cornell Johnson’s biggest strength. Jefferson Betancourt, a Vice President at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, calls it “culture and sense of community” – a sense of “belonging” and feeling at home that differentiated Cornell Johnson from the other programs he visited.
“Elite but egalitarian is the perfect way to describe the ambiance on campus,” he writes. “In conjunction with the fact that Johnson’s class size is smaller than other top programs, the faculty and staff make your MBA program feel personal. They remembered my name and background from day one and truly made me feel part of the family. Aside from culture, community and a large alumni base, Johnson has a solid presence in finance, where I aim to continue my career. In addition, Johnson’s unique curriculum provides immersion programs and I plan to join the Investment Banking Immersion to hone in on my interest in banking and prepare for my internship and career. Overall, I chose Johnson due to like-minded people in a prestigious and competitive program and environment.”
FROM RESEARCH SCIENTISTS TO TRIATHALON CHAMPIONS
The Class of 2021 may be like-minded in their seriousness, but they couldn’t be less alike in their backgrounds. Betancourt, who joins his wife Melanie Tarabay as a Johnson first-year, grew up in a first-generation American family whose parents escaped violence-torn Colombia in the 1980s. His classmate, Anshul Bakhda, studied history at the University of Oxford, while Imani Finn-Garland worked as a medical laboratory scientist for Kaiser Permanente. In Europe, Natalie Kirchhoff ran Swimming Luxembourg, a 100-year-old aquatic club in Europe after a decorated athletic career.
“I was a high-performance athlete for 20 years who was optimistic about making the Olympic team,” she writes. “The year after winning a USA Triathlon national championship, I then had two knee surgeries. This was a pivotal time for me. I had to get quiet and reflect on my identity, priorities, and how I wanted to move forward.”
Kirchhoff isn’t alone in making a transition. Michael Callender arrives in Ithaca after serving in the U.S. Army as a Caisson Platoon Leader. His claim to fame? He led the Army’s horse unit…despite never riding one before. The military life was hardly pomp-and-circumstance for Callender, however. He notes that he learned the most about himself when comforts like food and sleep became luxuries – and adversity tested his ability to even function.
A CHANCE TO CHANGE
“I think my defining moment was at Ranger School, when I made a simple but grave mistake on the last night of the evaluation. The instructor had every reason to put me back at the beginning of the course but gave me a second chance because he admired the vigor with which I had supported my team for the previous nine days. As a result, I worked harder to develop my peers and myself. We graduated the course together without losing another member. That moment taught me that failure is never absolute, especially when you have the support of your team.”
Elizabeth Nelson faced a different set of tests as an entrepreneur, where she wore “a lot of hats” and had to rely on “whatever works” in an unrelenting and unforgiving milieu. For Romain Faure, his moment of truth came during the Great Recession, when his father was unable to weather economic forces larger than himself. “At this moment, I realized that I could not let life happen to me,” he writes. “Thus, I started passing certifications to qualify for some of the best hospitality schools in the world. Later on, I took jobs across multiple continents in a variety of settings — ranging from traditional operations in France to formal hierarchical structures in Thailand — to gain a global industry perspective.”
* Go to Page 3 to access a dozen in-depth profiles of Class of 2021 members.
* Go to Pages 2-3 for our exclusive Q&A with Assistant Dean Drew Pascarella.