Emma Finkelstein isn’t afraid of hard work. A “self-proclaimed dork,” she naturally assumed graduate school involved crammed schedules and heavy reading loads. That academic rigor is exactly why Finkelstein, chief of staff for a non-profit that runs 500 programs in 180 countries, chose the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. According to the school, MBA candidates will parse through a minimum of 500 cases over two years. Those demands aren’t for everyone, Finkelstein says.
“When I announced to Meridian’s Board of Trustees that I was going to UVA for graduate school, one of the Trustees, an MBA-grad himself, came up to my CEO to say, “Damn. Darden, huh? They are known for working their first years hard. Is Emma ready for that?” When my boss was jokingly telling me the story later that night, I was all the more sure I had made the right choice.”
“HIGH TOUCH, HIGH TONE, HIGH OCTANE”
That’s exactly how Finkelstein’s 336 classmates felt as they descended upon Charlottesville this fall. They are a self-selected group, a community that values intensive analysis, robust debate, and teaching excellence through the case method. For them, repeated dissection and deliberation teaches them how to think so they’re ready to act when they reach the c-suite. This creates a classroom dynamic that is difficult to mimic, says Freddy Tovo, a first-year and former strategy manager.
“I selected Darden because it was designed as an academic village in which the relationships between students and professors extend beyond the classroom. As a result, Darden can provide its students with a unique learning environment and foster an unparalleled sense of community that I couldn’t find at other MBA programs.”
How different is Darden? Years ago, Bob Bruner, the school’s former dean, characterized the Darden classroom mystique as “High touch, high tone, high octane” – a nod to the high level of preparation, interaction, and passion needed to pull it off.
“There is a sense of high touch in the classroom; they are all engaged in this together and they rely on each other to have a productive learning experience,” explains Sankaran Venkataraman, the school’s senior associate dean for faculty and research, in a 2019 interview with P&Q. “It is high octane: the energy levels are high. The stakes are high because class participation is a significant part of the grade – 30% to 45%. When a group of 65 high achievers [in a section] gets involved in a topic of importance, the intensity level cranks up.”
“STUDENTS ARE FAMILY”
Darden views its mission as covering both the production and delivery of ideas – where a well-rounded scholar is able to “move the needle on practice” through teaching future leaders, Venkataraman notes. Call it a student-centric approach, an environment that values teaching prowess as much as research citations. Indeed, Darden has been dubbed the school where ‘faculty are rock stars.’ Lalin Anik is one professor who fits that description. A multiple winner of Darden’s Outstanding Faculty Award, Anik’s involvement with students extends far beyond guiding case discussions in a core marketing class
“I see my students as family,” she tells P&Q in a 2019 interview. “So when I walk into the classroom on the first day, I already know their names. I have learned a bit about them. I can ask the right questions or I can ask questions that will be challenging for different people. It’s not one size fits all. So it starts there, getting to know them. But as we go through class after class, I’m learning with them and I’m guiding them. Yes, I’m their professor, but there’s this interaction that happens that we open up. I play sports with them. I love basketball and soccer, so I practice with them a couple of times a week.”
Practice makes perfect at Darden, with faculty preparation routines becoming legendary. In each core course, for example, the section professors gather to discuss how they will approach each case. More than creating an individual teaching plan, they examine how the strategies and takeaways relate to past cases and big-picture outcomes. Many times, the group will even de-brief to evaluate what worked and what didn’t (along with engaging in reflection on their own). What’s more, teaching is foundational to faculty evaluations, notes Sankaran Venkataraman. To be a faculty member at Darden, professors must excel in four criteria: teaching, course materials, research, and producing content that reaches practicing managers.
FACULTY MUST BE GOOD ACROSS THE BOARD
“Teaching is required for promotion and tenure,” adds Venkataraman. “You can’t hide. It is not a compensatory model like it is in many other schools. That is, poor teaching cannot be compensated for by superior research or some other attribute. You have to achieve minimum standards in all of these and these standards are high in a top school. At the same time, you have to be world-class in at least one of those dimensions.”
Darden students aren’t looking to hide, either. They want to stand out – and embrace the time commitment and hard work that’s part of transforming into a leader. That proposition was particularly attractive to Annie Espinosa, a public health major who clawed her way into a marketing career before joining the Class of 2021. “Since I never had a formal business background – everything I learned was on the job, through my own research, or from my various (and truly wonderful) mentors – I didn’t just want the degree. I wanted the solid foundation and expertise that comes with the Darden degree so that I can make a meaningful impact wherever I go.”
Eleanor Reid Bergin – a Princeton public affairs major who ended up on Ralph Lauren’s innovation team – boasts a similar background…and goals. “The strong community across students and faculty drew me to Darden. The faculty’s passion for teaching, ability to bring complex issues to life in the classroom, and desire to form relationships with students beyond the classroom were evident when I visited the grounds and illustrate why Darden continually ranks so highly in student satisfaction.”
FROM D STUDENT TO DARDEN MBA
Espinosa and Bergin weren’t the only achievers to heed Darden’s call. The Class of 2021 also includes Jay Sarcone, a surfer and U.S. Navy Officer. During his time in the Civil Engineer Corps, he led a team of 57 American, Japanese, and Cambodian military engineers in building three maternity wards in the Cambodian countryside. It was a big departure from where he found himself nearly a decade before.
“My defining moment was looking at my final grades at the end of my first year in college—a whopping 1.78 cumulative GPA—and deciding that I had to make a big change to get things back on track,” he recalls. “I ended up taking a year off to enlist in the Navy Reserve, and the time off from school and discipline instilled in boot camp was invaluable. I ended up graduating from Georgia Tech with honor and was selected to become an officer in the Navy after school.”
Sarah Getachew comes from the public health field. As a program analyst for NACCHO (National Association of County and City Health Officials), she partnered with public sector organizations to deliver healthcare services, even securing a $150,000 grant to fight opioids among juveniles. In contrast, Andrew Pinckney made an impact through education, which included teaching high school, training adults and employees, and developing educational tools and products. At the same time, Emma Finkelstein helped to “overhaul” the financial management system of a decorated non-profit, the Meridian International Center. That included developing a monthly financial analysis that put the organization “in the black” two years in a row. It wasn’t the role she envisioned for herself, however.
“When I finished my undergraduate degree, I thought I was going to work for a think tank in the international space or join the Foreign Service,” she admits. “That’s what my academic background was in and I felt prepared for that. But fate had a different plan when I fell in love with the organizational management components of my job as Chief of Staff at Meridian. I learned about how the budget demonstrates an organization’s values, how to set a strategic vision for a team, and how to set up for success towards that vision. It was a great four years.”
THE BURDEN OF BEING FIRST
Annie Espinosa endured a similar shift – one that exposed her true strengths and passions. “I realized during my senior year in undergrad that medical school wasn’t the right path for me, so I found myself in the post-graduation “real world” with no business background or experience. I parlayed my Public Health major into Jill-of-all-trades roles in health tech start-ups who appreciated my pre-med background. Eventually, I stumbled into marketing and realized my passion for it. From there, I moved from entry-level marketing roles onto OpenTable’s Marketing team and almost five years later, I was leading OpenTable’s consumer email program for North America.”
That’s just one of the impressive achievements notched by this year’s Darden MBA class. At Ralph Lauren, Eleanor Reid Bergin devised the strategy behind the launch of the Polo App. Looking for sales talent? Jonathan Meza snapped up the GM Financial Top Performer Award in 2017. Even more impressive: He is a member of the $30,000 Club for CUTCO kitchen knife sales. Over three weeks, Natasha Pangarka produced 15 PowerPoint decks to guide Booz Allen’s multi-year planning efforts. As a senior manager in his company’s strategy and business development team, Freddy Tovo developed products that gave over 300,000 people access to banking for the first time.
The Class of 2021 is also accustomed to pressure, at least Franklin Delano Roosevelt Tennyson, III is. An artist and educator who holds a Master’s in Education Policy and Management from Harvard, Tennyson was his company’s first African-American employee in China. In the spotlight, he shined as a role model. Within four years, 48% of the school’s foreign faculty were African-American, two of whom eventually rose to be the school’s director.
“I knew that, in addition to being an educator, I was also a representative for people who shared my identity. I took this as an opportunity to build bridges towards cooperation and understanding, demonstrating that our differences provided space for us to lean in and learn rather than turn away in continued misunderstanding. I felt it was also important to set a strong example of openness, love, and excellence, for I knew that our families’ and coworkers’ opinions of me could likely be projected onto others who looked like me and impact their opportunities.”