Meet Vanderbilt Owen’s MBA Class Of 2021

Daniel Cortez heard all the buzzwords when he applied to business schools. He clicks off “collaborative,” “transformative,” and “entrepreneurial” among the most common. “You hear them so often that they lose their meaning,” quips the Deloitte consultant.

When he researched Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, he came across a new term: personal scale. By that, the school meant that it’s not too big to get lost and not too small to lose out. Think of it as the opposite of those faceless and nameless masses who populate undergrad programs. At Owen, everyone is included…because everyone matters. At the same time, the school brings together a diverse set of backgrounds and talents in each class. More than that, the school leverages the expertise and relationships inherent to a university dubbed, “The Ivy of the South.”


“More than any other program I considered, Owen inspired confidence that I would have the school’s full attention while I pursued my MBA,” explains Cortez, who joined the Class of 2021 this fall. “At Owen, I will attend a business school that operates on a personal scale while offering the resources of a large, elite research university.”

In Owen’s mission statement, the school touts a culture that is “collaborative but competitive.” It is a place, says 2019 grad Imani Marshall, with a “strong sense of community” where “students, faculty, and staff are invested in the success of everyone in the Owen family.” That includes a strong dose of accountability, notes Tia Secasiu, a biologist who found her way to Nike. Thus far, she has found Owen to be a place where “students work hard, get along, and keep each other on their toes!” That’s because each of them has a purpose that drives them to bring out their best – and the best from everyone around them.

Owen student watching a presentation from ’15 alum Devin Kunysz, a marketing executive with Starbucks

“I quickly learned that all of my classmates are successful but not satisfied,” writes Craig Kuphall, a U.S. Army Special Operations Aviation Officer. “The energy and enthusiasm to attend Owen and accomplish their next “big thing” is very contagious.”


Severin Walstad, who last served as the executive assistant to a U.S. Navy Admiral, uses a different label for his classmates: pleasantly ambitious. “By that, I mean everyone I have met has been extremely motivated and successful in their career, and they each want to help you too,” he observes. “Whether it is through networking, telling you about their career path and what they have learned, or just helping you out in a pinch, you know they are going to support you getting to the next step…not because it benefits them, but because they want to help you.”

The Class of 2021 itself features 147 students, a ‘small school’ by size that possesses a certain close-knit ‘feel’ Walstad points out – “an environment where you know everyone” and “a place [you] can call home.” Walstad himself comes to Nashville after a stint as a navigator on a guided-missile destroyer in Asia – ranking as the Navy’s top junior officer out and leading a team of 32 sailors and petty officers. He wasn’t alone in shouldering big responsibilities. In Afghanistan, Craig Kuphall commanded a company of AH-64D Apache pilots and crew chiefs.

They were phenomenal men and women from all walks of life who fully committed themselves to the mission and each other. It was an experience I will never forget.”


In two years, you can expect Kuphall to say the same about his classmates. Take Yvonne Caroline Uduba. What can she do? How about the real question: What can’t she do? A double board-certified pharmacist, Uduba competed in pageants and saw her runway photos appear in a national newspaper. Career-wise, she spent five years as a regulatory consultant, representing top-tier firms like Eli Lilly and Bayer. However, she considers her biggest achievement to be helping set up Africa’s largest rice mill.

Owen MBA students gathered during a class break

“This is a $32.7M state-of-the-art rice mill with a capacity of 120,000 metric tonnes per annum,” she explains. “This provides revenue for 50,000 rice farmers. During this period, I advised management and the engineering team on factory layout and process flow to ensure compliance with the Nigerian regulation, and I also licensed the rice products with the Nigerian FDA.”

Rachel Chapnick jokes that her humanities degree from the University of Miami didn’t make her “the most employable” after graduation. Still, she parlayed an internship into a position with the United Kingdom’s Department for International Trade, where she helped companies tap into the British economy. In addition, she put together a roundtable that drew the top thought leaders in blockchain.

“Back when blockchain was nascent and not a buzzword, I put on a regulatory roundtable as financial institutions and fintechs were looking for clarity before implementing or developing solutions,” she writes. “The roundtable featured US and UK regulators, technology innovators, and financial service implementers. It was estimated we had 75% of the top brainpower on the topic convened for our two-day roundtable.”


The Class of 2021 has also made an impact in the world of sports. As a content associate at ESPN, Stephanie Jones co-managed the editorial team for College Basketball’s Championship Week in 2019 – even though she hadn’t worked in the sport. Basketball is actually Tia Secasiu’s specialty. At Nike, she “took point” in an area that most fans take for granted: color development for new NBA uniforms.

“In the licensed apparel world, color is a priority because it’s the most obvious representation of a team’s identity,” she explains. “I found myself very often working to balance the expectations of diverse cross-functional partners with actual limits of material achievability. It involved a lot of management of expectations, teaching, and balancing competing priorities. After a year-and-a-half of meticulous work and late nights, it was incredibly rewarding to see my favorite athletes out on the court wearing the product I’d helped create.”

Owen team working together during Brandweek

Such examples reflect the spirit of the Class of 2021: They are builders who battle to turn inspiration into ideas and components into solutions. Joshua Olamide Eniola launched three products in Nigeria that reached 14 million consumers within their first month. Four years ago, Junchu Du co-founded the medical tourism division of her company, one that has enabled over 200 families to receive life-saving treatments in the United States. At the same time, Alex Luna, a Nashville native, founded a groundbreaking computing solution, AlphaRail, that uses artificial intelligence to increase the speed and safety of railroad operations.


“It is the first company in the history of the North American freight rail industry to solve a simplified rail operations optimization problem on real quantum computing hardware,” he points out. “It was especially important given all the work I put into just getting the opportunity to have access to a quantum device.”

Outside work, Luna is a coffee aficionado who loves to frequent local shops (Here’s hoping he has sampled 8th and Roast). That’s one of the fun facts that make the Class of 2021 so fascinating. As an undergrad, for example, Daniel Cortez headed up a student-taught course on Russian Music History. Speaking of college, Lucas Hagerty performed standup comedy for “beer money” as an undergrad. “That experience taught me that any pain or embarrassment is just fodder for story,” he jokes. Of course, that sense of humor came in handy when Hagerty once spilled a glass of strawberry water on the phone of Uber’s head of design.

“The accomplishment was that I delivered the presentation without spontaneously combusting in embarrassment,” he adds.

Go to Page 3 for a dozen student profiles from the Class of 2021.

Go to Page 2 for a Q&A with Owen administrators.

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