Meet Notre Dame Mendoza’s MBA Class Of 2021

They’re called the “Fighting” Irish for a reason.

Everything meaningful – success and salvation, freedom and fairness, caring and change – requires a fight. The Catholic saints – now, they were fighters. They fended off temptation, endured ridicule, and stood up to force. Riddled with doubt and drained by defeat, they pressed on. For them, the outcome was never in doubt with God on their side.

Christopher Udall, CEO of Rebuild For Peace, is one such fighter. His mission has been battling against extremist recruiting – and the violence it perpetuates. Even men like Udall need a break from the fight. They need a place to reflect and rejuvenate, to bond with passionate spirits who also refuse to back down or take the easy way out. In the graduate business space, that place is the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. While Mendoza’s slogan may be to “Ask More of Business,” their graduates’ approach may be closer to how Udall hopes to be remembered.


“After my body is laid to rest, and I stand before my Creator, I do not want to be white and pure, but bruised, bloodied, and beat. I want to be worn out because I gave my all to positively affect the entire tone of humanity.”

That’s an ambitious path to follow. Make no mistake: those are exactly the type of people that Mendoza attracts: gritty, purpose-driven, and hopeful. Lou Holtz, a legendary football coach, once said, “Those who know Notre Dame, no explanation’s necessary. Those who don’t, no explanation will suffice.” By that, Holtz was speaking to the school’s mystique, a mix of sacredness and duty, a commitment to action and a pursuit of perfection. A Notre Dame business education is more of a calling than a choice, a code you adopt and a vision you pursue.

“Mendoza walks the walk-in ethics and values,” explains Elena Westbrook, who joins the Class of 2021 after working as a senior consultant at Accenture. “In an era of big tech, big pharma, and ‘bigly’, I wanted to be at a program that believed in doing the right thing for its own sake. Business doesn’t have to be loathsome or destructive, but that requires fearless leadership. It requires moral courage. It requires humility. Most of all for an educational institution, it requires challenging the status quo. Business as usual is not going to cut it in a globalized world fraught with inequality. The conversations that students, faculty, and staff have here are not happening elsewhere.”

One-on-one meeting between Mendoza MBA student and alum; August 21, 2019; (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)


These discussions – and the morals and fuel them – foster something far greater than a learning community at Mendoza, adds Father Arthur Joseph Ssembajja, a priest who intends to study entrepreneurship. “Business can be taught anywhere, but values and Catholic Identity cannot be found anywhere. The business world is very competitive, but it is supposed to also be a family… I actually do not fit here, I belong here. I am part of the family.”

It takes more than shared values to hold a family together. At Mendoza, the bonds are strengthened with openness and respect, small gestures and big ideas, a knowing laugh and an easy smile. While Mendoza MBAs may turn the other cheek, you’ll never see them run away.

“It really struck me how every aspect of the program is centered around the question “What are you fighting for?,” observes Annie Kwiatt – who actually boxed for four years as a Notre Dame undergrad. “Each course or club has ethical business practice at its core, and each alumna I spoke with carried that passion for fighting on behalf of those who do not have a voice and doing what is right on through their professional career.”


Here, a career is a vocation – a heritage and a duty – that is shared by 140,000 alumni, including 14,000 from Mendoza. However, it isn’t the size of the Notre Dame alumni that makes it so potent, explains John Rooney, Director of Graduate Business Career Services, in a 2019 interview with Poets&Quants. It is the school’s mission – and the alumni’s unshakeable commitment to it.

“Students buy into the mission of Notre Dame, which is, business can be a force for good. They feel like they’re joining a community and something that’s bigger than themselves. So that leads to viewing yourself as part of a group versus an individual getting an MBA. I think there’s a bigger message and a sense of community around the mission that pulls everybody together and makes the whole networking piece really integrated into everything we do and that strengthens every interaction in that regard.”

Of course, the Class of 2021 isn’t heeding the call now that they’re full-time MBA students. They’ve been giving back their entire careers. Take Christopher Udall, who built a home “off grid” made from recycled materials. A fly fisherman outside his work running a nonprofit, Udall developed a center in Jordan to counter extremism using vocational, entrepreneurial and peace-building training. Building community support turned out to be the easy part. That same month, the village’s Al Karak Castle was attacked by ISIS recruits, killing 14 people. Even worse, Udall knew some of the young people who carried out the slaughter.

MBA orientation at the Mendoza College; August 21, 2019; (Photo by Barbara Johnston/University of Notre Dame)


Some people would throw up their hands, fold up their initiative, and curse at the community. That’s not Udall, that’s not the fighter he is. Instead, he helped organize the restoration of the castle as a statement from the community.

“I had never been further from my comfort zone in an Arab nation working in a language I could not understand, and fighting against ideals of extremist groups,” he admits. “However, this is where and how Rebuild for Peace Inc. was born. My life’s work that I am taking to the world is to help any at-risk youth approached by extremist and violent causes around the world. Providing them the skills and empowerment they need to not only make a life for themselves but to also grow their local economies while becoming leaders and advocates for peace.”

In his diocese, “the priest” is often who parishioners turn to for advice, says Father Arthur Joseph Ssembajja. That’s particularly true in Uganda’s Kasese, an area, he says, that is “drowning in poverty, disease, cultural tensions, and poorly-distributed resources.” Here, church members have begun looking into starting their own business ventures to improve their lives. The problem? They lack business training – and “the priest” can’t help much. To fill the gap, Father Arthur plans to master the fundamentals and return to Uganda to help his community build businesses.

“A complete life is a life built in the mind, the hands, and the heart. As a Catholic priest, I preach to people’s hearts. With the MBA, I will enrich their minds and empower their hands. I hope to do this in Church circles and in the local community back in Kasese and Uganda at large through better leadership and refined administration and management.”

The Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. Photo by Matt Cashore


You won’t find any tougher fighters than entrepreneurs. Saddled with big obstacles and low odds, they enter the arena with minimal resources under maximum pressure. In Yen Le’s case, they emerge more prepared and passionate. She launched a coding school in Vietnam – building what she called “a strong team of doers” who trained 500 professionals and nearly broke even after 13 months.

“When I accepted the offer to found and build a company from scratch, nobody believed I could do it,” Le admits. “Even my family thought I would fail. I decided that I would be able to learn most when I pushed myself further from my comfort zone. Learning to accept the risk of failure gave me the courage to deal with uncertainty and build more resilience as I coped with constant roller-coaster ride between everyday success and disaster in the early days of the company. It made me a stronger person and allowed me to take on new challenges.”

The same could be said for Annie Kwiatt, who was most recently a research coordinator in the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes center at the Lincoln Park Zoo. Armed with Master’s degrees in Museum Studies and Anthropology, Kwiatt naturally enrolled in a doctoral program – something she had worked toward for a decade. Eventually, she decided to take a leap of faith, entering project management before pivoting to nonprofit work with the hope of making an impact.

“To say that it was an easy choice to make or one that I made without looking back would be a lie, as I doubted the decision many times in the subsequent years,” she concedes. “However, it was because of walking away from what I thought was my life’s calling that I was able to restart and rebuild. I found a job that allowed me to parlay my skills in research and analysis into nonprofit work. I began to allow myself to explore different possibilities, recognize my strengths, and become curious about new directions. As a result, I started to envision a new career path for myself. I learned that not only am I resilient, but can creatively adapt to new situations and challenges, skills that I know will serve me well in my future business career.”

Q&A With Mendoza Leadership: Page 2

Mendoza MBA Student Profiles: Page 3

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