Meet Queen’s University’s Smith MBA Class Of 2021

A generation ago, being a “lone-wolf” was considered a compliment. Back then, ditching the pack to go it alone was considered a mark of courage. If you succeeded, you were hailed as a genius. You were viewed as pure and effective, a jack-of-all-trades with the grit to handle the demands and pressure.

These days, getting the job done requires a pack – a unit committed to supporting each other…a team unified by shared values and purpose. An individual may go faster, as the say goes, but team reaches further – and deeper and wider too. Teams carry stigmas, of course. In some quarters, they are viewed as time-consuming and bureaucratic, where one divergent perspective can scuttle efforts entirely. In reality, that divergence ranks among a team’s biggest strengths. Tapping differing backgrounds fill gaps and elevate discussions. These collisions ultimately yield more complete, effective, and ground-braking solutions.


That makes a difference in business, a landscape where teams from different functions operate out of different locations on increasingly complex issues. Maximizing strengths means minimizing egos, where candor can easily stir conflict. In other words, teamwork requires practice – lots of it. That’s exactly what full-time MBAs get at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. Located three hours from Toronto, the Smith School takes a different tact to the opening semester. Here, students are broken into 6-7 member teams – carefully selected to maximize differences in terms of cultural, academic, and professional backgrounds. Throughout the core, these teams work closely to master the fundamentals through an intensive menu of activities and projects. This emphasis on teamwork – coupled with personal attention on the individual – produces a balance that’s hard to pass up says Virginie Bellec, an analyst with Bloomberg.

Class of 2021

“The first semester is team-based,” she explains. “While you learn to work better in a team of people as different from each other as possible, you also learn plenty about yourself as you put yourself out there. This balances out well with a second semester that is more focused on the student’s career expectations and preparations. It’s a balanced process. And the fact that the program also offers coaches to help both the teams and each student individually clearly shows that the students’ personal growth really matters; it’s not just about the amount of new technical knowledge accumulated.”

Before joining the Class of 2021, Federico Brera studied theoretical physics. Many picture that pursuit consisting of lone-wolf activities like building formulas or conducting experiments. In reality, he says, physics has been a collaborative pursuit – one where his peers enriched his work. Thus far, he has found that same dynamic at play at Smith.


“When I studied physics, I used to juxtapose personal studying of the theory to the deepening, practising and testing of what I had learned with my classmates. This brought forth brilliant results thanks to a deeper and more complete understanding of the subject together with new ways of reasoning. For these reasons, I valued a lot the team-based approach offered by Smith.”

One reason: Smith’s team-based learning simulates the work world where MBAs operate – one where group success stems from openness, communication, delegation, conflict management, and accountability. That gives graduates a decided advantage when they return to work, adds Alexander Hutton, a chemical engineer and consultant from Ottawa.

“At Smith, teams are assembled with members each bringing a unique background and skillset, which gives students continuous opportunities to consider different viewpoints and new solutions to challenges. These teams allow us to learn from each other, explore the many facets of leadership in a controlled environment, and understand team dynamics that closely resemble those in industry. The rotating ‘leader and team’ structure to assignments also gives us the opportunity to appreciate how to work more efficiently with future managers and colleagues, emphasizing the importance of strong and lasting professional relationships over transactional personal victories.”

Women in Leadership


The best teams are always unified in spirit and diverse in experience. That adage would definitely apply to the MBA Class of 2021 at the Smith School. Take Jane Liu. As an undergraduate and graduate student, she studied literature, where she gained a keen understanding of human psychology. So what does she do now? Liu is a senior financial advisor, whose liberal arts background prepared her to set an example for others.

“I witnessed the worst economy in Alberta history in the past five years,” she explains. “It was an emotional and stressful situation, especially since my role was client-facing. I remained calm, focused, and committed; my associate told me that she was inspired even though I wasn’t aware of that. With her support, we had the best business results in a recessionary environment.”

Compare those experiences with Brady Heslip, who comes to Kingston after playing professional basketball – including being part of the Canadian National Team that won a silver medal in the Pan American Games. I decided to pursue my MBA because it was an audacious goal and a challenge that I wanted to embark on to grow more as an individual. Coming from professional sport, I was aware that I needed to rebrand myself in order to be taken seriously when entering the business world.”


“An artist-turned-financier and an athlete looking to become a real estate mogul? How about a physicist who became a banker. The latter is Federico Brera’s story in a nutshell.  He is an expert in Robotic Process Automation (RPA) – a system that deploys bots to automate tasks such as responding to emails. His big accomplishment? He helped to implement RPA in Intesa Sanpaolo, the largest bank in Italy – and the first to adopt this technology.

“Our team projected, designed and developed the RPA system for the entire company,” he points out. “Since we were the first successful RPA project in Italy, one of my colleagues and I presented this work at Blueprism World in London in April 2019. Moreover, my ideas and best practices are also being used in other companies.”

Goodes Commons

Brera wasn’t alone in starting something from scratch. Alberto Calvo Urcuyo, an industrial engineer who transitioned into sustainability consulting at Ernst & Young, started a department – one that he grew to 20 employees. At Nylene Canada, a leading polymer and fiber supplier, Alexander Hutton jumpstarted several projects reducing emissions. At the same time, Samantha Caldwell was chosen for a secondment to the Canadian Consultate in Houston. “During my time there, I was part of a team that organized a trade connections component to an oil and gas conference happening in Houston.”

The class also absorbed business lessons early. Angela McDonald Bazaz, for one, grew up on a beef farm. Some of her biggest lessons came when the Mad Cow Disease took a toll on her family’s operation in 2003. “International markets closed to Canadian beef, and farmers’ products and assets decreased significantly in value. This was my first realization that knowledge, experience, and planning cannot guarantee success in business. My family, friends, and neighbours had to rethink their goals and strategies in order to support themselves. I learned that versatility and creative thinking are valuable traits needed to navigate unforeseen events and bring about positive outcomes, or at least minimize poor outcomes.”


Bita Pourvahidi’s turning point came after graduation. Backpacking in the Sa Pa Mountains of Northwest Vietnam, Pourvahidi met the Sapa Sisters, a women-owned social enterprise that trains local women to be tour guides and hosts. The organization is designed, Pourvahidi says, to “empower” women – even offering healthcare and early childhood education to the women who work for them. This work made a long-term impression on Pourvahidi, who is considering launching her own enterprise someday.

“Throughout this experience, you are observing the life of a young woman who has much less than you do and watch her completely thrive in her environment. It provided me with so much depth and perspective on what I want out of life, what my goals are, and (most of all) what kind of human being I want to be both personally and professionally. It reminded me that despite any success that may come my way, I never want to lose sight of my love for philanthropy and the importance of uplifting others.”

That love extends to her work with, a non-profit dedicated to improving youth mental health. In fact, Pourvahidi’s advocacy enabled her to discuss the matter face-to-face with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. Think that’s a good story? Alberto Calvo Urcuyo grew up next to a zoo…and would sometimes find monkeys wandering through his neighborhood. Speaking of fond childhood memories, Sunkar Shagambayev opened his first business – a kiosk selling ice cream – when he was just 11 years-old.

My employees were seven to eight years older than me,” quips the former P&G brand manager.


Overall, the Class of 2021 features 91 full-time students, who bring an average 654 GMAT and 3.4 GPA to the class. 42% of the class hails from outside Canada, with 17 countries represented in the class as a whole. The number that stands out: 44%. That’s the percentage of women in the class – a higher percentage than rivals Toronto Rotman (42%) and Ivey (33%).

Academically, the class skews towards STEM backgrounds. 23% of the class earned undergrad degrees in the Sciences, with Engineering (20%), Technology (10%), and Healthcare (4%) also represented. Business and Economics majors make up 30% of the class, with the Arts taking up a 13% share of the seats. Like most business schools, finance professionals account for the largest percentage of the class – 21% in Smith’s case. Consulting (13%), Healthcare (12%), and Construction and Real Estate (10%) also reach the double digits in class composition. The rest of the class includes professionals from Supply Chain and Retail, Marketing, Technology, Entrepreneurship, Manufacturing, Public Sector, and Education.

By the numbers, Smith School MBAs are popular with recruiters. The Class of 2019, for example, notched a 96% placement rate within three months of graduation. What’s more, starting pay reached $128,861 between base and bonus – the highest among Canadian MBA programs. Base alone – $90,562 – represents a 57% improvement over pre-MBA pay. Better yet, the program lasts 12 months, enabling students to quickly re-coup the opportunity costs without incurring heavy debt.

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