100 Best & Brightest MBAs: Class of 2020

Most people would expect to see Melony Mahaarachchi teaching classes. Just look at her resume before she became an MBA student. A decade ago, she was working alongside Elon Musk, helping to design the electrical cabling system for SpaceX’s Dragon, the first commercial spacecraft to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. A few years later, she joined NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab where she led the team that built the groundbreaking electrical and telecommunication system for the Mars Rover 2020 – which is expected to touch down next year.

“NASA’s Mars programme has never attempted to design a fully digital mockup of any electrical subsystem before for its complexity,” Mahaarachchi writes. “I was brought in to assist them to achieve this feat. Currently, some of my designs are in space, but when my new designs reach Mars, I will have to pinch myself.”


University of Cambridge’s Melony Mahaarachchi Photo by Bradford Rogne Photography

Now, she is among the 206 students who populate the Class of 2020 at Cambridge Judge Business School. Call it the brave new frontier meets old-world charm. Here, Mahaarachchi has joined one of the University of Cambridge’s 31 colleges, indulging in traditions like Formal Hall – replete with candle-lit meals and formal attire. She was also elected to represent 2,000 graduate students from the university’s engineering and business schools. Translation: she is part of all top-level university board meetings, speaking up for her peers on topics ranging from Brexit to fossil fuels. Despite raising two college-age children, Mahaarachchi even joined the university’s track team!

Why did this engineering savant choose to pursue an MBA? For her, business school was a means to channel her love of technology and sustainability into a career with purpose…and influence. “I decided to concentrate my MBA on Global Business and Strategy to allow my passion for traveling, learning cultures, and cross-border negotiations interweave with the responsibilities of my next job,” Mahaarachchi adds. “I also plan to continue to be the face of my non-profit organisation where we focus on empowering women in STEM.”

Melony Mahaarachchi is just one of the hundred graduates featured in Poets&Quants’ Best & Brightest MBAs from the Class of 2020. Now in its sixth year, the Best & Brightest celebrate MBAs who are singled out as the embodiments of excellence and the voices of their schools. Any business student can be “active” in classes or clubs. The Best & Brightest distinguish themselves by their ability to create and seize opportunities from day one. Full of life, they are up for anything and can work with anyone. Never stingy with their time, these servant leaders bring peers together – and bring out their best along the way. Dependable, forward-thinking, and fearless, they are the first to sign up and the last to leave. Leading by example, the Best & Brightest make a lasting impression on their classmates…and the school at large.


This year, their ranks include the likes of Dartmouth Tuck’s Kevin Yuan. An underwater wildlife photographer for National Geographic, he piloted a less environmentally invasive hydraulic fracturing fluid that was adopted company-wide at Chevron. However, this project engineer’s big moment came at a recent Climate and Clean Energy Town Hall, where he moderated a discussion that included Presidential candidates Andrew Yang, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar. At Tuck, he led student workshops on areas on oil and renewable energy – all while preparing to make the transition into sustainable fashion with Nike.

IMD’s Andrea Teja

“Through Tuck’s network, I was able to lead a consulting engagement with Patagonia, evaluating the viability of a new market entry,” Yuan writes. “I have been able to travel to Morocco to learn about its renewable transition, travel to Hawaii to consult for the city Honolulu and evaluate its climate risks, travel to Denmark to learn about its biomass energy system, travel to Iceland and lead an experiential trek for 30 classmates, and travel to Poland for COP24 and Spain for COP25” [United Nations Climate Change Conference].

The Best & Brightest also features IMD’s Andrea Teja, who most recently headed up the combat and intelligence department for the Italian Navy. He is one of the few foreign officers to receive a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal from the Secretary of the U.S. Navy. At the same time, Warwick Business School boasts Kathryn Heppinstall. Before business school, she served as the Director of Logistic Operations for NATO Special Forces. A 22-year veteran of the armed forces, Heppinstall is a logistics wizard, once commanding the 19 Tank Transporter Squadron, which she describes as the “largest, most complex and challenging sub-unit in the British military.” Her expertise is so intensive that she once helped U.S. Marines reduce Afghan insurgent attacks and transport costs by $118,000 a day by revamping their supply chain.


Along with military veterans, the Class also boasts its share of political leaders. Take Stanford GSB’s Nathan Segal. A Summa Cum Laude graduate of Yale, Segal worked as an Assistant Director and Senior Policy Advisor in President Obama’s White House. Here, he launched a program called Startup in a Day, which placed government requirements for starting a business into “streamlined, centralized platforms.” The payoff? The president touted his program in his 2016 State of the Union address. Before taking the reins as co-president of MIT Sloan’s student body co-president, Celi Khanyile-Lynch worked as New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Briefing Director and as an Operations Coordinator for Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick – roles that provided purpose as much as experience.

“Each day, I was able to have a positive social impact as I helped launch initiatives that benefited the underserved,” she tells P&Q. “I also prepared the Mayor and Governor for dozens of events, including the Mayor’s State of the City and budget announcements, and the Governor’s International Trade Missions. This work was deeply fulfilling because we were able to announce policies that improved health care, education, and economic development in both New York and Massachusetts.”

Penn State’s Farheen Ahmed

Farheen Ahmed has also devoted herself to the greater good in her career. Before joining Penn State’s MBA program, she fought smallpox and malaria as a virologist for the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. For Ahmed, viruses were a passion – one reason why she earned a Master’s degree in Biotechnology. However, her work also supplied a venue for her to make a difference and save lives.

“Millions of people die from malaria each year and the current vaccines have at best 30-40% efficacy,” Ahmed concedes. “I spent six years developing two smallpox-based malaria vaccines…The reason I am proud of this achievement is because the protein expressions for this vaccine were higher than those of current vaccines, which means the potential for it translating to a cure is high.”


This year, P&Q reached out to 72 business schools globally to participate in the Best & Brightest MBAs. 69 programs submitted nominations from their full-time programs (with P&Q receiving 243 nominations for the second straight year). Overall, 60 schools produced representatives on the list. Par for the course, Harvard Business School was again the only top-tier program that declined to submit nominations, opting instead to recognize graduates in internal activities.

Although P&Q left the selection process and criteria up to individual schools, we cited academic prowess extracurricular achievement, and intangibles as potential factors to weigh. When reviewing nominations, P&Q heavily weighed academic and professional achievements, extracurricular leadership, and overall insightfulness. Unlike previous years, men and women were equally represented in the 100 (with women making holding 56 and 53 spots over the past two years respectively). 38 members of the Best & Brightest hail from outside the United States, up from 34 the year before. A quarter of the Best & Brightest had already earned post-graduate degrees, with 11 possessing military experience in their respective countries. 22 students also earned MBAs at non-American institutions, an uptick over the 19 who made up the 2019 list.

Academically, the largest number of Best & Brightest majored in Engineering as undergrads. 19 members of the class took that route, with Economics (10), and International Studies (9) also heavily represented. As a group, Business – including Finance, Marketing, Operations, and Management – make up 21 spots, beating out Liberal Arts (20) and Hard Sciences (10). In the wake of COVID-10, it is hardly surprising that 22 members of the class still haven’t chosen an employer or are looking for work. Among the Best & Brightest who’ve landed jobs, nine have chosen McKinsey to start their post-MBA careers. Amazon and Microsoft have landed five each, followed by Bain & Company and the Boston Consulting Group (four each), and Google (three).


Who comprises this year’s Best & Brightest? Many were elected by their peers to serve as class presidents, lead clubs, conduct first-year orientation, and even deliver graduation speeches. They are unsung mentors, ambassadors, and parents who racked up academic and service awards at end-of-year ceremonies. Many followed non-traditional paths to get to business school. Exhibit A: the University of Michigan’s Christopher Lee Owen. As an undergrad, he majored in Theology and Philosophy, with the intention of becoming a pastor. Fast forward a few years and this “lost cause” had embraced entrepreneurship, launching five startups ranging from a financial consulting firm to a sporting goods resale business.

“I was naïve, courageous, creative, careless, and convicted,” Owen recalls. “I earned money, lost money, created communities where there were none, delivered products to people who needed them, made countless crucial mistakes, built leadership teams to ensure scalable growth, and then left it all to become a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. I lived an entire lifetime in those three years—and they have made all the difference…Those three years were messy, unpredictable, and stressful, but they were also energizing, character-building, and life-altering. I’m so proud of my 22-year-old self who said “Yes!” to all of those experiences and emerged with thicker skin, a softer heart, and even brighter eyes.”

See pages 4-5 for 100 in-depth profiles of this year’s Best & Brightest MBAs. 

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