In popular culture, the Ivy League is associated with wealth and brainpower – selective and image-conscious. It is finishing school for the wealthy, people imagine. In secret societies and posh mixers, the next generation of STEM nerds, boozy bankers, and aspiring politicians intersect on their way to their country clubs. Here, students must be insiders to get in – and play the game to stay there. According to lore, Ivy League graduates join a private club that looks after its own. The connections open doors at the best organizations – and the pedigree bestows a benefit of the doubt…for life.
Cloistered and cutthroat. Privileged and pretentious. Those terms cover the Ivy League stereotype. Diego Calvillo de la Garza would add three more: “serious, competitive, and results-driven.” That is…before he visited Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management last fall. It was an experience that upended everything he’d read and heard about the Ivy League. Returning to Mexico, Calvillo de la Garza was struck by a student body that was “kind and encouraging” and a culture that emphasized “inclusion and antiracism.” That spirit carried over as he prepared to depart to join the Johnson MBA Class of 2022.
A SUPPORTIVE CLASS THAT HUSTLES
“I would describe my classmates as “pay-it-forward” type of people,” he tells P&Q. “For example, classmates who are already living in Ithaca have offered to buy or receive things for incoming students who need to arrive and quarantine. I’ve seen classmates offering their cars to help others move, internationals helping each other with visa-related issues and much more. All of these actions make me proud to be part of the Johnson community.”
Indeed, the Cornell MBA tagline is “elite but egalitarian” – a nod to its world-class academics and close-knit community. For the Class of 2022, supportive has been the best word to describe their classmates. For Rose Haber, whose research has been published by NASA, supportive translated to being generous with their time and advice. Athena Ebinger, a Cornell graduate herself in 2015, touts how her classmates’ proactively set up weekly video chats and game nights on Slack. This helpful approach reflects something deeper at Sage Hall. The class is active – or, to paraphrase Jordan Hunt, this class hustles.
“My classmates are curious and ambitious, which means they are serving in leadership roles and participate in multiple clubs,” Hunt adds. “Or, they might be interviewing an expert for the Present Value Podcast. Or, they’re pitching CPG products in a clever new way as part of “Battle of the Brands.” Johnson students are actively pursuing their passions in an encouraging, supportive environment.”
NEVER A DULL MOMENT
This sense of kinship is reinforced by Cornell Johnson’s location in the upstate Finger Lakes region. Forget the loud, cramped, always-on-the-go ethos of Ivy hubs like New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. Ithaca is slower and more deliberate, a place where students can bond over hikes across the region’s ‘gorgeous gorges’ – a four seasons climate where you can sail in the summer and snowboard in the winter. Heck, MBA students can even cross a waterfall on the way to class. And the location is hardly “sleepy.” Jack Moriarty, a 2020 MBA grad, calls Ithaca a “dynamic, intellectually, and artistically-driven community with concentrated levels of creativity and thought leadership that would be difficult to find anywhere else in the world.”
Moriarty’s classmate, Margot Waldron, puts up an equally spirited defense of the area. “People seem to conflate a small place with boredom. I have never felt this is the case. While the city is small, there is no shortage of good restaurants and things to do. My calendar feels overly full of activities. The Cornell Johnson Community is extremely tight-knit as a result of being in a small place and it offers you the chance to establish friends that feel like family.”
That’s exactly what the Class of 2022 has been learning over the past month. As a Costa Rican, one of the most prominent features I remember about Cornell is the cold winters,” adds Mariana Flores Aguilar. “Gradually, I began to appreciate other aspects, such as Ithaca’s natural attractions and the academic excellence, which outweighed the periodic inclement weather during the winter.”
MAKING A POINT…THROUGH POETRY
True to Ivy form, the Class of 2022 hails from some of the top companies in the world, including IBM, Procter & Gamble, and Conagra. At Goldman Sachs, Athena Ebinger worked on the company’s annual proxy statement, where she was responsible for data in compensation and analysis. As a Deloitte consultant, Surina Shahani helped a company reduce operational costs by $1.5 million dollars by re-imagining its inventory management practices. It was an effort, she says, that “reduced the number of trucks on the road to the equivalence of planting 40,000 trees.” Jeremy Mathurin also worked at Deloitte, operating in the robotics and automation space. In this role, he worked on cutting edge automation tools like chatbots, robotic processing automations, and machine learning algorithms.
“One of my most memorable experiences was when my implementation team managed the creation, configuration, and maintenance of a virtual machine infrastructure housing dozens of automations that addressed data quality issues, monitored the enterprise’s technical architecture and supported large-scale data entry,” Mathurin explains. “It was exhilarating watching automations and humans cooperate to efficiently conduct business. The experience showed me the extent to which technology can reshape the way we work.”
However, Mathurin’s big moment came outside his normal work scope. An economist by trade and poet by passion, Mathurin showed off his talents in verse. At a leadership meeting, he performed “Counter Parts,” a poem on the “tightrope” walked by black professionals in being genuine without making peers feel “uncomfortable.”
“I was surprised to find that other leaders across the firm were interested in creating a similar experience for their teams,” he adds. “During my last year at the firm, I performed my poetry in conference rooms and auditoriums for hundreds of fellow Deloitters on the subject of diversity, inclusion, team culture, and leadership, helping our company’s leaders empathize and improve the experience of diverse employees…I take pride in the fact that I helped decision-makers think differently about how they choose to lead.”
A HERITAGE FOUNDED ON INNOVATION
In the 2019 Bloomberg Businessweek survey, alumni and students ranked Cornell Johnson #2 in the world for both Entrepreneurship programming and Creativity and Innovation. Not surprisingly, Cornell Johnson attracts a certain type of student: tireless, inventive, outgoing – and maybe a little sleep-deprived. You’ll find that same insurgent intensity in Ming Liu. In China, she launched a venture that provided therapeutic horseback riding lessons to children with disabilities. Her efforts bridged a gap. It furnished a path to an often-overlooked population to experience the joys people often take for granted. At the same time, it introduced a recreational activity to a wider population.
“While the benefits of therapeutic riding are well recognized in the West, China was a very different landscape. At the time, the combination of a young, developing equestrian industry in addition to the stigma toward those with disabilities made it a challenge to secure buy-in from local sponsors. Understanding the demands of the local market and adapting our approach accordingly, identifying common interests across different stakeholders and continuing to push against the status quo were some of the most important lessons I learned from the experience.”
Rose Haber also arrives in Ithaca from the startup world. Two years ago, she co-founded Gather Energy, which provides urban geothermal HVAC solutions. While Haber boasted a background in global economics and STEM, this venture exposed just how much she had to learn about the startup process.
RISING ABOVE SHORTCOMINGS
“I found myself in conversation with friends and acquaintances asking me questions about our corporate structure and how our equity was to be divided – and I could not answer them. Before attending any meetings with investors, I knew I had to develop some base acumen so at a minimum I could understand the conversations at hand. I taught myself everything I know now about financing, private equity, venture capital, the formation of a company, tax laws, the benefits of incorporating in Delaware, and electing a board.”
Call it a rite of passage. The Class of 2022 experienced many of those along the way to business school. For Eric Leifland-Berntsson, a London-based investment banker, those moments of truth came on the soccer fields at the University of Michigan – where he learned the “value of teamwork, commitment, positive leadership, and just plain grit.” Similarly, Christian Castilla traces his defining moment back to his Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course (IOC).
“[It] was the most difficult and character-defining challenge of my life,” he explains. “I was stripped of comforts, information, and ego. For three months, my peers and I navigated this physically and spiritually demanding course while drinking in small-unit tactics from a firehose. I learned how to be comfortable being uncomfortable and how to make decisions in uncertainty. I learned the true value of teamwork and humility, and I saw first-hand what can be accomplished when no one is concerned with taking credit.”
Our Meet the Class of 2022 Series
* To read profiles of 12 first-years, go to Page 3.
* To read an exclusive interview with Dean Mark Nelson, go to Page 2.