Meet the MBA Class of 2022: Ibrahim Okenla, University of Virginia (Darden)

Ibrahim Okenla

University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

“Nigerian soccer-loving quarantine chef with a penchant for experiencing different cultures and capturing moments.”

Hometown: South Holland, IL

Fun Fact About Yourself: On more than one occasion, I have had to get in and out of my car through the passenger side door. Apparently, Minnesota winters and car washes do not always mix when it comes to driver side door seals. Who knew I was that limber?

Undergraduate School and Major: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: GE Transportation (A Wabtec Company) – Lead Train Control Engineer

What makes the case method so attractive as a means to learn and become a better manager? As an engineer, who’s used to solving problems objectively, the inherent ambiguity of the case method presents a different challenge: there typically isn’t an unequivocally correct answer to a problem, but one you formulate with supporting qualitative and quantitative analyses. This provides for rich and engaging learning team and classroom discussions since most students will have differing and equally persuasive perspective on how to best approach the same problem. Additionally, the case method puts students, with impunity, in the shoes of protagonists, who have had to make important decisions with a lot at stake. After classroom discussions and on a few occasions, students get to hear directly from the protagonist about the thought process behind the decision he/she made.

The combination of these experiences, I believe, equips Darden students with the necessary toolkit to not only comfortably deal with the ambiguity of real-world business problems as managers but also confidently make sound business decisions, oftentimes doing it with incomplete information.

Aside from your classmates and the case method, what was the key part of the school’s MBA programming that led you to choose this business school and why was it so important to you? The MBA concentrations offered by Darden was a big draw for me. With the dynamic nature of the business environment, it will be remiss to not diversify one’s expertise. The fact that there is no limit to the number of concentrations (Investment Banking, Strategy Consulting, Business Analytics, Entrepreneurship, Global Business etc.) a student can earn was another selling point.

What quality best describes the MBA classmates you’ve met so far and why? I’d say they’ve been “adaptable.”  Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, lots of plans have been put in disarray, and with uncertainty surrounding the fall semester and recruiting cycle. Still, the classmates I have interacted with so far have taken everything in stride. Special thanks to the Darden Admissions Team for being very understanding and continuing to cater to every admits’ needs during these trying times. The extent to which Darden has gone to make sure that every admit feels included is exceptional, going as far as giving us the option to start either in August or in January 2021.

What makes you most excited about starting business school here? What makes you most nervous? I’m most excited about meeting my peers, sections mates, the world-renowned Darden Faculty members, and the ever-accommodating Career Development Center Personnel. I’m also looking forward to reconnecting with the 2nd year students, who have been invaluable in answering questions and alleviating any concerns about starting in the fall especially with the uncertainty of the pandemic still looming. I’ll likewise make it a point go apple-picking at Carter Mountain Orchard and wine tasting at the numerous vineyards around Charlottesville (socially distanced of course).

I’m nervous about the mostly virtual format of the fall semester, but I’m confident that Darden will continue to do everything possible to make the experience just as engaging as, if not more than, the in-person experience.

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: At my previous employer, which manufactures maintenance equipment for the railroad industry, I led a group of hydraulic engineers and designers to the successful completion of two multimillion-dollar, hydraulic intensive “Shoulder Ballast Cleaners”. After my manager, with whom I was on the project, unexpectedly left for a different department, I transitioned into the lead role for the project. Given that the company doesn’t utilize prototypes, engineers typically only get one shot to get it right. I coordinated with suppliers to help reduce the lead time for hydraulic components and made multiple trips to the customer’s site (remote areas of the country with little to no cell service since railroad tracks rarely run through cities) to help with testing and train the machine operators. Both machines were accepted into revenue service by the customer on the first attempt. Historically, most machines have required multiple attempts before being accepted by customers. I was able to leverage the relationship I had fostered with external suppliers, the company’s logistics department personnel, and my immediate team members to see the project across the line on time even though the project was months behind schedule before I stepped in.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? After vacillating between a master’s in engineering and an MBA last year, I decided on getting an MBA. The decision was chiefly informed by recently experiencing the spin-off and multibillion-dollar acquisition of GE Transportation. Being immersed in this process piqued my curiosity about M&A and what it entails to orchestrate such a mega deal, which ultimately catapulted the new corporation into a Fortune 500 company and into the S&P 500 index. However, the negotiations, financial modeling, and accounting expertise, which are crucial to helping executives identify worthwhile growth opportunities, assess and valuate suitable targets, and create value for shareholders still eluded me. This is what has led me to Darden, where I am quite confident that under the guidance of the professors and the camaraderie among classmates, I will be able to develop these skillsets.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? NYU Stern, Duke Fuqua, Michigan Ross, Yale SOM, Dartmouth Tuck, Berkeley Haas

What was the most challenging question you were asked during the admissions process? The most challenging question I was asked was “What will you like me to know”. It came during my Darden interview with Aaron Wilson. I was expecting to be asked the routine interview questions and, perhaps, to elaborate on a few things on my resume. He had neither read through my application nor perused my resume. It was, truly, a blind interview. The experience was more interviewee led than the other MBA interviews I had had. It took me by surprise.

Since being accepted, what have you been doing to prepare yourself for business school? I’m fortunate to be an MLT Professional Development Program, MBA Jumpstart, and Consortium for Graduate Study in Management Fellows. Here, I was able to attend and engage with some participating corporations to get a better understanding of the different industries and job functions. As a career switcher, it’s imperative that I narrow down my options quickly and focus my energy on recruiting for the industries of my liking.

I’ve been reading the WSJ and Morning Brew” to stay abreast of M&A actions and the impact of COVID on numerous industries including healthcare, retail, and tech sectors. I’ve also been setting up some chats with current employees and Darden alums at some of the companies I’m interested in.

What was your defining moment and how did it prepare you for business school? While I was in college, my father was diagnosed with leukemia. Things got exacerbated days later when he became paralyzed from a botched “Spinal Tap” procedure at the hospital, leaving him bed-ridden, unable to sit up straight, and incapable of performing even the most quotidian of tasks. At that moment, I realized that family is all you have. I did everything I could to help, including spending some weekends, spring breaks, and summers at home. He lost his battle during my senior year just 72 hours after my 21st birthday. Nonetheless, his perseverance to hang on as long as he did gave me the courage to graduate on time with my peers. This just goes to show that life, most likely, will throw you curveballs, but your grit, tenacity, and can-do attitude will see you through.

And I do not expect business school to be 100% smooth sailing, but if I take it with grace and keep my eyes on the prize, everything will be alright.


Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.