Every business school is known for something. Call it branding. Some schools are associated with excellence in fields like marketing or finance. Others differentiate themselves through close-knit cultures and alumni engagement. Of course, there are programs that excel in critical areas like leadership development and career services.
By that measure, you could say the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business suffers from an identity problem. That’s because it is impossible to size up the Darden MBA in one dimension. Rather, the program is often boiled down to three elements:
Case Method Mastery
“A NERDY SCHOOL”
“High touch, high tone, high octane” – that’s how former dean Bob Bruner defined the Darden dynamic. It is a place that requires intensive reflection and analysis, not to mention the courage to listen, question, and defend. Not surprisingly, the program attracts a certain type of student: curious, disciplined, and open leaders who hold high expectations for themselves – and the faculty and classmates around them.
“We are a nerdy school,” admits Vita Wu, a 2020 grad when discussing the program’s rigor. “People should and do come to Darden because they want to learn and work hard. Our core curriculum (the first semester and a half of your first year) is known for being intense…I worked harder than I ever had to academically, but have never felt more fulfilled and supported while doing so.”
The students aren’t the only ones with high expectations. Each year, The Economist surveys MBAs on the best Education Experience. For nine straight years Darden has notched the highest score among business schools. That performance stems from the faculty. How committed are they? Consider faculty members who teach different sections of the same course. Each week, they gather multiple times, with each meeting lasting 2-4 hours. Here, they review each case, sharing ideas and identifying strategies to maximize the consistency and value of the next class. At the same time, they review successes and shortcomings from the previous class to further elevate their teaching. The faculty has also instilled a coaching culture, where experienced professors closely mentor junior members.
“MAKE THEM FEEL SEEN, HEARD AND VALUED”
The reason is simple: teaching excellence is a source of pride among Darden professors. For most, it is the main reason they moved to Charlottesville. Even more, it is a central criterion for hiring, tenure, promotions, and recognition – with faculty expected to be stellar teachers, researchers, and citizens. By teaching, Darden means connecting. Forget intricate lectures. At Darden, teaching is a full-contact sport where everyone is expected to prepare and contribute. The professor’s job is to feed the energy and maintain the momentum. In class, they are the ones gently probing and challenging. Sometimes, they are burrowing deep into a key point made by a student. Other times, they are reeling students back to the big picture. They question and frame, often easing conversations into rich and unexpected directions.
Lalin Anik is one Darden faculty member with a gift for bringing out the best in her students. P&Q’s MBA Professor of the Year in 2019, Anik is known for joining her students on the soccer field and basketball court. For her, building rapport is a key fundamental of great teaching. “I look back and realize the classes go better when I meet them where they are. Instead of pulling them to the idea, it is almost like a dance. You have to lead and follow, and then trust builds. The total knowledge in that classroom from 70 students is much more than I can bring. When I don’t know something, I look to the class for help. I know their stories and where their hearts are. Making them feel seen, heard and valued is what’s important.”
Anik isn’t alone in adopting that philosophy. Chloe Stegeman, a 2020 grad and P&Q MBA To Watch, hails another first-year core marketing professor, Kim Whitler, who balances world-class expertise with a “electric” teaching style that’s amplified by her mentorship outside the classroom. “What has had the most impact on me is Kim’s unwavering passion and dedication to her students both inside and outside the classroom – she has pushed me outside of my comfort zone, challenged the way I think about the world, and she supported me through the peaks and valleys of life and the MBA experience.”
DARDEN STUDENTS ARE ON THE CASE
Despite Darden’s reputation for teaching excellence, the MBA program is designed for students to learn how to think for themselves – and teach themselves. And that starts with the case method, the cornerstone of the Darden MBA experience. As students, Darden MBAs will dissect 500 case studies – minimum. Here, students step into the shoes of managers. They will operate with incomplete and conflicting information, where there are no right answers – just options that all come with downsides. As a result, students learn how to weigh risks and fallout amid uncertainty. That includes asking the right questions, focusing on the right variables, and framing the right issues. More than that, the case classroom harnesses the full power of the classroom, exposing students to best practices from peers in different industries and functions. At its heart, the case forces students to become leaders. That’s because every student must step into the spotlight, and face questions and criticism. In the process, they gain humility – and an openness to outside alterations and alternatives.
Darden does the case method better than any school. That’s exactly what drew the Class of 2022 to Charlottesville. “I truly believe it is more effective to learn by doing instead of just learning through lecture,” writes Khaliyah Legette, who previously worked in the U.S. Senate as a deputy special projects director. “From day one, students at Darden are immersed into the case method. We’re not just learning for the sake of learning, but learning to put theory and formulas immediately into action. I believe this makes Darden students better managers because we don’t have to wait until day one on the job to put our education into a real-world scenario; we’ve been practicing this all two years of our MBA program.”
Peace Titilawo, a PwC digital consultant, is equally bullish on the benefits of Darden’s case methodology. “The case method will place me in ambiguous situations where I’d have to learn how to navigate solving challenging cases. It’ll really allow me to think critically and strategically, hone in my analytical skills, be assertive in my decisions, and communicate well. I’ll learn how to ask the right questions, make data-driven decisions, understand different points of views as well as equip me with the confidence to speak up in a room full of C-suite level executives.”
BONDING AMID A PANDEMIC
Academic Rigor. Teaching Excellence. Case Study Mastery. Ask the Class of 2022 and they’d add a fourth element to the Darden differentiators: Community. Stanley Lu, a senior automation engineer at Emerson Electric, recalls how his classmates created Darden Doubles – one-on-one happy hours where students could connect over Zoom. This summer also featured regular Zoom Hangouts, says Isabel Fortuño Seitzer, where students would gather to share advice on everything from career development to apartment shopping. Such activities, adds Cecilia Rios Murrieta, fostered a sense of camaraderie among the class early on.
“One of the positive side effects of COVID has been the chance to connect and meet with many of my future classmates and the rapport was simply instant. Despite being thousands of miles away from each other, we have held each other through the ups-and-downs of uncertainty and anxiety that the pandemic has caused in each of our home countries. Together, we have come out of this stronger and I can honestly say I feel like I now have best friends in India, Colombia, Chile, Argentina, China and the US, and I love it!”
Rios Murrrieta herself is an entrepreneur, building a large spirits distributor from the ground up “with no prior experience in the industry, no partners or major investors, as a 26 year-old woman in a male dominated industry.” Her classmate, Peace Titilawo, co-founded a grant-making program that has funneled thousands of dollars to social justice programs in New York City. Stanley Lu spent two years leading a global engineering team responsible for developing software that operated four story steel fermenters that produce pharmaceutical ingredients. If you’re looking for grace under pressure, check out this bit from Beau Muniz.
MAKING AN IMPACT AT THE TOP COMPANIES
“At the beginning of last year, the CEO of GE Appliances gave our team a two-word directive to create a new digital product: interactive cooking,” he writes. With little direction—and after many iterations and setbacks—my team and I created a live, interactive cooking platform called Chibo. I played a big role in developing the business model and strategy, and it’s been rewarding to see how successful the product has become.”
At Disney, Paul Niedfeldt headed up finances for a resort driving $100 million dollars in annual revenue. Three years ago, however, he had to add a new role: planning a New Year’s Eve party for guests. The result – the event has driven 13% year-over-year growth at the resort. Kathryn Allen faced equally daunting odds as a senior analyst at Eli Lilly. She holds the distinction of being the first analyst there to lead a call with outside investors. On top of that, she was addressing an older product line that was rarely publicized.
“I was incredibly proud of my team’s trust in me to represent the company to Wall Street, and I was pleased that I could create capacity and take something off my co-worker’s plate.”
Page 2: Class Stats
Page 3: Interview with Dawna Clarke, Executive Director of Admissions
Page 4: In-depth profiles of 11 members of the Class of 2022