In business school, “Personal Scale” is considered a unicorn at best and an oxymoron at worst. After all, scale is the crux of many business cases. For big organizations, the question involves focus: How do you provide personalized attention and custom options without being overwhelmed? Smaller organizations face a different set of hurdles: How can you provide a wide range of offerings and opportunities without going bankrupt?
That’s true in education too. And it’s why “Personal Scale” is such a compliment to Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management. It is a school that strikes a difficult balance: student-focused and community-driven while being rich in resources and access. It is also a description that resonated with students like Mario Arjona. Before joining the Owen MBA Class of 2022, he oversaw production output at General Mills for products like Yoplait GoGurt. For him, Vanderbilt Owen’s “Personal Scale” meant he could maximize the graduate experience without sacrificing big city life or larger professional networks.
A SOUTHERN IVY
“Personal Scale” is a phrase I heard a lot before coming to Owen, and it became clear how much it meant to everyone here,” Arjona writes. “The commitment to you as an individual starts with the small size of the school but extends to every part of the experience. I came from a huge undergrad institution where I found the most valuable experiences I had were in smaller group outside the classroom, through extracurriculars and other involvements. I wanted to go to a school where that tight-knit group philosophy was at the core of the program, and I found it at Owen.”
Vedanti Shah calls this philosophy, “Competitive but not cutthroat.” To her, the success of Vanderbilt Business is based on its people – a view she shares with Brittany Hunter, a 2020 grad and P&Q Best & Brightest MBA. “Business school can be hectic and you are left feeling vulnerable or inadequate at times,” Hunter explains. “But having a collaborative community with faculty that are always present, even outside of the classroom, makes the experience enjoyable.”
It doesn’t hurt that Vanderbilt University is referred to as the “Harvard of the South.” The title certainly fits when it comes to prestige and academic excellence – not to mention a bevy of ivy-laden brick buildings. At the same time, Vanderbilt and Harvard share an urban setting, as Boston and Nashville act as commercial and artistic hubs where there are always opportunities to pursue and events to enjoy.
NASHVILLE: THE PLACE TO BE
“Growth is the operative word in business, and the Music City is growing like crazy,” explains Franklin Popek, who was a child model and Deloitte consultant before business school. “The rapid growth rate, especially among young professionals, can be attributed to Nashville’s expanding job market, its high quality of life, and its low cost of living. Nashville serves as the perfect opportunity to live in a big city while studying without breaking the savings account. Apart from being home to several big corporations, Nashville has become a startup hub. These qualities made Nashville attractive…and do not forget the allure of live music (all genres) on every corner!”
Nimi Ajayi, a business analyst who holds degrees in human resources and information systems, also hypes the city’s “young demographic [and] strong healthcare community,” which makes for a “fun learning environment.” Along the same lines, the feeling exuded by Nashville can be “infectious,” adds Mario Arjona.
“I had been living here for five years before starting at Owen, and there’s a reason I didn’t want to leave. The city is exploding – new experiences and opportunities pop up every day. Nashville is constantly changing, growing, and redefining itself, and it invites you to do the same.”
That’s exactly what the Class of 2022 came to Owen to do. They hail from companies as diverse as Google, ViacomCBS, and Mary Kay Cosmetics. At Procter & Gamble, for example, Carrine Wright promoted feminine care by bringing together Tampax, Target, and Historically Black Colleges. Nimi Ajayi helped create a popular app that changed how many medical students studied for their board exams in Africa. As a U.S. Army Company Commander, Neal Bray led an infantry company spread across 135 miles of Iraq.
TEACHING BUSINESS PROFESSIONALS LEADS TO BUSINESS SCHOOL
“Being in that middle manager role for the Army and leading up to 200 people taught me how to be confident when working outside of my comfort zone,” Bray writes. “In turn, these moments prepared me for the MBA experience, because I had little to no prior experience with business-related matters before coming to Owen.”
The same could be said about Jacob Schrimpf. Before business school, he pursued a career in acting with 30 productions to his credit. It was a tough gig, he says, one filled with “uncertain futures and consistent rejection.” However, his path rounded to business school after an event that can only be described as serendipity.
“I always say that my “aha!” moment came about two years ago,” Schrimpf writes. “I was teaching an adult acting class to a number of mid-career business executives, who expressed the benefits of theatrical training in their careers. Working with this group lit a spark in me to combine my love of coaching and collaboration with a business education to pursue a career in human resources. For me, the clearest path was to pursue my MBA at a school known for a robust HR curriculum.”
LEARNING BUSINESS THROUGH ATHLETICS
For Jack Cogan, the path to Owen also weaved through acting class. By day, Cogan worked as an analyst who crunched the numbers for CMT, BET, and TVLand – which together amounted to $300 million dollars in assets. At night, he was taking improv classes to indulge his love for sketch comedy. Cogan even applied for the NBC Writers Workshop! However, he soon realized that his love for comedy tapped into something far deeper.
“Though I certainly don’t have the comedic talent to be on SNL, all of this experience outside the office led me to realize that it wasn’t just the comedy I was drawn to,” Cogan writes. “Instead, it was just getting to work in a creative environment with people of all different personalities. It then became a simple decision for me to go back and get my MBA to pursue a role in brand management, where I could learn how to combine my analytical background with my creative interests.”
Roderick Odom’s path actually started at Vanderbilt – before looping back to Owen six years later. An Economics major at Vanderbilt, Odom spent his career playing professional basketball overseas. Here, Odom says, he became a “quick study” – developing the versatility to lead people from far different backgrounds than himself.
“As a professional athlete, I developed strong soft skills like adaptability, poise under pressure, and resilience,” Odom notes. “I was at a point where I was eager to take the lessons and skills that I learned from playing professional sports and apply them to a more sustainable space. I decided to pursue an MBA because I wanted an opportunity to combine those soft skills with some of the hard skills that an MBA program can help develop.”
A NEW WAY FOR MARY KAY
Looking for first-year MBAs who’ve already made major impacts on their companies? At Google, Jamie Rosenstein Wittman programmed and launched Googlegeist – the company’s employee-wide survey. Franklin Popek produced three diversity and inclusions summits at a film festival alongside actress Geena Davis. By the same token,Sarah Steele developed a study that received a $1.6 million dollar grant for pediatric COVID-19 research. As the marketing supervisor for Mary Kay Cosmetics, Ania Sanchez overhauled the firm’s 50-year in-person recruiting and sales model. The result: the firm recruited 350,000 more women to sell their products.
“Celebrations are a big part of Mary Kay, and I had the opportunity to be in charge of the 30th anniversary contest,” Sanchez explains. “We had a goal to recruit more women, reach the target sales, and make our salesforce fall in love with the brand. I led a team of 50+ people from different teams and learned so much about the different aspects of a business by working closely with them. This was when I knew I needed to go to business school in order to learn more about subjects I was not familiar with and to try new experiences that can help me mature professionally.”
The Class of 2022 has been equally busy since arriving on campus. Sanchez joined the Project Pyramid Committee – “a student-led program that uses in-classroom and hands-on learning experiences to meaningfully engage with socially conscious organizations.” The project is part of the Turner Family Center for Social Ventures, where Sarah Steele has joined the Impact Investing & Training (MIINT) team to compete against other schools in this field. Jack Cogan was part of the Owen team that is a regional finalist for the Hult Prize, where he is working on a business plan for food security. At the same time, Mario Arjona was selected to be a Board Fellow at Owen.
“I’ll have a chance to serve on the board of a local non-profit. I’m incredibly excited to represent Owen in the broader Nashville community, learn from and work alongside community leaders, and have an impact in the place that’s become my home.”
KEEPING BUSY IN A PANDEMIC
Speaking of honors, Vedanti Shah certainly made an impression on her classmates. She was elected to the student senate – even though she could only take her classes virtually to start. Roderick Odom and Jacob Schrimpf have already landed internships at Morgan Stanley and American Express respectively. While Jamie Rosenstein Wittman is busy earning her MBA, she hasn’t quite left Google behind.
“The most rewarding accomplishment the past couple of months has been working with fellow Google/ Ex-Google employees to create a “Careers in Tech” discussion for the boys at Backfield in Motion, a Nashville-based non-profit that offers mentorship, education, and athletics to at-risk males. One positive from our current virtual world is that location is no longer a limitation. By working with Backfield in Motion, we were able to bridge tech employees and Nashville students to broaden the students’ idea of the types of people who work in tech.”
The school’s ‘Competitive but not cutthroat’ tag is also far more than marketing fluff. Vedanti Shah, for one, lauds her classmates for helping her prepare for interviews, be it at 6 a.m. or 9 p.m. Even more, adds Sarah Steele, the Class of 2022 really stepped up in the wake of COVID disrupting expectations and creating a hybrid classroom environment.
“I think all of my classmates are resilient and risk-takers because we started our program in the middle of a pandemic,” Steele writes. “We had no idea how orientation and the first few months of school would turn out, but we have all risen to every challenge that has come our way. There have been many twists and turns to our MBA experience. It has been amazing to see everyone help each other through this difficult time. Group projects are a huge part of business school, and being virtual certainly adds a new factor to projects. However, everyone has been patient and willing to teach one another.”
Next Page: Class stats and interview with the Associate Dean of MBA Operations.