2021 Best & Brightest MBAs: Ayanna Kennedy, Wharton School

Ayanna Kennedy

Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

A determined, intelligent, artistic black woman creating the future of a diverse and inclusive society.”

Hometown: Bowie, MD

Fun fact about yourself: I’ve danced since I was two years old: ballet, tap, jazz, the works! I was able to incorporate this in my Wharton experience by becoming a choreographer in our Dance Studio club!

Undergraduate School and Degree: North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University, B.S. Electrical Engineering\

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? ExxonMobil Corporation, Business Planner

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? Deloitte Consulting – Human Capital Practice, Los Angeles, California (virtual); University of Pennsylvania, the Wharton School – Management Department, Research Assistant, Philadelphia, PA

Where will you be working after graduation? Deloitte Consulting – Human Capital Practice, Senior Consultant

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

Joseph Wharton Fellow

Director’s List Spring 2020

Co-President of Return on Equality

Diversity Admissions Fellow

Teacher’s Assistant for Leading Diversity in Organizations Fall 2020

Research Assistant for Applied Insights Lab in the Wharton School Management Department Summer/Fall 2020

Dance Studio Leadership Team (first year choreographer)

African American MBA Association Leadership Team (first year 200 Series Co-Chair)

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? The extracurricular achievement that I am most proud of was Wharton’s inaugural Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU) Outreach Program that I was able to design and sponsor with the Admissions Team. As a proud graduate of an HBCU, increasing representation in these majority spaces such as Ivy League institutions and corporate America has always been important to me. Realizing I was 1 of 3 HBCU graduates in a class of 856 was disheartening.

This program allowed me to mentor and assist ~80% of admitted HBCU students to Wharton’s Deferred Admissions Program for graduating college seniors. I also worked to partner with the black affinity groups to provide housing for prospective students, recruit current student volunteers to participate, and allow the prospectives to take part in the affinity group’s Pub Event to further experience the black culture at Wharton. Partnering with the Senior Associate Director of Diversity Admissions, this event was reimagined during COVID-19 by coordinating a virtual Visit Day that was open to HBCU alum and current HBCU students. With the virtual sessions and success of the Inaugural year, attendance doubled, therefore increasing access and knowledge for these underrepresented minoritized groups.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Entering Corporate America as a young, black, female engineer working in the white-male dominated oil and gas industry in the Deep-South, I realized that I was working in a space that was devoid of who I was. Not knowing this would lead to a career in Diversity and Inclusion years later, I thought I should educate my peers and superiors about the prominent examples of black excellence who influenced me.

I decided to join ExxonMobil’s black affinity group and became the Cultural Awareness Chairperson. I revamped the Black History Month series to include prominent black figures, aspects of black culture, and honor living legends within our own community. The event led to over 400 employees and community members attending, which well exceeded previous programs. The success of the event received local news coverage and accolades through ExxonMobil’s upper management team. I was able to also reimagine this effort when I pivoted job roles to a new location, and was surprised when I learned that the event had been heard of from Beaumont, TX to Baton Rouge, LA. This event is a legacy I have left behind and to this day is my most cherished moment.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose Wharton because I knew this school would take me completely out of my comfort zone and challenge me in ways that I could never imagine. After meeting with several Wharton students, alumni, and faculty during my campus visits, I was exposed to the rigorous academic community and the campus’ entrepreneurial spirit. However, it was Wharton’s outspoken commitment to diversity that cemented my decision to attend. The support that I received from the Black community and beyond was simply immeasurable.

When it came to decision time, I narrowed it down to two programs. One I felt was the “dream”; it checked all of the boxes of what I wanted out of my MBA. But Wharton was the goal; it became what I needed. I thought about my two-year versus my 20-year life plans and made the decision that this is where I needed to be. My experience here has been nothing short of transformative. Choosing Wharton was one of the best decisions that I’ve ever made and I grow more appreciative of the experiences gained every day.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Dr. Stephanie Creary, the professor of the management course Leading Diversity in Organizations. Not only did I have the opportunity to learn how to become a more effective, inclusive manager in her class, but I was also fortunate enough to work as her Research and Teacher’s Assistant. Working with such an influential D&I practitioner encouraged me to consistently challenge the status quo.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? The Cluster Olympics hands down! This was a part of our three-week orientation where all four clusters of ~210 students each competed in a variety of games and activities to see who had the most school spirit (It felt like a high school pep rally). I was fortunate to be one of the co-choreographers for our dance competition, which was really special. It allowed me to return to my roots as a trained dancer, as well as meet one of my favorite people at Wharton.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? I would’ve taken advantage of opportunities to meet new and exciting classmates. During my first year at Wharton, I de-prioritized travel and random coffee chats with my fellow students to focus on other aspects of my MBA, thinking I could fully delve into developing better networking and socialization my second year. Then COVID-19 hit and everything changed. So, going to grab lunch with a stranger became a foreign concept and big class trips were non-existent. While I still feel that I met wonderful human beings throughout these two years, I wish I didn’t take those other opportunities for granted.

What is the biggest myth about your school? I would say the biggest myth is that Wharton is “just a finance school.” I have met people from different walks of life who plan to transition into many different arenas besides finance. There are entrepreneurs starting up their ventures, marketing gurus, and people who are just trying to save the world one nonprofit at a time. And of course, people do come to Wharton with Finance backgrounds to continue in that space and that’s great too! But everyone has a different story and no one person’s journey is alike, which I love. Wharton is truly a diverse place and my classmates are proof of that.

What surprised you the most about business school? The thing that surprised me most about business school was that you can create your own path. I realized that you can focus on whatever aspect of life that you want, whether its academics, professional development, leadership, or networking. And if you want you can do a bit of everything – at Wharton, the world is your oyster!

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? I applied through a preparatory program called Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT) and was provided a great deal of guidance through MLT alum and coaches. They challenged me to expand my options for MBA programs to include Wharton. My coach, Coach Krista, was phenomenal in guiding me through the process the entire way.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Nicole Allain-Stockton, if you are reading this, just know that I admire you. It’s funny because Nicole and I were a part of similar spaces throughout the MBA application process and even our first year at Wharton but didn’t really connect until COVID-19 hit. But over this year, I got to know her on a personal and professional level. This amazing black woman from a Finance background (ironic huh) who plans to continue crushing the industry post-graduation ceases to amaze me. She took one of Wharton’s most premier conferences, the 47th Whitney M. Young Conference, and turned it into a masterpiece. To see her dream big like no other and do the unthinkable with this conference all in a virtual setting was truly inspiring. On top of that, she has widened my worldly views while always challenging them (We often debate for hours at a time) and has introduced me to different perspectives that I am so excited to explore. She is the epitome of #BlackGirlMagic, and for her I am grateful.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? I will say that shifting to an online learning environment was initially a struggle for me. I have never preferred online learning and have always thrived in hands-on learning environments. I even considered deferring for a year to see what would happen with the development of COVID-19. However, Wharton’s dedication to providing an equitable and engaging online environment, convinced me to carry on with my education according to plan.

When the first semester of my second-year hit, Wharton administration and faculty worked diligently to make sure that we could have the best experience possible, inside and outside of the classroom. Professors worked tirelessly to alter their curriculum and make sure that the hybrid model was as robust as possible. And lastly, I was able to build deeper connections with people and explore other interests that I might not have been able to do otherwise. While this process has definitely been a huge adjustment, I was still able to have a fulfilling MBA experience.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? My younger (bigger, he’s an entire foot taller than me) brother, Cazembe, influenced my decision to pursue my MBA. We are only 18 months apart but are the best of friends. Through the pursuit of my MBA, he was my biggest supporter. He was there for every tear shed during a GMAT disappointment, every jump for joy when receiving my acceptance letters, and everything in between. He encouraged me to keep pursuing my dream even when I didn’t believe in myself. He was the best person to talk to my parents to help them understand why I would be leaving this great job to go back to school full-time (now they’re 100% on board). And finally, to see him pursuing his PhD, which he completed in 2020, and his thirst for knowledge made me want my MBA even more. He is a role model to me and has been there since day one.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list?

  1. Be invited to be a guest speaker at Wharton’s prestigious Whitney M. Young Conference
  2. Become a Dean of a college/university

What made Ayanna such an invaluable member of the Class of 2021?

“Ayanna Kennedy has been nothing short of exceptional as a student and community member at the Wharton School. In addition to her academic accomplishments, she has made a meaningful impact on the diversity recruitment efforts in the MBA Admissions Office over the entire course of her MBA experience.

When Ayanna was admitted to the program, we knew that she had a general ethos of wanting to improve the diversity of student representation in the MBA program at Wharton. However, we soon learned that she had a particular interest in supporting students from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), which was a population of students who we hadn’t recruited aggressively. Ayanna assumed that she would work in collaboration with the Director of the Moelis Advance Access Program in order to support the office’s programming for undergraduate students attending HBCUs. However, when that director was suddenly hired for a new role outside of Wharton, Ayanna stepped up to fill the void in HBCU programming by taking on more responsibility and executing the first ever campus visit program for students from HBCUs. To be frank, Ayanna led much of the planning and execution of the event and while it certainly wasn’t perfect, it was quite successful in exposing HBCU students to the Wharton community and encouraging them to apply.

Our office learned a lot of helpful lessons about recruiting HBCU students from Ayanna’s efforts last year and this year, we are building upon her pilot program. More broadly, Ayanna has been available for collaboration, support and lending her voice to inspire underrepresented students to consider Wharton. In her second year she assumed the role of Diversity Admissions Fellow to help Wharton become a more equitable and inclusive place, as well as to work in collaboration with other diversity organizations in order to help advance the representation of underrepresented populations. Ayanna is smart, kind, hardworking and an important member of our community. We will miss her when she graduates from Wharton but her positive impact on recruitment will endure. Ayanna Kennedy is one of Wharton’s best and brightest.”

Quinton McArthur
Senior Associate Director of Diversity for MBA Admissions





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