2021 Best & Brightest MBAs: Kaitlyn Barrett Wilson, Vanderbilt University (Owen)

Kaitlyn Barrett Wilson

Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management

Curious, driven, and passionate about making a positive impact.”

Hometown: Franklin, Tennessee

Fun fact about yourself: I have been a Type 1 Diabetic since 2013. While giving back has always been a part of my life — my home state of Tennessee is “the volunteer state” after all — being committed to managing my diabetes broadened my career aspirations beyond just myself into a drive to make a difference in the world, no matter the limitation.

Undergraduate School and Degree: University of Tennessee, Bachelor of Communication in Public Relations

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? McDonald’s Corporation, as a Supervisor in International Public Affairs. I worked on the team that helped launch McDonald’s “Scale for Good” sustainability goals, including emission reduction, antibiotic usage, animal welfare, and packaging reformulation and recycling.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? Summer Associate at Bain & Company

Where will you be working after graduation? After a great virtual summer, I’m excited to be returning to Bain & Company as a consultant in Atlanta.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

  • President of Owen Strategy & Consulting Club
  • Chair of Owen Board Fellows
  • MBA Recruiting & Admissions Fellow
  • Career Peer Coach
  • Turner Family Center for Social Ventures Emerging Impact Leader
  • Teaching Assistant for “Leading Teams & Organizations” and “Managing & Improving Processes”
  • Dean’s Scholar

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I was very fortunate to help lead the launch of Owen Board Fellows, which pairs full-time MBA students to serve on the boards of local nonprofits in and around Nashville. Working in partnership with Kathleen Fuchs Hritz, Assistant Director of the Turner Family Center, and then second-year MBA student Mallory Hall, we placed 25 of my classmates on the board of 24 nonprofits. We also hosted a day-long training on nonprofit governance and brought in a variety of speakers throughout the year on community partnerships, nonprofit leadership, and board service. Since the first year, our applications have more than doubled, and we just launched the second cohort of 30 fellows. It has been exciting to work on something that brings me energy, and when I look back on my time at Owen, I am so inspired by the work my classmates have done on their boards. I am excited to see how the program continues to evolve after I graduate!

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I’ve had the unique opportunity to help chart ESG (environmental, social, and governance) disclosure strategies at both CSX and McDonald’s. There has been a lot of change in the ESG community over the last 5 years, and it has not always been the most respected area. I’ve helped navigate the decisions around what data to disclose, which disclosure method and frequency fits the business, and how to best tailor data for the end-user audience. As long as the metrics make sense, more transparency benefits both shareholders and stakeholders.

Why did you choose this business school? Vanderbilt’s location in Nashville, Tennessee, was a big motivator for me for a few reasons. Knowing that I was interested in recruiting in the Southeast and Midwest, Vanderbilt provided great access to employers in both markets. As a fast-growing city, Nashville also has a thriving entrepreneurial culture, creating lots of in-school opportunities to work with start-ups. I’m also originally from this area, and my parents still live here. While I had been living in different states for the last 8 years, it was nice to come back and build my professional network in Nashville.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? Owen prides itself in bringing a personal scale to business school, and I think that really comes out in the “Fireside Chats” it hosts with guest speakers. I’ve been fortunate to get to meet many corporate and community leaders at Owen through these personal events, by the fireplace in the library to start and now on Zoom. It’s like attending a Masterclass, except I have a front row seat amongst a small audience with the ability to interact directly with the speaker.

What is the biggest myth about your school? Owen is known for its small size, which I was worried might create challenges during recruiting, but I found it to be the opposite. Perhaps because of the smaller scale, the Owen alumni base is very engaged – I never had an email to an alumni go without a thoughtful response and I even had the opportunity to form lasting relationships with a number of alumni, which I wasn’t anticipating during my time in school.

What surprised you the most about business school? When applying to business school, I thought a lot about faculty, but it’s been impressive to see how much of my learning in the MBA program has come from my peers. I’ve been fortunate to work with classmates who have highly different backgrounds and experiences than I do. For example, in my role helping to lead the Owen Strategy and Consulting Club, I’ve had the opportunity to help many of my classmates evaluate and pursue career opportunities. I originally thought of this as a one-way mentoring role, but in reality, I’ve learned many lessons from my peers.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? In both applying to business school and pursuing the post-MBA role, I think it’s really important to be self-aware. I originally considered pursuing a part-time MBA, which delayed my application cycle for the full-time program by a year. In retrospect, I’m very thankful that this time allowed for more self-reflection, so I could truly know why I wanted to go to business school and what challenges brought me energy – or didn’t! Identifying this helped me be clearer and more original in my essays and interviews. Additionally, once you get to business school, there are so many competing priorities for your time, so having self-awareness is helpful to know which events to attend and know when you need to take a break or squeeze in a workout to maintain mental health.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? It’s really challenging to choose just one person, because I’ve been inspired by so many of my peers through classroom discussions, club leadership, and passions outside of school. Still, it’s hard to imagine my MBA experience without the positive influence of Ken Barnes. While Ken and I come from very different backgrounds (his with the US Naval Academy, submarines, and nuclear expertise, and mine in corporate affairs and sustainability), we actually interviewed at Owen on the same day. Since then, I’ve been inspired by Ken’s kind and positive leadership philosophy.

Outside of the classroom, he has helped create and lead Urban Bicycle Food Ministry, which prepares and delivers weekly meals (on bikes of course!) to people affected by homelessness and poverty in the Nashville area. At Owen, he is a leader in the Bass Military Scholars program, an Owen Board Fellow with the Martha O’Bryan Center, a leader in our healthcare recruiting, and genuinely a friend to all students. I’m not sure when he sleeps, but still, he is always positive and ready to help support a worthy endeavor – and make it fun!

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? Since the pandemic hit, I’ve participated in both fully virtual and hybrid (in-person and online) modules at Vanderbilt, so I’ve seen the pros and cons of both methods. One benefit of virtual learning however hit very close to home this fall, when my father was diagnosed with cancer. I was able to move in and help with his care and appointments, while still attending classes, participating in group meetings, and doing assignments all online – something that would have been very challenging in a fully in-person environment. Even as a “virtual learner,” professors were still highly accessible to fit in a one-on-one Zoom call to answer questions or discuss concepts when I needed. I feel very fortunate for the flexibility that virtual learning allowed me to have this fall, while getting to prioritize my family.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business? I was very lucky to have a boss early in my career who grew into a great friend and mentor, Tori Kaplan, now head of Corporate Responsibility at Truist (formerly Sun Trust). Tori and I first crossed paths during my role immediately out of undergrad at APCO Worldwide, and then I eventually had the opportunity to work for her full time when she led Corporate Social Responsibility at CSX, a major US freight railroad. Tori took the time to invest in her team in both our professional work and our lives overall, and this personalized attention helped me become comfortable with owning bigger projects at work and brining my voice to the company. In her own work, Tori is always paving new paths in the space where corporate strategy and community improvement overlap, and yet she manages in a way that brings attention to the work, not herself. To this day, I lean on Tori for both solid counsel and inspiration to do good. I have been very fortunate to have received encouragement and counsel from many once I decided to pursue my MBA, but I credit Tori entirely for planting the seed that allowed me to dream big career goals for myself and made it not just okay, but normalized, to think that I could make a positive difference in the world.

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

  • Help lead a nonprofit organization.
  • Mentor women in the Southeast to pursue their career goals.

What made Kaitlyn Wilson such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2021? 

“If we had the opportunity to design the ideal Owen student, I think Kaitlyn would serve as an excellent prototype. She combines superior academic capabilities with a substantial willingness and ability to contribute in meaningful ways outside the classroom, all of which improve our program and her classmates’ experience. And she manages to do all of this with an incredibly gracious and positive attitude.

As a faculty member, I have seen first-hand Kaitlyn’s excellence in academic settings. But, I think what really distinguishes her as an invaluable member of the Class of 2021 is the significant contributions she has made to the larger Owen community. Simply put, many Owen students have enjoyed a substantially better MBA experience because of Kaitlyn. I’ll highlight two specific examples.

First, Kaitlyn was a driving force in the creation of our new Owen Board Fellows Program. This program pairs MBA students with local nonprofits to serve as a shadow board member for a year and to complete a project addressing one of the organization’s strategic challenges. I am very confident that this extremely valuable student experience would not be available to our students were it not for Kaitlyn.

Second, Kaitlyn served as President of the Owen Strategy & Consulting Club (OSCC), the largest professional club at the school. OSCC is a student-driven club that informs and helps prepare students interested in strategy and consulting careers. The club’s success largely depends on the quality of student leadership. As the faculty adviser to the club, I was pretty concerned about the ability of the club to fulfill its responsibilities in our COVID-induced virtual world. I am still amazed to say that I think the past year has actually been one of our most successful, and that success is largely due to Kaitlyn and her fellow board members.

Many members of the first-year class have also benefitted from the substantial amount of time Kaitlyn has devoted to mentoring activities. A staff member recently mentioned to me how impressed she has been with Kaitlyn’s sincere efforts to openly discuss being a female in business and offer guidance and support to first-year OSCC members.

Kaitlyn’s leadership inspires and challenges others to be better. Despite her successes both inside and outside the classroom, she maintains a sense of humility and desire to help others. Kaitlyn is certainly one of the best people, not just one of the best students, I have been lucky to meet during my time as a faculty member at Owen.”

Brian McCann
David K. Wilson Associate Professor of Management



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