2021 Best & Brightest MBAs: Kenneth Barnes, Vanderbilt University (Owen)

Kenneth Barnes

Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management

Servant leader seeking to empower others and advocate for behavioral health in underserved populations.”

Hometown: Petersburg, Tennessee

Fun fact about yourself: The summer before starting my MBA, I rode my bicycle from New York City to Seattle (via Texas) on a trip that covered 20 states and more than 5,000 miles in 85 days.

Undergraduate School and Degree: United States Naval Academy – BS in Quantitative Economics (2011)

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? United States Navy -– Submarine Officer

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Western Psychiatric Hospital – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Where will you be working after graduation? Johns Hopkins Medicine – Administrative Fellow

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

–  Bass Military Scholar

–  Mentor to NROTC undergraduate students

–  Vanderbilt Business Healthcare Association – Vice President of Communications

–  Co-Founder of Urban Bicycle Food Ministry Nashville

–  Owen Board Fellow with the Martha O’Bryan Center

–  Selected to introduce John Bolton & Susan Rice at the Chancellor’s Lecture Series (2020)

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am most proud of my involvement in starting a small nonprofit called Urban Bicycle Food Ministry Nashville (UBFM). This organization meets twice a week to distribute food, clothing, and other necessities via bicycle to those affected by homelessness in our local Nashville community.

Navigating the process to achieve our status as an official 501(c)(3) was a perfect complement to the business skills I learned in the classroom at Owen. While it was exciting to put a business model into action for a great cause, the most impactful lesson I took away from this experience was the prevalence of many common, yet incorrect, stereotypes around homelessness. For example, homelessness does not equate to laziness. Many of those we serve have jobs; they simply do not make enough money to pay for everything they need – food, water, housing, healthcare, transportation, etc. Homelessness does not equate to drug addicts. While a few of those we serve have drug or alcohol addiction issues, that is a small minority, and even those individuals with addiction issues are generally self-medicating with the only source of affordable pain relief for their physical and mental issues.

UBFM Nashville has helped me put faces and stories to those I would normally seek to avoid, and it has proven to me that homelessness is the result of a complicated reality that cannot and should not be explained by unfair stereotypes. UBFM Nashville is nowhere close to solving hunger for those living on the streets of Nashville. Still, we are doing our small part, and we are showing those who we serve that their community still cares, all while giving volunteers the opportunity to confront their own biased stereotypes about their marginalized and often misunderstood neighbors.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am most proud that I was able to earn my “dolphins” while aboard a submarine during my time in the United States Navy. The submarine warfare insignia informally known as submarine “dolphins” is earned by demonstrating vast knowledge of all systems aboard a submarine in a process called qualifying. As a submarine officer, it takes almost three years of training on land and at sea followed by a comprehensive written and oral exam process to show sufficient technical knowledge about the nuclear reactor and tactical knowledge about submarine operating systems to qualify for your dolphins. Achieving that qualification was the pinnacle of my time as a submarine officer and proved that every member of the crew could trust me to take appropriate actions in an emergency and that the captain could trust me to safely operate a $2 billion warship.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose to attend Owen because of its healthcare concentration. As a submarine officer, I came from an operational and technical background, but had a serious gap in healthcare knowledge and experience. The healthcare curriculum at Owen, as well as the close ties to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, made Owen the perfect choice. I have been able to observe a hip replacement in the OR, shadow nurses in the NICU, and listen to healthcare leaders from all aspects of the industry speak in my MBA classes. I came to Owen for a high-caliber education where I could also be immersed in the healthcare industry, and Owen delivered.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? My favorite MBA professor has been Nancy Lea Hyer. Professor Hyer was my instructor for Managing and Improving Processes. The material covered had direct applications for my career post-MBA, and she navigated the shift to hybrid teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic with enthusiasm and skill. Her energetic teaching style kept the entire class engaged, whether we were sitting 6 feet apart and wearing masks or tuning in remotely. If you come to Owen, do yourself a favor and take a class with Professor Hyer – she is a true scholar and professional.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? If I could go back and change one thing, I would choose to participate in an Owen consulting course that allowed students to assist start-up companies in Israel with various business projects. The course culminated with a trip to Israel over spring break, where students met their company representatives and presented their project results. I initially planned to take advantage of this opportunity during my second year at Owen, but that has not been an option due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. In hindsight, I should have opted to take that class in my first year instead, because those students frequently mention their trip as a highlight from their time at Owen.

What surprised you the most about business school? I expected to be surrounded by the best of the best, but the skill, talent, and breadth of prior work experiences that my classmates bring to classroom discussions has been a constant surprise. When professors ask for input on extremely niche industries or how a topic might apply to a case we are discussing, it never fails that one of my classmates will chime in with specific, appropriate experience with that exact situation – it is unbelievable that a class our size has that much experience.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? I am not sure I had an “edge” for my application process, but my strategy was to clearly demonstrate how Owen could help me achieve my professional goals and how I could contribute to the Owen team if accepted. My hometown is near Nashville; Owen has an established healthcare concentration; and the culture seemed to be a perfect fit based on my student and staff interactions. I passionately explained why I wanted to be at Owen in the application process. I also felt that my background as a submarine officer and my experiences leading teams in the military would add a unique perspective to the collective student conversation. In the end, I ended up in my dream program, so my “edge” worked out!

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Kaitlyn Barrett Wilson – she is the epitome of a servant leader. Every single interaction with her in the classroom, in a club meeting, and in a networking event has left me inspired to be a better student and leader. She is charismatic, detail-oriented, well-spoken, and a true professional. I am most impressed by her dedication to starting the Owen Board Fellows Program last year, which seeks to pair Owen students as non-voting board members with Nashville nonprofits. The Board Fellows Program has already been cited by several incoming students as the reason they chose Owen over other MBA programs, and its success was in no small part due to Kaitlyn’s dedication and passion – she is someone to watch from our class!

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit?I was shocked at how well Owen shifted to a virtual format. Of course, there were small disruptions, and the learning curve of unmuting yourself before speaking – somehow that still happens – but honestly, the faculty and staff faced the challenge of a hybrid environment head on. As a result of their dedication to making the hybrid learning experience engaging, the transition to remote learning as a student was much less daunting – a testament to the ability of both Owen faculty and Owen students to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? When I decided to end my career in the Navy’s submarine community, I looked to a lifelong friend and mentor – my sister. She convinced me that outside of the Navy I could still find a career that would be equally fulfilling and similarly focused on serving and protecting others without needing to live underwater for months at a time. She advised me to pursue an MBA because it would open many doors professionally while allowing me two years to explore my interests before committing to a specific route. As the first member on either side of our family to graduate from college, she has always led the way, so when she told me it was time to continue my education, I listened.

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

  1. I want to be a champion for increased access to behavioral health services, particularly for those affected by homelessness and others in underserved populations.
  2. I want to help create a work environment where the entire team is focused on treating each patient in the most effective, efficient, and financially responsible way possible.

What made Ken Barnes such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2021?

“We selected Ken Barnes to be a Bass Military Scholar because of his strong academic record, distinguished military service, and passion for serving others. These qualities aligned with the intent of our program: Bring the values, discipline, and mission focus of our most talented United States military veterans to the Vanderbilt campus to enrich the learning environment for all. To that end, Ken has excelled academically, as a mentor and role model for the Vanderbilt student body, and in service to the university and broader community.

While pursuing his MBA, Ken also found time to mentor Navy ROTC midshipmen, providing career advice and tips for success as a junior officer. In addition, he established the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry, a non-profit focused on providing food and support to Nashville’s homeless population. Ken uses this platform not only to serve a community in need, but also as an opportunity to teach Vanderbilt student volunteers about selfless service, empathy, and teamwork.

Not surprisingly, Ken had multiple offers for employment following his time at Owen. Ultimately, he accepted a two-year administrative fellowship position at Johns Hopkins Medicine to pursue his passion to serve others in the health care industry. He plans to bring his planning, decision-making, and leadership skills developed in the Navy and strengthened at Owen to improve access to care and patient outcomes while reducing costs. An ambitious goal, but one well suited for someone for whom service comes naturally.”

Gary H. Cheek
Lieutenant General, US Army (Retired)
Director, Bass Military Scholars Program




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