2021 Best & Brightest MBAs: Nwaka Isamah, Duke University (Fuqua)

Nwaka Isamah

Duke University, Fuqua School of Business

“Black, woman, creative, faith-based, family-oriented, committed leader: My purpose: to support, uplift & empower.”

Hometown: Born in Ibadan, Nigeria; Raised in Philadelphia, PA

Fun fact about yourself: My sisters and I have rhyming names – Nneka, Amaka, Nwaka, and Onyeka. We matched outfits a lot growing up, courtesy of my mom.

Undergraduate School and Degree: Temple University – Economics Major, MIS Minor

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? The Vanguard Group, Enablement Strategist – New Ways of Working

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? The Vanguard Group – Malvern, PA; Deloitte Consulting – Atlanta, Georgia

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

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: Business in Africa FY Student Engagement Chair, Black and Latino MBA Member, Human Capital Club VP of Marketing, Human Capital Club Co-President, Forte Foundation School Ambassador, Coach K Center for Leadership and Ethics Fellow, and MBA Association VP of Diversity and Inclusion

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? It was stepping up as a leader in Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) during the onset of COVID, racial unrest, and political unrest. Through this experience, I led a dynamic team of 7 peers, held allyship conversations with the Fuqua deans and student body, interviewed Deloitte’s chief inclusion officer, shared at Fuqua’s board of visitors and Minority advisory board, helped institute implicit bias trainings for incoming FYs, and planned/executed on 25+ events and collaborations with other incredible student leaders. My goal in the VP role was to maintain a consistent sense of the Fuqua community while establishing a space where people felt like they could be their authentic selves. This was branded as the “Inclusive Leader Journey.” Navigating this role as a student, woman, and underrepresented minority has been challenging but the leadership lessons have been invaluable.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? At Vanguard, I held 3 different roles and 6 different jobs in 4+ years. From the leadership development program participant, to high net worth chief of staff, to enablement strategist, my proudest moment had nothing to do with the roles but the passion I was building. I participated in a diversity training pilot in 2016 and decided that I wanted to continue down the route and host those conversations. I held an “Inclusion and You” conversation with my New Ways of Working team and it was the first time the team ever had that conversation. We all had to be vulnerable and break down our walls. It was the first time we saw each other truly as people than as co-workers. Before leaving the position, I provided the senior team a D&I strategy they could implement in partnership with the Chief Diversity Office and they ended up implementing the program with positive results. This was the first time I understood the value of my voice in the D&I space. I saw the amount of people on the team who were touched and had become more curious about understanding one another. It continues to be my proudest professional moment to this day.

Why did you choose this business school? My criteria for business school were simple: kind people with diverse perspective, travel opportunities, and a warm location. Fuqua surpassed all three and then some. When I attended Blue Devil Welcome weekend, I was greeted with such warmth and open arms by the school, most especially our Black and Latino MBA Association (BLMBAO). When I got back to Philly, I missed the people I had met within the short weekend. From that feeling, I knew it was the right place for me.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Scott Rockart, he was my Core Strategy professor. He was my first experience with a professor who pushed for dynamic conversation and perspective. He is incredibly passionate about strategy, and has an overall warm nature that is easy to feel in the classroom. I also appreciated seeing him at a few D&I events I hosted. Like many Fuqua professors, Scott genuinely cares about students and I thoroughly enjoyed his class.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? Fuqua Vision, as someone who loves the lighter side of life and to laugh, Fuqua Vision is a way we all roast each other through brief skits. Something I truly love about Fuqua is the sense of humor across the student body. I experienced cheek-hurting belly laughs daily and I do believe we have quite a few comedians. Fuqua Vision is a way to highlight that by bringing the community together and poking fun at each other.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? Be intentional with my yes and no. I said yes to almost everything. While this afforded me some great memories, I felt split many times and felt like I was always running to the next thing. Being able to say no earlier would have allowed me to pause and be intentional with some relationships and experiences early on.

What is the biggest myth about your school? Not sure if this a myth but more around not being able to do much in Durham, especially coming from a larger city. I have been blown away by the number of activities available here. From restaurants and beaches to mountains and lakes, there is just something available for everyone here and my classmates are always open to exploring new activities.

What surprised you the most about business school? I remember our career director, Ed Bernier, mentioning how transformative the business school experience would be. I did not realize just how transformational it would be. Every single person experiences a transformation of some sort. I came into Fuqua timid, uncertain, and anxious about the experience, the people, and the demands of the MBA life. Three months before graduation, I feel confident, whole, grateful, and secure. There is no real way to describe it, I just feel different and this difference has surpassed my expectations of the experience.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? My essay writing. I locked myself in my apartment for two days and wrote my heart out. No one else reviewed my essays for Fuqua except my dad, a college professor. I like to think it was the passion I put in my writing that helped with the admissions process.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Giovanni Lu, my peer VP of International. Gio had to navigate leading through the uncertainty of the pandemic, work with the International Programs Office, and international students across the board while also experiencing changes as a Peruvian citizen. He stepped out of his comfort zone gracefully, always had a positive attitude, and a smile to back it up. Overall, I have been grateful for his leadership, friendship, and partnership in the MBAA.

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? Fuqua did an excellent job in managing COVID across all student populations. It was tough coming back from an exceptional two week spring break in Namibia and South Africa to fully online classes. However, I am grateful that I was able to visit my parents for an extended amount of time. I deepened relationships with peers over the summer through socially distant walks, and took time to invest in myself. While there are memories and the opportunities of being a second year MBA student that I will miss, I am grateful for the increased flexibility of the online/hybrid format.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? My parents. It was funny, I started out as a psychology major and we went through a bargaining process of identifying other majors and settled on Economics (the mix between social science and business), which is what set me on the path of the business world. My mom was also a driving factor in going back to business school. I thank her for that every day.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? First, I would love to start my own D&I consulting/URM executive coaching business. I am incredibly passionate about the intersection of D&I, mental health, strategy, coaching, and business for underrepresented populations. It took a large community/village to get me where I am, and I would love to pay that forward. Second, I want to manage a global team and millions of dollars, just to be able to brag to my dad and say, ‘I manage millions of dollars.’

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

“Fuquans are fortunate enough to gain exposure to amazing thought leaders as part of their business school experience. Often, these leaders are CEOs, distinguished speakers, or guest lecturers. In the last year, all of Fuqua got a front row seat to one of the most impactful leaders that I have had the privilege of knowing: the Class of 2021’s Nwaka Isamah.

Nwaka’s intelligence, vulnerability and courage were on full display during this past year. She helped lift the Fuqua community in ways that I have never seen before, in ways that I am eternally grateful for, and I feel blessed to be a part of.

As the VP of Diversity and Inclusion, Nwaka has courageously modeled what it means to be a Leader of Consequence. This was especially emotional, exhausting, and involved a never-ending amount of work, given the challenges of the past year. Nwaka, along with her incredible cabinet, met these challenges head on, and helped raise the bar for Fuqua moving forward.

I recall after a particularly emotional panel last spring, reflecting on how thankful I was to be a part this experience, this year, with Nwaka. This was a feeling that consistently emerged as I continued to learn with, and from Nwaka and her team.

Fuqua is unbelievably fortunate that Nwaka put her mind, her heart, and her soul into helping create spaces where Fuquans feel welcomed and included. Life is incredibly precious, and the fact that Nwaka puts herself out there, for the benefit of so many others, is inspiring.”

Steve Misuraca
Assistant Dean for the Daytime MBA program
Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business




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