6,900 miles separate Iwakuni, Japan from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Between stops and time changes, a flight can last 24 hours…one way. And Kristy O’Hara made this trip 14 times as an online MBA student at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business.
That’s because Tepper’s hybrid program features Access Weekends – or “adult summer camp” as O’Hara calls them. Every two months, cohorts gather in person – distraction-free – to start their classes and network with classmates and alumni. For O’Hara, these weekends were a culmination of the relationships and know-how she’d carefully built online.
A SEAT ON THE ROCKET SHIP
“You get out of the program what you put into it,” O’Hara tells P&Q. “Even though I physically lived on the other side of the world for the majority of the program, I got involved in all of the ways that I could during my time at Tepper. I served as a Vice President on the Graduate Business Association (GBA) board and became a finalist in the McGinnis Venture Capital Competition. As Sheryl Sandberg once said, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat. Just get on.” Tepper has been my rocket ship.”
Technically, Tepper was the fuel – and O’Hara was the rocket ship. When she started her online MBA, O’Hara had been as a program manager for an IT consulting firm. Soon enough, she was promoted to manage her entire team – an achievement she attributes to the personal coaching and leadership training she received from Tepper’s Accelerate Leadership Center. The school’s entrepreneurial programming also prepared O’Hara to co-found Mutually Dependent. An employment services firm, Mutually Dependent connects employers with military spouses, who often re-locate to stay with their spouses. In many ways, the venture reflects Tepper’s online model, a mixture of flexibility and service that caters to working professionals like O’Hara.
“Tepper’s part-time online hybrid program fit perfectly into my life,” she explains. “I had just married an F/A-18 Super Hornet pilot and knew that for the foreseeable future, the military would dictate where we lived. Tepper was able to meet me where I was at like no other program could.”
ONLINE MBAs AHEAD OF THE CURVE
O’Hara is among the 54 graduates included in Poets&Quants’ 4th annual Online Best & Brightest MBAs. Taken from the Class of 2021, this year’s cohort was selected by their business schools based on “strong academic performance, critical and consistent contributions, striking personal narratives, and innate potential. To put it another way, P&Q asked schools this question: “Which students were so fundamental that you can’t imagine the call without them?” These 54 students were the answers they gave.
This year, P&Q invited 27 MBA programs to submit two students for inclusion. School selection was based heavily on P&Q’s 2021 online MBA ranking and similar rankings conducted by The Financial Times and U.S. News & World Report. Overall, this year’s Best & Brightest features 28 women and 26 men. They range in age from 25 to 59 and work at many of the most prestigious names in business: Amazon, Johnson & Johnson, The World Bank, Target, PepsiCo, ExxonMobil, Adobe, and General Mills.
In year’s past, online MBAs sometimes came with a stigma. It was MBA Lite – even though the same content was taught by the same professors with the same demands. In reality, online MBA students were squeezing in school requirements alongside 50-60 work weeks – always expected to meet family obligations without missing a beat. With COVID, online MBAs became the pace-setters, the masters of the digital tools required to manage far-flung teams.
“If this last year’s pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that Zoom is the future of work,” writes S. Ryan Newcomb, a project director who earned his MBA at Rice University. “I was lucky to have been able to choose this program because – over the last two years and for an indefinite time looking forward – many programs have been shifted to virtual across the board.”
PERFECT PLATFORM FOR THE MILITARY
In the online world, ‘school is wherever you are’ – to paraphrase Indiana University’s Jennifer Zacharias, who was hired as a senior director at Target during her time at Kelley Direct. And that ‘wherever’ can be anywhere – even different places at different times for some students. Just ask Victoria Sherwood, who made a triple jump – new company, new role, new country – as a Kenan-Flagler online student.
“I was living in Germany planning and building communications infrastructure with 29 NATO partner countries,” she reminisces. “I traveled often and dialed into classes and group meetings from 14 countries, including several calls from high in the Arctic Circle. I never had to sacrifice work or personal trips to accommodate the program. I even got a fair amount of learning done mid-air during work flights, using the asynchronous content download option.”
Indeed, the online platform is tailor-made for military professionals. That includes Sherwood’s classmate, Collin Timothy Sturdivant. An Oceanography major at the U.S. Naval Academy, Sturdivant is now a Naval supply officer for the largest Strike Fighter Squadron in the U.S. Pacific fleet. In the process, Sturdivant has helped “reshape the future logistics for the Navy’s submarine and expeditionary force.” That’s not the only major responsibility he shoulders.
“Being a representative for the African American community among the Naval Officer Corps is my most rewarding achievement,” Sturdivant explains. “In recent reports, African Americans only account for 8% of the U.S. Naval Officers across the Department of Defense, and that number lowers to 1.5% at the most senior ranks (Rear Admiral to Admiral). My service is a tangible example for Black naval recruits across America to follow.”
FROM RUGBY STAR TO ENTREPRENEUR
This year’s Best & Brightest also come from all walks of life. One student – Dewald Potgieter – never even made it to college. That’s because he was drafted to play professional rugby out of high school. However, Potgieter is hardly a hard luck story. His rugby career spanned nearly two decades, where he collected two consecutive South African Super Rugby titles. And his time in Warwick Business School’s online program yielded an unexpected benefit.
“An MBA is a degree in conciseness of thought,” he observes. “In my case, the period of lockdown due to COVID-19 offered me time to think, and with a fresh MBA I actually came up with three distinct business ideas, all three of which I’ve since operationalised with success.”
The Class of 2021 also attracted its share of medical professionals. D’Onior Felton, an anesthesiologist by training, was elevated to being a perioperative medical director thanks (in part) to her MBA from George Washington University. By the same token, Christopher Go built a dental practice “from the ground up” due to a mix of hustle, grit, service, and transparency. The result: patients have voted Go as the “Best Dentist in Southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley for four years running in The Signal newspaper and the Elite magazine. At the University of Illinois’ Gies College, he has adapted a new strategy for success: capitalizing on faculty office hours – even on weekends – to answer questions or dig deeper into subjects.
“I took full advantage of office hours, attending even if I didn’t have any questions,” he admits. “Often times, discussions would ensue between professor and students which opened up a whole new perspective for me.”
NEVER A SLOW MOMENT FOR ARIZONA STATE GRAD
When Kit Spielberger wasn’t delving into marketing frameworks at Kelley Direct, they worked as the senior editor for FindLaw.com. Despite the prestige, Spielberger remains humble. After all, they can always harken back to their first leadership role at a weekly Alaskan paper. While Spielberger churned out-winning content, one reader set them straight on how far they had moved the needle.
“We used to use the paper for fire starter,” their reader told them. “Now we read the articles first!”
Then again, you can’t say Kristin Zaitz hasn’t kept busy. Over 18 years at Pacific Gas and Electric Company, she has risen from engineer to project supervisor to the manager of decommissioning engineering at the Diablo Canyon Power Plant. When asked about her biggest career achievement, the Arizona State MBA understandably hedged her bets.
“I have started a non-profit organization focused on climate solutions, opened a restaurant, earned my professional engineer’s license and project management certificate, and earned my MBA while raising three young children and working full time. If I have to pick one, I will say I am most proud of founding Mothers for Nuclear, a nonprofit focused on building a global community of support for clean energy. We were recently featured in The New Yorker.”
BUILDING THE TOP OMEGA-3 FISH OIL COMPANY
That’s not the only high profile role you’ll find among the Class of 2021. Zaitz’s classmate, Justin Zikias, helped get “Texas back online and refueled” as a logistics advisor for ExxonMobil. Jennifer Zacharias is the “leader of leaders” at Target+, where she oversees merchandising. As a senior safety test engineer at Tesla, Andrew Solomon helped launch the Tesla Model X – something the Carnegie Mellon grad describes as technically and programmatically impossible on paper, but forged into reality “through sheer power of will, dedication, and grit.” At the same time, the University of Maryland’s Yenny Andrade Castillo has spent nearly a decade at the World Bank.
“Working for the World Bank has been a rewarding experience. I’ve traveled on missions to the Philippines, Malaysia and South Africa, and I’ve seen the developmental impact of the World Bank’s work in helping poor people,” she writes. “At the same time, I’ve progressed in my professional career, advancing from an assistant position to associate portfolio officer in the Private Equity Funds unit at IFC.”
Go to page 3 to access in-depth profiles for over 50 Best & Brightest Online MBAs.