2021 MBAs To Watch: Ola Esho, Cornell University (Johnson)

Olawunmi (Ola) Esho

Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Cornell University

“A bold, resilient, adaptable, and curious food scientist and entrepreneur determined to make the world better.”

Hometown: Ilesha, Nigeria

Fun fact about yourself: I have 9 names.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

University of Texas at Arlington, B.S. Biology

Cornell University, M.S, Food Science and Technology

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school?
I worked with the United States Army as a Physical Therapy Specialist. In this role, I rehabilitated soldiers and veterans who had been injured in the line of battle or during a training program.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2020? I was a Product Management intern at Fluke Corporation in Everett, Washington.

Where will you be working after graduation? I will be working as a Senior Consultant at Deloitte Consulting.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

VP, Johnson Association of Veterans

VP, Johnson Africa Business Club

Coach, Big Red Microenterprise

Consulting Career Work Group Leader

Committee Member, Johnson Means Business

Consortium for Graduate Study in Management

Achievement Coach, The Village at Ithaca

Volunteer, INROADS

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school?

On October 20th of last year, Nigerian citizens who were peacefully protesting against police brutality were killed by members of the Nigerian Army. As a Nigerian and a U.S. Army Veteran, it was heartbreaking to watch from afar while unarmed citizens were being killed by those who were supposed to defend them, and to imagine the horror and pain my fellow Nigerians and their loved ones were going through.

I was given the opportunity to make a difference when, a few hours later, a friend contacted me to determine how we could support Nigerians back home. We discovered that there was a severe shortage of blood at the hospitals where the injured protesters were being treated and we worked to raise about nearly five thousand dollars in two weeks. A significant portion of these funds were donated by my Cornell classmates who were gracious enough to place their trust in us and donate funds to the cause when asked. We used this money to buy blood and medical supplies to support Nigerian hospitals that rendered free medical services to the victims.

While this horrific incident should never have happened, it has been the honor of my life to have been part of a solution that saved the lived of others. I am proud of this achievement because it gave me an opportunity to lean on the Cornell community and deploy the leadership, organization, fundraising, and communication skills for a most worthy cause.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? A few months after I arrived as a soldier at the U.S. Army installation at Fort Hood, I was selected to help expand physical therapy care to soldiers across the base. The physical therapy process in place when I joined was inefficient, as we did not see the expected recovery rates from patients seeking physical therapy. To address this inefficiency, the team decided to localize care among different units instead of operating a centralized physical therapy system. I was part of the team that set up new physical therapy clinics across the army installation. Within a year, we successfully improved access to care and recorded better health outcomes for injured soldiers. To this day, I remain immensely grateful for the opportunity to not only contribute to the life and well-being of other soldiers who dedicated their time and lives to serving the country, but also improve their health outcomes through improved operations.

Why did you choose this business school? Have you ever met an insanely brilliant person who expects great things from you, but instead of feeling pressure or anxiety from their expectations you feel incredibly up to the task and capable? That is what Johnson feels like. When I visited the school for the first time and interacted with the students, faculty, and staff, I felt challenged to achieve more. At the same time, I felt it was a place that would equip me to achieve my goals. Around Sage Hall, there is palpable sense of passion, excellence, and community from everyone in the building. It was immediately apparent that this was a place where I could learn and grow and fail forward with the most supportive group of people. As cliché as it may sound, I chose Johnson because of its people and its culture.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? My favorite MBA professor is Professor William Schmidt. He is one of the outstanding core curriculum professors at Johnson and he teaches Core Data Analytics and Modeling. He is incredibly brilliant, brings the right energy, insight, and compassion to his job, and creates a sense of curiosity in his students. He consistently goes above-and-beyond, often de-emphasizing grades as a measure of learning, instead connecting classroom learning to real-world scenarios and emphasizing the importance of ethical data analysis. More importantly, he truly believes in his students and helps them see just how capable they are. It was a joy walking into every class.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? I would have spent less time agonizing over whether I was good enough to be at this great institution. Now I understand that “imposter syndrome” affects many people, and is enhanced in certain demographics, particularly women of color. While I battled imposter syndrome in the early days of the program, I have since learned that this is not a unique feeling. If I could do anything differently, I would jump into experiences less cautiously (though strategically), realizing that power over imposter syndrome comes from the doing. For example, I was terrified of running for the co-chair position of our Student Council even though I knew I had a lot of offer. I was very nervous to pursue a position (with my amazing classmate, Merle Mullet). Though we lost the race, I gained more confidence in my abilities and a stronger conviction about my place at Cornell. Instead of being wary of sharing my ideas in a class or a meeting, I would speak up and share my perspectives, which would serve as an additional data point for the next time imposter syndrome wanted to kick in.

What is the biggest myth about your school? It is a cut-throat school where students don’t look out for each other. This could not be further from the truth. What I have experienced here is a culture that strives to be better together; be it in recruiting or in the classroom or students work together to achieve collective and individual excellence.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? I tried to understand everything that was humanly possible for an outsider to understand about Johnson. I researched online (website, podcasts, blog posts), talked with alumni and currents students, and attended as many events as I could to reflect and gain insights. I did all these not only to aid my application essays (which I painstakingly crafted over several weeks), but to help me truly visualize what I wanted from my MBA experience and how Johnson fit into that vision.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Kori Hill. She is one of the most hard-working people I have ever met. She is diligent, committed, and persistent. A proud Baltimorean, she is quick to offer a hand to anyone in need and advocate for others. Simply put, she elevates any space in which she finds herself, as she encourages respectful dialogue from different perspectives. She embodies the very values that Johnson prides itself on. I cannot wait to see the amazing places she will go!

How disruptive was it to shift to an online or hybrid environment after COVID hit? I’ll say this: it was definitely not the MBA experience that we planned for. However, Johnson’s administrators and faculty did an excellent job minimizing the negative impact by immediately moving us to an online instruction mode at the height of the pandemic and offering hybrid classes starting in September 2020. Many traditional aspects of the MBA experience changed, but what we lost in “tradition,” we gained in flexibility, intentionality, and in some cases deeper and more meaningful friendships.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue your MBA? Indra Nooyi has been the one person and business executive that I have looked up to for as long as I can remember. I am inspired by how she has curated the life that she wants, as the former CEO of PepsiCo and as a wife and mother. She came to the United States as a young MBA graduate from India and was able to rise to the highest levels of management in corporate America. As I learned more about her career and life and thought about my own goals and dreams, the MBA became a must for me.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? I would love to start a biomass company that has operations across sub-Saharan Africa, and I would like the challenge of turning a completely failing business around to the highest level of profitability.

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

“Ola stands out because of her unwavering commitment to her education at Johnson. I teach Johnson’s Data Analytics and Modeling Core. My class was initially challenging for Ola, given that as a U.S. Army Veteran and physical therapist Ola came into the program without any business background. This didn’t deter Ola—it only served to motivate her. She never stopped working in my course, and persisted until she mastered the material. She absolutely excelled on the final exam, and the pride I felt when I saw her outstanding score is one of the reasons I love to teach. Ola’s performance was a testament to her hard work, intelligence, and commitment, all qualities that I am confident will take her very far in her career.”

William Schmidt
Assistant Professor, Operations, Technology, and Information Management




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