iConverge: A Love Fest Of Passionate Believers For Gies’ iMBA

Gies iMBA students pose for a drone photo shoot at the school’s iConverge event on the University of Illinois campus

‘THIS IS MORE THAN JUST A DEGREE. IT’S AN EXPERIENCE’

Dr. Christopher Go, a dentist near Los Angeles, used the iMBA program to help him launch a startup. He graduated in 2019.

That kind of massive scale is not possible without a few hiccups, but you wouldn’t know it from the enthusiastic group of students on campus for iConverge. “The secret to scaling for students is being connected to the professors,” says Dr. Christopher Go, 58, a Valencia, Calif., dentist who is also CEO of a startup called ActivTape. “The professors here are amazingly available. They are an incredible resource and they are curious about you. This is more than just a degree. It’s an experience.”

Go entered the program in 2018 with an idea for a business, believing that he could essentially incubate a startup through the online MBA. “I had a product but didn’t know when to go with it,” he says. “In every track, I ended up learning something that was valuable to me.” He spent a lot of time in office hours with professors, testing out his concept for a medicinally infused Kinesiology tape to treat chronic pain. After his pitch to classmates and faculty, Go became known as “The Tape Man.”

He came to iConverge because of his gratitude for the program and the school from which he graduated in 2019. Besides, at a previous iConverge event, he was able to collide with a PhD student who is now engaged in his business. Even though he was in online classes with hundreds of other students, Go says he often felt as if the professors were directly speaking to him. During one session, he was yawning and the professor immediately called him out on it. “I swear he had me on a big screen,” laughs Go. And despite the size of those classes, he says he was able to closely connect with many classmates. “We have argued over Zoom and pretended our connection went bad and hung up on them.”

‘THE COST OF THIS PROGRAM IS SO REASONABLE I REALLY DON’T HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT ROI’

Matt Kessel, who will start the program next month, had been accepted to an Executive MBA program but decided to turn it down in favor of the Gies program. “I just saw the value of this program with broader participants from all over the world,” says Kessell, who is in his 50s and works in information technology in Salt Lake City, Utah. “I have less time to regroup the investment, and the cost of this program is so reasonable I really don’t have to worry about the ROI.”

Richard Daniel, who leads an operations team of 140 associates at Verizon in the New York area, had long wanted to do an MBA but life challenges forced him to put it off. The 47-year-old professional is married with a a six-year-old daughter. He considered the MBA programs at NYU Stern, Cornell and Syracuse but enrolled last October in the iMBA and hasn’t looked back. In fact, after his first eight-week term, he encouraged a Verizon colleague and friend to join. Daniel came to iConverge with him who started in January of this year.

Verizon offers tuition reimbursement of up to $8,000 a year, which will make the program virtually free for both Daniel and is friend. The size of some of his live Internet classes isn’t a bother to him. “As many students as there are, I never feel like I am one of 1,200,” he says. “The accessibility and support I receive makes it impossible to get lost.”

‘AT THE GRADUATE LEVEL, ALL OF US WERE INTRINSICALLY MOTIVATED PEOPLE WHO REALLY WANT TO LEARN’

A former lawyer, Brett Coffee graduated from the iMBA program in December of 2020

Brett Coffee, a former lawyer who now works as a strategy consultant and CEO of his own firm, found the program’s pace and learning approach ideal. “I had done well at undergrad and at law school but was never great,” he says. “Here I was at the top of my game. I watched the videos and then took the transcripts and edited them. I realized I learned very differently. My courses were also more Socratic than any law school experience. Here we always had to be on.”

Coffee, who graduated at the end of last year, also found himself in groups with classmates from 19 different countries over the course of the program. Even at scale, he is now a total believer in virtual learning. “At the graduate level, all of us are intrinsically motivated people who really want to learn and you get excited by that.” His two favorite courses, Strategic Innovation and Fostering Creativity, he says, “were the best courses I have taken in my entire professional career.”

Even though Coffee is now an alum, he came to iConverge to meet classmates he had only seen on a computer screen. But there is a lot of feel-good stuff on the agenda. Dean Jeff Brown reminded attendees of the land grant mission of the university and promoted Gies’ three graduate degree programs online as the fulfillment of that mission to democratize higher education. “This is the place where great things happen,” he told them. “We feel immense pride in your accomplishments.”

‘IF IT WERE APPROPRIATE TO PUT AN EXPLETIVE BEFORE INCREDIBLE I WOULD’

Elliott told the assembled group that the program’s affordability and accessibility has allowed it to be a leader in diversity with almost a third of the iMBA students being composed of underrepresented minorities, a diversity goal met by few business schools. “Harvard reports being at 27%,” she says (see her entire speech here). “Michigan Ross at 22%. And while exact data is hard to nail down (schools define it differently), based on our size, it’s very likely that we are second-to-none in sheer numbers of US minorities served through our graduate business degree programs.”

The school’s online learners have come from all 50 states & D.C. as well as 103 countries. “We have produced nearly 2,500 new Gies alumni, and we’ve helped nearly 3,000 women work toward, or earn, their degree,” she adds.

She rushed through even more impressive stats: 54% of students received a promotion, job offer, or accepted a new position during their time in the program, while the average pay increase for students was 21% during their time in the program. She dubbed those numbers incredible and then quipped, “If it were appropriate to put an expletive before incredible I would.” The crowd laughed out loud.

Perhaps the most inspiring talk of the day was delivered by Cedric D. Thurman, an executive at the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago, who spoke on the need for connecting with employees as a key to excellent leadership. Thurman also spoke of the importance of diversity and inclusion, noting that diversity is a mix. “Bringing in people from different places is just the beginning,” he explains. It doesn’t get you anything if their value isn’t realized. Inclusion is all about culture when you get the richness of that diversity.”

Equally inspiring were the brief talks by alumni who returned to showcase what they have learned. Jackie Price Osafo, executive director of the Society of American Archivists, passionately conveyed “Leadership Lessons From My Father.” Shima Auzins, a 2021 grad from Japan who is a Vice President of a boutique intelligence firm, spoke on “What Makes You, You?” In an intimate talk about her mother Louise, who died of Alzheimer’s disease, 2019 iMBA alum Karen Finocchio Lubeck encouraged her classmates to “Leave A Little Spark,” just as her mother had left for her. Harshad Desai, a 2020 graduate who is an associate director at Cognizant Technology, relayed that he had learned in leading others in a talk entitled “Don’t Empower, Emancipate.”

‘WHAT CAN YOU LOSE WITH A $22,000 MBA PROGRAM?’

Iqbal Mirza, a senior manager for Juniper Networks, wishes Gies would have three iConverge events a year

It was an event that resonated with Iqbal Mirza, 43, a senior manager based in Dallas for Juniper Networks, agrees. Born in Pakistan and a holder of two college degrees, this is the first time he actually enrolled in a degree program of his own choosing. “In Pakistan,” he says, “the neighbors don’t ask if it is a boy or a girl. They ask if it will be a doctor or engineer. This is the first time I’m getting a degree for myself.”

He was admitted to the part-time evening program at the University of Texas in Dallas but decided to pass on the $56,000 program in favor of the iMBA. Before making his choice, he spoke to a few others already studying in the program. “They asked me, ‘What can you lose with a $22,000 program?’ I said, ‘My time.’ But now I would bet my life on it. My colleagues couldn’t stop talking about this program because Gies is one of the true pioneers in online education.”

Mirza flew from Dallas to Chicago to attend iConverge. “I have been Zoom called my everyone for about a year now,” he says, now a third way through the program. “I am feeling a lot of energy here. You can’t build a complete human connection over a Zoom call. They should do iConverge three times a year, though my wife probably wouldn’t agree.”

Within hours of leaving the campus, he posted his assessment to classmate on LinkedIn. “It was an absolutely amazing experience meeting everybody in person. Now the bond is stronger and real. We have rediscovered the human touch that you can’t experience through zoom calls.”

Evans, the former secret service agent, was feeling the same vibe. “It’s hard to articulate how much I miss people I just met in person for the first time,” she wrote a classmate on LinkedIn, “but I miss you already!”

DON’T MISS: GIES BUSINESS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS or GIES ACHIEVES NEW RECORD FOR APPLICANTS TO ITS ONLINE MBA

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.