High potentials are considered the holy grail of hires. They are the young professionals projected for the c-suite. They possess certain X-factors: the imagination to stretch possibilities, the expertise to design solutions, and the personality to bring people together. They’re selected for high-profile stretch assignments, watched closely, and coached consciously. Most of all, high potentials are always learning and testing limits.
That’s why most end up in business school. They want to fill their gaps, build their network, and position themselves for the next job. Most of all, they want to become leaders. That’s exactly why high potentials flock to the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Home to STAR — a legendary leadership training program — Kenan-Flagler attracts MBAs who are committed to the Carolina Way: “Play hard, play smart, play together.” If you ask the Class of 2023, they would attach a fourth element: Play with empathy.
LEADING WITH EMPATHY
“Empathy has to be up there with the most important qualities of a leader,” writes Mary Elizabeth Russell, who is earning a dual degree in city and regional planning. “A leader creates the environment and sets the tone. Leading with empathy creates an environment where it is safe to learn from mistakes and resolve inevitable conflicts with less drama.”
COVID changed how Nicholas Heyward viewed leadership. A financial analyst at PepsiCo, Heyward became grateful for what he sometimes took for granted: stocked grocery stories and a steady paycheck. That pushed him to look at the world from the perspective of others.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve seen how different people have reacted to change and unrest,” he explains. “In order to succeed, effective leaders need to understand where their teammates are coming from to develop a strategy both the leader and team member could follow to succeed. Knowing the strengths each person brings to the table provides the foundation for leaders to think strategically, communicate effectively, and develop the skills of their team.”
LIVING UP TO ITS REPUTATION
Yes, leaders can plot out pathways in remarks. In the end, their effectiveness is often based on the example they set. That’s one reason why Paige Smith cites humility as a key to leadership. That comes with a level of self-awareness and openness, an ability to redirect the ego and “admit mistakes, change your opinion, learn new things, and meet people where they are,” in Smith’s words. She witnessed these qualities in one of her senior leaders, a woman who wasn’t afraid to tackle the “tough stuff” in the medical field — all the while knowing she was under the microscope often being the only woman in the room. By being a role model, this woman showed Smith how limits are just temporary hurdles.
“Before working with her, I was convinced that the challenges facing our healthcare system today were far too complicated for anyone to ever solve,” Paige explains. “I no longer think that’s true, and instead think that we need more people like her who are willing to take on hard problems and think outside of the box. After graduation, I want to be part of the solution. I don’t exactly know what that looks like yet, but I think COVID will create new models for how healthcare is designed.”
Ask alumni why they enrolled at Kenan-Flagler and it often is a variation of “collaboration and community” or a “home away from home” according to Aditi Paul, a 2021 grad and P&Q Best & Brightest MBA. And the experience did not disappoint says Je’nique Whitney Harewood, who transitioned from wealth management at Morgan Stanley to marketing management at Verizon during her time at Chapel Hill.
“If I would be committing to two years at an institution, I wanted to be in an environment where I would thrive personally and professionally,” she told P&Q. “Leadership cultivation begins in the classroom and the ability to have constructive and respectful dialogue about differences in opinion and challenging each other’s thought process was important to my educational experience. I sought an environment where I was not afraid to ask questions and be inquisitive about teachings or concepts I was unfamiliar with. As a career switcher, I had to ensure the institution I chose supported those needs, made me feel comfortable, and nurtured me while developing my new skillset. UNC Kenan-Flagler checked those boxes immediately.”
A COMMITMENT TO SERVICE
Sure enough, Paige Smith has enjoyed this exact same experience at the start of her MBA journey.
“All of the programs I looked at had outstanding faculty and a reputation for a strong healthcare concentration. However, I was particularly impressed by how UNC Kenan-Flagler really walks the walk when it comes to incorporating leadership and diversity into its coursework and culture. They don’t just talk about core values, they actively work to create an environment where everyone’s opinions and perspectives are valued and welcomed…People are excited to hire UNC graduates because they are collaborative teammates who have perfected the balance of grit and collegiality.”
Grit is certainly a word that could be used to describe Katelyn Leal, a U.S. Army intelligence analyst who dealt with a fear of heights the old fashioned way…by jumping out of airplanes. “Five years ago, I would have never thought I would have been able to achieve the physical benchmarks, be deployed in support of a U.S. military intelligence mission, jumped out of planes, and become a Sergeant who successfully led a group of novices. I can undoubtedly thank this military background for culminating in my acceptance into UNC Kenan-Flagler.”
Leal wasn’t alone in her commitment to service. Bryant M. Adams commanded an Arctic Roconnaissance Troop in Alaska. His classmate, Emily Simmons, spent six years in the U.S. Marine Corps after majoring in Anthropology.
“My biggest career accomplishment was as a Transportation Services Platoon Commander in the Marine Corps, when I saw my Marines become the unit’s go-to Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs) upon our return from a seven-month rotation to Australia. I felt an immense sense of pride watching these young men and women apply the lessons they learned driving thousands of miles on the other side of the world…to become the leaders of missions back home.”
A DIVERSE AND VERSATILE CLASS
The Class of 2023 embraced leadership in many forms. Over the past two years, Arthur Wungkana has helped his media firm navigate the financial pitfalls for both BREXIT and COVID. At Duke Health, Paige Smith managed a $40 million dollar program designed to decrease the time between research and care implementation. Kevin T. Ortiz delivered a speech at TheDream.US virtual commencement ceremony alongside First Lady Jill Biden. At the same time, Konstantin Yarin ran marketing and strategy for SLATA, a 300 store grocery store chain in Russia.
“After performing marketing research, predicting competition development on a saturated market, and applying financial models, my team of 13 implemented the strategy. Our primary goal was to raise the company’s annual revenue by 150%, achieving $1 billion in five years by attracting 500,000 new customers. Shareholders accepted the strategy and its success resulted in $104 million in the Q1 sales.”
Finance…project management…marketing…and entrepreneurship too. That’s where Mary Elizabeth Russell made her mark, co-founding a consulting firm that targeted community building and sustainable development. You can bet that her classmates will gain plenty of best practices from her experiences in this space.
“Working for any start-up requires grit, heart, and vision,” she observes. “I absolutely loved that environment because I could be creative and see the impact of my work quite explicitly. The company connects corporate leaders, investors and philanthropists with strategic partners to grow their businesses and leave a positive impact on society and the environment. It was inspiring to work with each non-profit and to find funding partners that could help advance their mission – the most impactful for me being the Free Yezidi Foundation. We met the founder at a business accelerator at the U.S. Department of State focused on religious freedom. After that, we created a marketing campaign backed by a generous match partner that crowdsourced enough funding for the Free Yezidi Foundation to qualify for USAID funding – a big leap for them. That was really incredible to be a part of it.”
Nicholas Heyward could be classified as more of an intrapreneur. In the Frito Lay’s sales department, he noticed that new business accounts operated out of silos, making it difficult to build cross-functional insights and partnerships across a $500 million dollar enterprise. In response, he developed a tool to measure these sales, one that was rolled out across the country. By the same token, Cheney Holbrook headed up media and outreach for the Turner Endangered Species Fund, where she amplified Ted Turner’s vision for environmental restoration.
“I developed a conservation arts fund to support artists in Colorado who were telling the stories of wild places and wild things. In the first two years, we supported a mural series, three award-winning films, and statewide concert tour. Perhaps the greatest success, though, is that the fund continues to grow since I’ve left TESF. The last round of funded projects included sculpture, poetry, and stop-motion film.”
A MORE INTERNATIONAL CLASS
During the 2021-2022 application cycle, the Kenan-Flagler MBA received 1,494 applications, ultimately accepting 44% of students. In the end, the Class of 2023 includes 296 students, down from last year’s 344 member class. Another 47 students chose to defer their admission.
While smaller, the class is more diverse than its predecessor. 34% of the class consists of women, up from 31% last year. Similarly, the percentage of underrepresented minorities grew from a 12% to a 17% class share. With COVID receding, the percentage of international students tripled from 8% to 26%. Along the same lines, the Class of 2023 hails from 37 countries, up substantially from last year’s total of 8.
That said, average GMAT scores inched up from 694 to 696, though median scores held steady at 700 (as scores ranged from 670-720 in the 85% range). Average GPAs showed similar progress in 2021, going from 3.37 to 3.43. A fourth of the class also submitted GRE scores, which came out at a 316 average and a 308-324 range.
Academically, nearly half of the class (49%) holds undergraduate degrees in Business and Economics. STEM majors make up a 28% share followed by Liberal Arts and Humanities at 23%. Professionally, the class averages 5.75 years of work experience with the largest segment (19%) last working in Financial Services. Another 16% served in the Military, Government, or Non-Profits. Healthcare and Technology hold 10% and 9% share of the class seats respectively, followed by Consulting (7%), Real Estate (6%), and Manufacturing (6%). The class also features representatives from the Consumer Products, Energy, Media Services, Hospitality, and Transportation industries.
Next Page: Interview with Brad Staats, Associate Dean of MBA Programs.
Page 3: Profiles of 12 First-Year MBAs