“If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”
You can credit George S. Patton with that gem. A brilliant American general, Patton competed in the Olympics as a pentathlete and suffered from dyslexia. He even had to repeat a grade at West Point after failing his math exams.
Bet that would make a great admissions essay, huh?
Alas, Patton understood something fundamental: non-traditional backgrounds enrich any experience. That’s particularly true in business school. Dismiss outliers at your peril. They dig deep, ask hard questions, and don’t accept pat answers. Whether they toured with Wicked or nursed gunshot victims to health, they already know how to master a discipline. Sure, they have a big learning curve ahead. In essence, they enrolled in business school because they welcome change — and they have something to prove. With that mindset, their success rate is high.
A TRACK RECORD OF HELPING NON-TRADITIONAL STUDENTS
You might not expect Columbia Business School to be a haven for non-traditional students. After all, it has the reputation for being one of the top finance programs in the world — a feeder to Wall Street with top notch programming in marketing, real estate, international business, and management to boot. While the program brands itself as a “marriage of management fundamentals with data science and analytics,” it also boasts over 200 full-time faculty and adjuncts whose expertise ranges from media and technology to family business to value investing. And General Patton would be happy to learn that CBS is a popular destination for veterans too. And let’s not forget the school’s New York City location — a place populated with dreamers and immigrants looking to transform their lives.
Mélanie D’Mello Génin is one of these out-of-the-box students at Columbia Business School. A native of France, D’Mello Génin describes herself as a “classical harpist and producer passionate about immersive technologies, music, and empowering women.” Trained at Juilliard and the Paris Conservatoire, she has already recorded on the soundtrack to Netflix’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Her path hasn’t been easy, she writes. Rather than follow a traditional orchestra path, this first generation student has operated as a soloist, chamber musician, and artistic director in a “male-dominate industry.” And D’Mello Génin chose CBS because it caters specifically to students like her.
“CBS has an excellent track record of selecting brilliant art professionals and helping them to successfully pivot into roles at top consulting, VC and media companies,” she writes. “Materializing your MBA into a top job is a heavy lift for people with non-traditional backgrounds. We have many of the entrepreneurial and soft skills, but often people don’t know what to do with us. It takes a lot of translation work and convincing. It is a tremendous asset to have a school which values you and your skills and knows how to accompany you on this journey.”
A TONY AWARD NOMINEE AND AN OLYMPIC ATHLETE
D’Mello Génin isn’t the only artist residing at CBS’ Class of 2023. Dana M. Lerner was nominated for a Tony Award as a Broadway producer for Indecent. At the same time, she runs Red Pelican Creative, a social media company that caters to the arts and entertainment industries. Like D’Mello Génin, she followed an unusual path, balancing artistic consideration with keeping a boutique firm afloat amid a pandemic. However, Lerner also sees opportunity amid the onslaught, which is why she chose to pursue her MBA.
“If this past year has taught us anything, it’s that the entertainment industry and technology sphere are highly interconnected,” she observes. “We’ve seen the rise of streaming, digital releases, and various forms of virtual content created during the pandemic. I believe that trend will continue, and Columbia’s Media and Technology program stood out to me as an incredible opportunity to dive into this ever-morphing world head-first. With a wealth of resources and a tight knit community eager to learn from professors and each other, we can better understand the relationship between the two industries and push both towards the future.”
Athletes also fit the bill for non-traditional backgrounds. At CBS, you’ll find Alex Karwoski. An engineer by trade, he jokes that he has “rowed approximately the equivalent of three times around the Earth’s circumference.” He also competed for the U.S. Rowing team at the Olympic Games in 2016 and 2020. Like Lerner, COVID inevitably forced Karowski’s hand. In his case, it pushed him to make the most of his talents before “embark[ing] on a new adventure.”
“When the Olympics were postponed in March 2020, I quickly recognized that I was not ready to ‘end’ my rowing career without seeing the full cycle through. That decision meant that I would need to withdraw and re-apply to CBS for the Fall 2021 incoming class. The pandemic gave me a new outlook towards rowing – it was no longer something I felt like I wanted to do, but rather something that I needed to see to the end. Looking ahead to what is next for my life in general, I hope to gain insight on how to avoid situations that put me in that ‘need’ instead of ‘want’ state-of-mind.”
WORLD BANK AND FACEBOOK ALUMNI
Sydney Wade started out as an athlete too. In high school, she set her high school’s track and field record for the 400-meter run and the 4×400 relay. Since her athletic days, she has moved into the front office as a corporate communications manager for the Miami Dolphins and Hard Rock Stadium. Kilian Koffi has also stayed involved in athletics as a field hockey referee — with over a 100 games to his credit. While Koffi’s academic background — Economics and International Development — fit with a traditional MBA profile, his passions go far beyond his analyst role at the World Bank. For one, he organized last year’s World Bank Group Youth Summit.
“It was attended virtually by over 40,000 youth (18-35) from 150+ countries,” he explains. “We worked tirelessly to provide an interactive, cross-cultural experience that could lead to tangible solutions and connections. On top of the summit, we ended up developing and hosting five regional pre-summit discussion events in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Latin America. Here, between 400 and 1,000 local youth tuned in to engage with policy makers, development practitioners, and each other on topics ranging from ocean plastics to democracy. Building and managing a global team that have never met in person to put together this series of events was one of the most challenging and simultaneously most rewarding experiences of my career.”
You might not expect to see Sydney McNeal prowling the halls of Facebook in recent years. After all, she was neither techie nor quant. Instead, she had majored in Islamic Civilizations and Societies as an undergrad. On top of that, her first job involved helping the incarcerated “reintegrate” into Moroccan society. Eventually, she found herself working as a high value account manager at the social media giant. Now, she hopes to combine MBA tools and liberal arts background to “break new ground for queer women of color in business.”
“My biggest accomplishment is having worked in financial analytics with a liberal arts degree,” she admits. “It took a lot of work and time to keep up with my peers who did study finance as undergraduates, and I’m incredibly proud that I was able to succeed in that role. That accomplishment taught me the value of adaptability and the incredibly rewarding nature of facing a challenge head on.”
A STAR IS BORN
Tori Bell also beat the odds to land in an Ivy League school. Growing up as a “country girl” in Kansas, she studied at Agnes Scott College, a private women’s liberal arts college in Georgia with barely 1,000 students. Like McNeal, Bell found a career path at Facebook, working as a community programs manager. Here, she created Black Women at Facebook, a community that she built into over 2,000 members.
“As the organization leader, one of the issues across the board we saw within Black women in tech is that we struggled to level up in our careers and receive mentorship,” she writes. “Knowing this information, I implemented a career coaching program that matched our members with an external career coach, putting tangible resources behind this genuine issue. While the career programming has been enriching, I am very proud that every Black woman who enters Facebook has a community and a safe space to lean on.”
That wasn’t the only difference that Bell made. “I [also] started my own company called Inclusion Unpacked. Here, we lead early-stage founders and small businesses in implementing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion into their companies through an online diversity foundations program called “Inclusion School.” My big vision is for every new founder and small business owner to participate in this program and commit to allyship as they continue to scale and grow. Through Inclusion Unpacked, I have received media features in WhoWhatWear, Yahoo, and Girlboss.”
Before joining the Class of 2023, Edward Patterson found his calling in public service. Most recently the press secretary to U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, Patterson also worked as a senior analyst and project manager in the Obama White House for three years. In this role, he found joy in helping to “connect people with their government.”
“At the White House, I worked in the office responsible for facilitating and responding to all incoming correspondence addressed to President Obama, including selecting 10 letters daily for the president to read,” he notes. “Early in my tenure, I came across a powerful letter that a teacher wrote to the president about citizenship and the similarities they shared. I was able to elevate the letter to my director who sent it to the president himself. Upon reading, the president requested that the teacher be invited to the photo line when he visited the teacher’s town. This was one of my proudest moments as a public servant.”
That spirit extends to military service. Tamsyn Thompson, in true non-traditional style, became the first woman to “integrate, deploy, and qualify on a fast attack submarine” in the U.S. Navy. In contrast, Evan Brush served as an intelligence office in the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command (MARSOC). His long-term goal, he says, is to use CBS resources to build a new skill set and transition into the private sector.
“I look forward to building the quantitative toolkit I will need by learning from my incredible professors and classmates at CBS. I plan to recruit for consulting. I hope both when in consulting — and possibly in a subsequent career at a startup — to help bridge the gap between private sector innovation and our military. I would love to help bring cutting edge technology to our soldiers, sailors, and Marines around the world who need it most.”
Next Page: Interview with Assistant Dean Amanda Carlson
Page 3: Profiles of 11 Members of The Class of 2023
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