Meet Vanderbilt Owen’s MBA Class Of 2023

Music City, USA. Athens of the South. The Buckle of the Bible Belt.

Nashville can be whatever you want. Plan to cut loose? There are the neon lights, honky tonks, and woo hoo bridesmaids on Broadway. Country fans can tour the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame  — or jam out at Robert’s Western World or The Bluebird Café. For students, Nashville boasts over 30 higher education institutions. And you haven’t truly lived until you’ve gnawed hot chicken at a ‘Smashville’ hockey game.

Nashville isn’t bashful. And it’s growing like mad, as evidenced by the cranes dotting the downtown skyline. Overall, the region includes a dozen Fortune 1000 headquarters, ranging from HCA Healthcare to Dollar General.  And that doesn’t count the large footprints of firms like Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Bridgestone — or Amazon working to double the 2,500 corporate and technology positions it maintains in its Nashville Yards digs. Healthcare ranks among the city’s biggest calling cards. Area firms manage over half of all beds in private hospitals, with healthcare accounting for 168,000 jobs and $13 billion dollars in regional personal income. Not surprisingly, music is a nearly $16 billion dollar industry here, headlined by 182 recording studios and 80 record labels.

Owen MBA students in front of Nashville skyline


Brandon Valentine grew up in Austell, Georgia — population 7,205. Now a first-year MBA at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management, Valentine was drawn to the city’s “growth and excitement.”

“I want to be in the ‘room where it happens’ and things are happening in Nashville,” he tells P&Q. Nashville is one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, attracting people from all over the nation. AllianceBernstein’s headquarters moved from New York to Nashville. Oracle Corp. is building a second global headquarters in Nashville. Nashville is the healthcare capital of the United States. More tangibly for me, Vanderbilt Owen is amid a $55M facility renovation and expansion…Whether I am in the mood for a brewery, waterfall hike, dive bar, rooftop restaurant, art gala, or startup community, I can find what I am looking for.”

Valentine’s classmates trumpet another underrated aspect of Nashville life: the food scene. Kenan Gebizlioglu, an engineer who grew up in New Jersey, promotes Five Daughters Donuts. For Rinji Kassem, an account manager from Nigeria, the venue of choice is San Antonio Tacos (SATCO). And Ba’Carri Johnson just loves everything available to her.

“The way to my heart is food, and Nashville has won,” writes the Duke grad. “Growing up in Miami, the cultural melting pot, diverse food options are a must-have. There is never a shortage of amazing restaurants to try in Nashville. In fact, for every new restaurant I experience, three more are recommended. The Nashville food scene continues to exceed my expectations.”

Mild winters…job opportunities….always something happening — a mix of contemporary and antebellum where the people are friendly and the food is fried. That’s Nashville. Despite its increasingly transient nature, the city has retained its trademark southern hospitality — a quality adopted by the Owen School. Adopting a “competitive not cutthroat mindset,” the school has created a community devoted to openness and personal attention. In a 2021 Princeton Review survey of MBA students, Owen chalked up the 2nd-highest scores for Family Friendliness and Campus Environment. The program also lives up to Vanderbilt University’s reputation as a “Southern Ivy” and the “Harvard of the South.”  In the same survey, students ranked Owen 4th for Teaching Excellence and 2nd for Administration — and among the five-best MBA programs for Human Resources and Operations. Those numbers align with other student and alumni surveys such as Bloomberg Businessweek (Top 5 for Teamwork and Collaboration) and The Financial Times (Top 10 for Overall Student Satisfaction).

Ba’Carri Johnson attributes this success to what she calls the school’s “Personal Scale.” “Since my first introduction to Owen as a prospective student, I’ve felt at home,” she writes. “Vanderbilt Owen’s program size fosters a close-knit, collaborative community, provides mentorship from Owen alumni and professors, and offers a tailored MBA experience through unique opportunities both in and outside of the classroom.”

The Owen atmosphere may be personal, but the student body possesses a sweeping range of backgrounds. Exhibit A: Taylor Rasmussen, who studied Philosophy as an undergrad and later earned an MFA in Professional Acting. Now, Rasmussen’s passions have been channeled into writing — with a distinct point of view.

“My writing peeks between the lines of well-known, well-loved stories – think Shakespeare, for example – and seeks to ask questions about the characters, themes, and ideas within them. One of the most memorable moments of my professional life was the evening a group of extraordinary actors read my play Before Arden, which expands on the notions of identity, queer self-discovery, grief, love, and otherness that are presented in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. I’ll take any chance I get to interrogate and subvert our foregone conclusions, especially when I can do so with intention and from a place of love and respect.”

Vanderbilt MBAs Learn about Clubs and Organizations


Savannah Weatherell also operates out of a place of love in her career. Most recently, she cared for patients at Vanderbilt Psychiatric Hospital. In contrast, Ryan Leadbeater was responsible for 84 men and women as the second-in-command of a unit in the U.S. Army. In the Peace Corps, Marina Klecha served in a local government in the nation of Georgia. Here, she earned a grant to build a high tech conference and workshop space for the local community to spur economic development.

“Upon renovating and furnishing the room, I was then able to conduct various technology training sessions to educate the government staff with the technological literacy needed to manage the room and its equipment,” she tells P&Q. “The room continues to be used for community meetings, workshops, and presentations to this day. It has also been a particularly significant resource as a result of Georgia’s social distancing practices during the current global pandemic. This room has allowed the local government to virtually participate in meetings, host press conferences, and hold high level social distanced events when needed.”

How accomplished is the Class of 2023? Maria Jesus Silva, for one, was already teaching undergrads at 23 — making her the youngest professor at the Universidad de Los Andes. Rinji Kassem helped launch two drugs into the marketplace, while Libby Crowe did the same for the Bloomberg New Economy Forum, a platform aimed at bringing together public and private sector leaders from the East and West to create a dialogue that reduces economic gaps and political divisions. At the Pilot Company, Ba’Carri Johnson filled a trophy case as one of her firm’s youngest product managers.

“I led an amazing team in the redesign and launch of the company’s mobile app, which saw record-breaking numbers and provided a unique digital experience for guests while in stores and traveling across the country. That same year, Pilot’s myRewards Plus app was awarded Mobile Web Awards’ “Best Retail Mobile App” and “Best Transportation App” and Effective Mobile Marketing Awards’ Highly Commended “Most Effective App” and “Most Effective Mobile-first Service.”

Vanderbilt University Owen Graduate School of Management


The class is also aware of the obstacles ahead and intent on beating the odds. Brandon Valentine earned a CPA business school, despite just 13,400 of 669,000 CPAs being African American. While it is estimated that 90% of startups fail, Neil Granberry hasn’t been deterred. In fact, he is running his own business as a student.

“I took my first entrepreneurial leap about 4 months before Day 1 at Owen by buying an existing small business in Nashville. I’m now operating this business on top of the demands of class and getting a crash course about what it takes to hire, manage, sell, and market for Nashville Bubble Ball.”

On top of work and school, Granberry was part of a team that won a marketing case competition for E & J Gallo. And Libby Crowe has already collected two case competition victories.  “It’s easy to say that winning was the best part, but in all honesty, it’s the lessons I’ve learned from all my teammates and fellow competitors in addition to the many inside jokes you make from being locked inside a team room for hours on end,” she jokes.

The Class of 2023 has kept plenty busy so far. Marina Klecha has been devoting her energy to the Women’s Business Association (WBA) after being appointed as its president. As the largest club within Owen, my participation in WBA has been particularly meaningful as I work to bridge the gender gap in the business sector and support my female-identifying classmates on campus. From hosting alumni networking sessions, bonding activities, imposter syndrome workshops, and final review sessions, I am honored to serve as an executive leader in the club and make the Owen experience more inclusive for my classmates.”

Taylor Rasmussen is even collaborating with Professor Luke Froeb to edit the 6th edition of his Managerial Economics textbook. “My task is to increase accessibility within the textbook itself and within the accompanying online resources, and to ensure that any new and revised materials comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. I’ll also be suggesting updates to any outdated or alienating language, and I’ll assist in editing for general clarity.”

Next Page: Q&A with Sue Oldham, Associate Dean

Page 3: In-depth Profiles of 11 Owen MBAs

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