Meet Virginia Darden’s MBA Class Of 2023

University of Virginia, Darden School of Business

ADAPTING TO COVID

Of course, you’ll always find entrepreneurs at Darden. Case in point: Edreana Vaz, who launched her startup consulting firm, Finwise, two months before COVID-19 hit with full force. You could say Vaz could be the subject of a Darden case, as she wrestled with declining revenues and demoralized staff. Despite the disruption, Vax was eventually quadruple her client base.

“From a career standpoint, COVID-19 enabled me to increase my risk appetite and strengthen my sense of ownership,” she explains “To put it into perspective, COVID-19 resulted in financial hardships to potential clients thereby adversely impacting my firm and its working capital. To attract clients and ensure conversion, I took a tough call to offer deferred payment option contingent on client revenue normalization. This involved high risk as unprecedented changes in the economy were equally likely and in the event of adversity, I would have to take the hit of firm costs. Looking back, I am grateful to have been able to grow through this experience”

Technically, Vaz is a bit of a celebrity. In high school, a suitor invited her to the School Ball using a flash mob! That’s not the only fun fact about class member. Danny Rosa is a marathoner, while Kevin Gillespie plays the bassoon. After competing in track and earning Academic All-American honors in college, Jacqueline Modesett has found a new passion: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Minnie Lahoti has also discovered new interests in recent years. A trained chemical engineer, Lahoti worked in project management and consulting — until a COVID-related layoff forced her to revise her “perfect” career plan.

“I taught myself how to code in Python and took some data analytics courses for three months. After some extensive networking, I was able to find an internship as a data scientist. Once my internship ended, I decided to launch my own tutoring business online to help students struggling with academics during COVID. It was a crazy busy time, but I loved starting my own business and helping these students. I can honestly say that 2020 was by far the most challenging year of my life. However, I made it through and was able to get my life back on track. Going through these experiences really put things in perspective.”

First week students in orientation

AN ALL-TIME HIGH FOR WOMEN

By the numbers, this year’s class features 351 students, including 52 consortium members. 40% are women, which ties Darden’s all-time high mark. Overall, the class hails from 40 countries, with 40% being international students. That’s nearly double last year’s percentage. Another 21% are U.S. minorities, as first generation students (15%) and military veterans (7%) are also heavily represented. This year’s class also averaged a 715 GMAT and 321 GRE. As undergraduates, they posted a 3.52 average GPA, with 59 students moving on to earn an advanced degree before joining Darden.

2021 represented a return to normal for Darden. In 2020-2021, admissions innovations enabled the school to be one of P&Q’s 10 MBA Programs To Watch In 2021. Since then, the school has launched a part-time MBA program in Washington DC, along with initiating a new scholarship program to attract more diverse candidates to private equity and hedge fund jobs. That doesn’t count the Career Elective Guides or Breakthrough Scholars Program that Darden launched last year. Those are two areas that Dawna Clarke, senior assistant dean of admissions, discussed with P&Q. In an exclusive interview, she also outlined foundational aspects of the MBA program, such as the case method and the Global Client Projects. Here are Clarke’s thoughts on the state of the Darden MBA.

A Q&A WITH DAWNA CLARKE

P&Q: What are the two most exciting developments at your program and how will they enrich the MBA experience for current and future MBAs?

Clarke: “One recent innovation we’re excited about is the Darden Career Journey maps and related Career Elective Guides. While Darden’s career metrics have, by almost any measure, never been better, we know prospective students have lots of questions about careers. These two guides seek to show potential paths through Darden to some of the most in-demand career sectors.

The Career Elective Guides, in particular, can help students put a framework around the wealth of choice in the second year of Darden. So, if a student knows he or she wants to work in technology, for instance, these new guides point students to the courses that may equip them with the tools need to best succeed.

We are also excited about the Breakthrough Scholars Program, one of many new scholarship programs offered by the School or Darden School Foundation. Through this new program, which is intended to foster a new generation of diverse leadership in private equity, venture capital (VC), hedge funds, and other areas of asset management, the Darden School Foundation will select an annual cohort of up to 12 Breakthrough Scholars. It’s a modest step in the big picture of global finance, but one that we hope will have a significant impact.

And as part of our ongoing commitment to accessibility through our holistic admissions process and flexibility for applicants, we have also confirmed plans to continue test flexibility in the admissions process.

Dawna Clarke, executive director of admissions at Darden

P&Q: What are two biggest differentiating features of your MBA program? How do each of these enrich the learning of your MBA students?

Clarke: “The obvious one is the case method, which simulates real-world business decisions every day and helps students engage with each other and develop their leadership voices. Working with their learning teams and engaging with hundreds of cases in the First Year alone, students learn to act decisively despite imperfect information throughout the core curriculum. It’s a wonderful way to learn.
Darden is also known for the atmosphere of mutual support, between students, and students and faculty members. Students are serious about being high-performers, but they want to see the person next to them succeed, too. They coach each other ahead of recruiting events, they tutor each other and they generally really like each other. The case method really does help to flex that empathy muscle — Darden students are a joy to spend time with.”

P&Q: In recent years, there have been several areas that have gained increased prominence in business school programming, including STEM, analytics, artificial intelligence and digital disruption. How does your full-time MBA program integrate these concepts across its curriculum?

Clarke: “There are more STEM-oriented courses in the curriculum than ever before. New classes for the current academic year will include classes such as “Disruption, Response, and Transformation,” “Managing Innovation” and “Cybersecurity and Privacy,” among others. The Darden MBA is STEM-designated, and students can take advantage of the MBA/MSDS, a dual degree offered by Darden and the UVA School of Data Science.”

P&Q: What have you learned during the pandemic and the shift to hybrid or remote learning and how will they impact the MBA experience going forward?

Clarke: “Darden has offered hybrid learning for years through the Executive MBA program, so to some degree, we were confident in our ability to adapt quickly, and the faculty and instructional development staff ensured that students maintained a dynamic learning environment. So, while we learned that we could go hybrid across programs, and watch out for each other and keep each other safe, I know that the full-time, residential MBA students and faculty are thrilled to be looking ahead to a more normal classroom experience in the upcoming academic year.

But there is no doubt that you’ll see more technology enabled learning in the classroom — it’s going to be additive to the in-person experience.

I’ll offer one small example. Darden routinely hosts world-class speakers in classes and events around Grounds. During the pandemic, we were able to bring in people of the absolute highest caliber, because of the ease of Zoom interactions. The head of Amazon’s consumer business did not have to take days off work to interact with an operations class. He took an hour.”

The 2021 Commencement and Graduation Ceremony for the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. Photo/Andrew Shurtleff Photography, LLC

P&Q: Virginia Darden is known for housing one of the top faculties in the world. Give us an example of one of your professors who sets the bar. What can Darden MBAs expect in his or her class and what makes him or her such a standout teacher?

Clarke: “Darden is known for its faculty, so it’s difficult to highlight just one person, but Professor Bobby Parmar recently received a UVA-wide distinguished professor award and is beloved by students. He teaches business ethics, and is passionate about helping students think through what he and his colleagues call a new story of business — going far beyond the bottom line to consider all stakeholders. That concept becomes foundational for Darden students.

He cares deeply about the classroom experience, and is always pushing to construct new, meaningful learning experiences, empowering students to dig deep and be honest and open in case discussions, and like most professors at Darden, he is seemingly always available to students.”

P&Q: While the case method is foundational to the Darden experience, the program is increasingly adding hands-on, project-driven activities to its programming. Give us some examples of these opportunities for students.

Clarke: “One that comes to mind is Global Client Projects (GCP). During the second year, students can take a GCP elective that gives small teams of students the opportunity to provide consulting services to an international company or organization while working closely with a Darden faculty member. In a typical, non-pandemic year, students conduct onsite visits to build on-the-ground research and conduct additional research. It’s a wonderful opportunity to flex some of the core knowledge and cases learned in the First Year as students look ahead to their post-Darden careers.

Students interested in entrepreneurship also have many options to make their idea a reality, from the summer incubator program to courses like “Starting New Ventures” or “Venture Velocity.” Students who are serious—or even just curious—about launching or growing a product or venture have a wealth of tools and hands-on opportunities at Darden.”

Next Page: Profiles of 11 Darden First-Year MBAs

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