2022 Best & Brightest MBA: Derek Cunningham, Georgetown University (McDonough)

Derek Cunningham

Georgetown University, McDonough School of Business

“Servant leader with a desire to do good for society and help others achieve success.”

Hometown: Boston, MA. But as the son of a career military father, really, I have lived and grown up in several places.

Fun fact about yourself: I was able to complete a multi-week bucket list trip to Antarctica and Patagonia in 2020 and traveled on a now repurposed NOAA ice-strengthened polar vessel across Drake’s Passage.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

Lasell University, B.S. in Marketing

Boston University, M.S. in Leadership and Graduate Certificate in Project Management

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Unites States Marine Corps, EA-6B jet pilot

Where did you intern during the summer of 2021? Rothschild & Company, New York City

Where will you be working after graduation? I will be returning to Rothschild & Company as a full time associate with their M&A group in New York.

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: While at Georgetown McDonough, I was elected and served as the President of the McDonough Military Association (MMA) as well as the VP of Alumni Relations on the Finance Club board.  I have been a student interviewer for prospective MBA candidates in both my first and second years and look forward to continuing to do so as an alum. During my second year, I served as a peer advisor and coach, specifically helping students pursuing a career in finance by offering behavioral and technical interview prep, guidance, and feedback. Additionally, I was chosen as a Leadership Fellow, an opportunity that selects a small number of second-year students who in turn act as coaches and mentors for six-person teams of first-year MBAs during their core Leadership Communications course.

In my capacity as MMA president, we helped to organize and run a number of community events including an Afghan Refugee Volunteer opportunity and a Toys for Tots fundraiser.  Additionally, as part of my Ethical Leadership course, my study team and I worked with Central Union Mission to build and deliver 146 “Fresh Start Boxes” filled with items such as warm socks and a full kit of personal hygiene items for the homeless and underserved communities in D.C.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? During the first year at Georgetown, all students are required to take a course called Leadership Communication, which explores the challenges all leaders face in effectively communicating their point and culminates in a day-long team case competition with nearly 140 executive-level alumni judging the competition as board members, investors, and senior executives.

During the Executive Challenge, there are four cases in which teams of two present – my teammate, Cody Corrington, and I won the overall competition for the case we argued and presented. This really stands out to me for a number of reasons. First, I think that it highlights the growth that we both made throughout the course and provided a set of communications tools that I personally continue to use on a daily basis. Second, students are coached and led by second-year, high-performing Leadership Fellows. Seeing the genuine excitement that our Fellow had in his role, inspired me to apply as a Fellow in my second year. I was successful in being selected as a Leadership Fellow (along with Cody!) so I think the overall experience with winning our case competition and getting to be a Leadership Fellow with some of the most amazing peers I’ve met at McDonough is a moment that I am incredibly proud of.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? For me, outside of the Marine Corps and what I accomplished there, I think it was making the decision after nearly 12 years of military service and being only eight years from retirement to completely change professional directions and leap into the unknown, professionally.  I had been on the fence about the risk-reward payoff of going back to school at 35 and pursuing a new career path in finance. I had no technical or quantitative background, and I knew that the challenge would be difficult. What I did have was full support from my spouse and family which made it seem feasible. That first semester was truly one of the most difficult times for me between opening term, core classes, prepping for interviews, and trying to understand and fully conceptualize the information needed to “break into Wall Street.”  When Super-Day interviews started and I landed an offer at my target company, it truly felt like one of the proudest moments I have achieved to this point.

Why did you choose this business school? Deciding to apply for an MBA, Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business felt unique and different from my other school interactions. I knew that I wanted a school that offered a smaller cohort size, which was taking active steps towards inclusivity and focused on a global mindset.  I found all of those and more at McDonough. What really stood out more than that was this palpable feeling that each and every member of our community truly cared for the success and well-being of one another.  I saw then (and still see) peers and colleagues who go out of their way every day to help one another both academically and personally. At no point have I experienced the cliché of infighting for an internship or other MBAs not willing to help for fear that it may hurt their chances academically, professionally, or personally.  The Georgetown moto of cura personalis, or care of the whole person, is more than simply lip service. Cura personalis is on full display and put into action from the top down with our president and deans to each and every student.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? This is a hard question to answer given the outstanding faculty that the MBA program has in place, but I would have to say that Professor Michael Fitzgerald (AKA Professor Fitz) has been my favorite professor up to this point. Professor Fitz teaches two of the most outstanding courses I’ve taken thus far at McDonough: Defending the Bottom Line (DBL) and Advanced Oral Presentations (AOP), both of which focus on developing and advancing clear and effective communication. DBL focuses on crisis management and dealing effectively with parties who may adopt adversarial postures towards management or an organization, while AOP focuses on the ability to clearly and concisely become a more effective presenter within your organization.

While my time in the military certainly put me at ease speaking in front of large groups and conveying critical information, I wanted to challenge myself to ascend to a more succinct and deliberate approach to all future business communications. Professor Fitz’s courses were delivered in spades through his articulate and meaningful feedback and the individual attention and challenges that he gave not just to me but to each individual student.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? Every year, to honor and celebrate Veteran’s Day, the McDonough Military Association (MMA) hosts a Thursday Kegs event called War Stories. War Stories focuses on highlighting the past experiences of our diverse military community through stories, presentations, and a closer look at what it meant for our members to serve. More than just ‘sea stories’ though, this event brings a packed auditorium of McDonough community members (students, faculty, and staff) together for a closer look at what it means to serve, how those lessons transfer to the business sector, and the chance to really get to know members of our Veteran community in a much more personal and intimate way.

The outpouring of support that MMA receives each year from students and faculty is truly amazing. I had the opportunity to present, and I – as I suspect like others – was a little nervous about speaking to 155+ new people who may not have had any previous exposure to the military. Those concerns, however, never materialized, and the outpouring of support and sincere gratitude from professors, peers, and staff really reflects the support and care that we all have for one another at McDonough. I can honestly say that this event has brought me so much closer to my peers and cohort members and is one of my favorite and most memorable events at Georgetown.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? My MBA experience has been one of the most rewarding challenges I’ve had, and I have been able to accomplish the goals that I set through the support of my family, wife, and peers. I don’t think that I would have done anything differently. I’ve had the opportunity to lead MMA as their president; support a fantastic and high performing Finance Club board; coach, mentor, and advise my peers; become a Leadership Fellow; learn from some of the most talented fellow MBAs and professors; be involved in the community; successfully pivot into a career I’ve always wanted to pursue; and (most importantly) my wife and I welcomed our first daughter in November of my second year. There may have been one or two weekend trips with classmates that I couldn’t attend, as well as events I missed due to conflicting schedules, but I feel like I was able to achieve my goals: maximize my experience at Georgetown, foster friendships, give back in any way that I could, and focus on growing and maturing personally and professionally.

What surprised you the most about business school? The biggest surprise was the total selflessness of my classmates and a willingness to shoulder extra responsibility when someone has conflicts – whether for a personal reason, recruiting, networking events, or anything in between.

In the first year, you’re assigned to a study team, usually a group of six MBAs, consisting of peers with unique and different professional backgrounds. What this typically means, though, is that the majority of us will have different recruiting timelines during the year. In my study group, for example, myself and one other teammate were recruiting for investment banking. It is an endeavor that typically starts at the end of August and goes full speed until November or December with coffee chats, networking events, and informal technical and behavioral interviews. All this happens while balancing opening term, adjusting back to an academic setting, and (for me) learning as much as possible about the industry.  Without skipping a beat, my team came together to support me, taking on heavier lifts for projects, and assigning me work that wouldn’t be as intensive during that busy time.  The understanding, of course, being that when it was their turn in the recruiting ‘hot seat’, I would reciprocate in kind.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? Networking!  When I decided to apply to McDonough, the first thing I did was reach out to current and former students and ask for 20 to 30 minutes just to pick their brain on their experiences, the classes they really liked, and why and what, in their opinion, set Georgetown apart.  I think I spoke with at least six current or recent graduates, most of whom had taken different career paths. This really gave me a holistic and more complete understanding of what two years at McDonough would look like.

I was able to then successfully leverage this in my interview (I think) to show how I felt that Georgetown was the right fit for me and how I could provide value back to the cohort.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Estefanía Ellis (MBA’22) is by far one of the most thoughtful and genuine people whom I’ve had the opportunity to know.  When my wife and I were preparing for the birth of our first child in November of my second year, we had no family in the area and COVID made the possibility of family traveling to D.C. much more complicated. Estefanía reached out and told us that she had set up a meal train and already enlisted the support of dozens of classmates who volunteered to prepare meals and drop them off at prearranged times over the next five weeks. She certainly did not have to go out of her way and take time to do this, but recognized how critical support was at a time like this. Her selflessness in this act at a time when she was busy with her own family, in the thick of classes, and professional development is something that will stay with me forever.

Who most influenced your decision to pursue business in college? My grandfather has been an immensely influential figure in both my personal life and my decision to pursue a business degree and he continues to be so today.  Growing up, I listened to his stories and saw him take each opportunity he had, big or small, and leverage that to not only make personal progress but to lift up those around him. My grandfather had a similar career path to mine in that he spent time in the military where he grew, matured, and learned key tenants of servant leadership before pursuing his MBA and DBA and starting his career in business. His level-headed and analytical approach to challenges has been a model for me and I hope to continue my career with the same tactics.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? The two greatest things I will accomplish in my professional career will be achieving a position to help young entrepreneurs realize their goals through mentorship and financial backing and giving back to the business community through teaching at the MBA/graduate level. I will spend time to develop my financial and business acumen and have success in my post MBA career. Ultimately, I see myself in 10 to 15 years largely turning my focus towards creating an environment where I can leverage my network for others. In the same fashion, I find great joy in mentoring and coaching others and I cannot think of a better way than returning to academia next as an educator to help those who are in my shoes now.

How has the pandemic changed your view of a career? In short, it was adaptability. Watching the last two years unfold and the measures taken across industries to ensure that our workforces are able to continue in a safe and effective manner gives me great hope that many of these changes will become permanent. From virtual coffee chats, to Zoom classes and online meetups, we have all shown resiliency in our ability to bounce back. That said, there is still too large a portion of the population disproportionately affected by this pandemic, whether through a lack of connectivity, lack of resources, or jobs that simply cannot be done remotely.  We must, and I challenge myself too, to look for solutions that truly level the playing field and no longer leave so many on the sidelines or worse, regressing and unable to achieve upward momentum.

What made Derek such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2022?

“Derek has exhibited the best qualities of McDonough MBA students and is driven by the belief in men and women for others. He joined the McDonough community after completing 11 years of service in the United States Marine Corps, where he served as a pilot and Staff Secretary to the Commanding General of the USMC Training Council.  Derek arrived at McDonough motivated to transition into the private sector and quickly concluded that Investment Banking was the best career fit. He was actively engaged with the MBA Career Center to create a recruitment strategy and to develop the skills required for the role. Through dedication and hard work, he secured an internship and a full-time offer from an elite boutique investment bank, Rothschild. While not a Peer Advisor, Derek has been an active supporter of first-year MBA students recruiting for Investment Banking. He spent time with individual students and coached them through the recruitment process. He believed that his success was due to the support he received during his recruitment process and wanted to pay it forward to the incoming MBA class. He is often cited by first-year students as an invaluable resource in their recruitment.

Derek is a Leadership Fellow, the President of the McDonough Military Associate, and Vice President of Alumni for the Finance Club.”

Maureen Clear
Assistant Dean of the MBA Career Center


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