2022 Best & Brightest Online MBA: Paul Cornwell, North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

Paul Cornwell

University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School

“A curious and versatile problem solver with varied interests and a mostly healthy competitive streak.”

Age: 33

Hometown: Ridgewood, New Jersey. I am now living in Durham, North Carolina.

Fun fact about yourself: I know how to play the pipe organ. I played Sunday night masses at Villanova and have played various churches as a substitute going back to when I was in high school.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

UNC-Chapel Hill, Ph.D. in mathematics

Villanova University, BS in mathematics, BA in philosophy, MA in mathematics

Where are you currently working? As of June 2022, I am working as a strategy consultant for Durham-based firm Triangle Insights Group. While completing my MBA, I worked for the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) as an air and missile defense analyst and algorithm scientist.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I am most proud of the technical effort that I led at APL during the summer of 2020, shortly after we started working from home. Suffice it to say, the nature of defense work makes it very difficult to work effectively from home. This project required people in the lab to generate a lot of data from a simulation and others to analyze the data. Since lab time was very limited, I had to define goals for the project, scope it, and communicate the goals to the team. I then had to weave our results into a brief that could be read asynchronously, which was not typically how we presented analyses. I am not a project manager, so this effort pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to learn a lot of MBA-like skills on the job. In the end, we ended up delivering a thorough, transparent analysis that spurred a design change in the combat system we were supporting.

Why did you choose this school’s online MBA program? How does anyone pick an online MBA program? Location, of course! My wife and I are both UNC alumni. When I applied, we had been living in Maryland for almost two years and knew that we wanted to return to the Triangle. I also knew that I wanted to switch careers, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I reasoned that the best way to solve both problems was to pursue my MBA at UNC. (It also helped that MBA@UNC was the #1-ranked online program.) After doing more research, sitting in on a marketing course, and interviewing with an admissions officer, I was confident that UNC would be a great fit.

What was your favorite part of being in an online MBA program? My favorite part of being in an online program is the autonomy. With only 90 minutes of live class time per week, I had a lot of flexibility in choosing what to study and when to study it. When I started MBA@UNC, I knew my son was due to be born right around the beginning of my second quarter. I decided to take an extra course my first quarter – which is rare – to make things easier down the road. (This leads me to my second fun fact: I did my final pitch presentation in Business Communication on a magical bassinet that gives new parents extra sleep.) Having control over my schedule allowed me to be more efficient with my time and focus on the topics I found most interesting or important.

What was the most surprising thing about an online learning environment? The most surprising thing about my online experience was a (nearly) universally high level of commitment. Students in this program have a million things going on in their lives. Combined with the fact that UNC doesn’t assign GPAs for graduate programs, this might tempt us to take the path of least resistance to the degree. Despite this, I found most of my group members to be eager to learn, responsible and committed to doing good work. Reflecting on my experience now, I realize how critical it is to have a motivated and engaged cohort.

How did your online experience compare with your in-the-classroom experience as an undergraduate student? I had good learning experiences with both formats. I will say that online courses require more discipline and initiative than in-person courses. However, this is a graduate program, so there’s nothing wrong with giving students that responsibility. For the MBA degree specifically, one of the big advantages of online courses is that people are working concurrently. This enriches classroom discussions and allows you to test out business and leadership frameworks from class at work right away.

What would you change about an online MBA Program? UNC Kenan-Flagler uses the phrase “one MBA” to reinforce the notion that all students (full-time, online, etc.) are UNC MBA students, and the format is simply the method of instruction. I recommend any and all changes that move us towards that ideal. For example, many online students find that switching careers is harder to do than it appears to be for full-time students. I would prioritize connecting online students with the resources and networking opportunities that facilitate career changes for resident students.

How has your online education helped you in your current job? My online education helped me get my current job. Although I’m very new in this role, it’s clear that much of my coursework is going to be relevant. I honed most of my problem-solving skills from my math training. However, MBA@UNC taught me how to translate those skills into a business setting. One of the enduring lessons of this program for me is how much of business strategy boils down to constrained decision making. As I move into consulting, insights like this are going to be invaluable to me.

Did you earn a promotion while in the program or immediately after graduation? Yes to both. About one year into my program, I accepted a supervisor position at APL. This was a great experience, as I got to mentor early career staff and apply many management lessons from my courses. My post-graduation position is a promotion in the sense that it gives me more responsibility and advances my career goals.

Did you earn a raise during the online MBA program? I had annual raises that were not impacted by pursuing/earning my degree. My new career path has higher earnings potential.

Number of Hours Per Week Spent On Online MBA: 12-15

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My central professional goal is to find my career soulmate – the “work as play” career that matches perfectly with my interests and abilities and which makes me excited to go to work every day. I decided to switch to consulting following my MBA because many of the features that I know are essential to my dream career (e.g., the ability to work on complex problems) are central to consulting as well. I am excited to ramp up in my new career and to see what the future holds.



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