2023 Best & Brightest MBA: Okechi Nwabara, Southern Methodist University (Cox)

Okechi Nwabara

Southern Methodist University, Cox School of Business

“Absolutely awkward – competitively compassionate – extremely eccentric – keenly knowledgeable – quizzically questioning – simply sarcastic – undoubtedly understanding.”

Hometown: Newark, Delaware. Yes, the state that most people forget exists (even though we were the First State to ratify the constitution!)

Fun fact about yourself: I fortunately (or unfortunately when counting calories) know how to make 10 different types of pizza.  New York, Roman, Bari, Bar Style, Grandma, Detroit, Neapolitan, Sicilian, Bianca, and Deep Dish

Undergraduate School and Degree: The University of Houston, Bachelor of Science in Global Hospitality Leadership

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Hilton, Revenue Management Leader

Where did you intern during the summer of 2022? Microsoft | Redmond, Washington

Where will you be working after graduation? Microsoft, Finance Manager

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

Black Graduate Student Association – President

Student Advisory Board – VP of Diversity

Student Advisory Board – First-Year Officer

Career Management Center – Peer Coach

MBA Admissions – Ambassador

NBMBAA DFW – Scholarship Winner

Admit.Me – Mentor

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? Without a doubt, I have been proud of how I have been able to impact the progression of diversity, equity, and inclusion here at Cox.  Beyond the leadership roles I have had here, I’ve collaborated with our Career Management, Admissions, Graduate Student Services, and Diversity offices to not only host events but to also make SMU Cox an even greater institution. This has included a career workshop to prepare students for diversity MBA conferences, an industry panel on how to drive one’s post-MBA career, a cultural festival, social events to connect students, and continuous conversations along the way.  The culmination of these is making SMU Cox a more inclusive space for students of color.

In life, each of us has the opportunity to make the world a better place; personally, I believe that means helping lead the next wave of diversity.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? Fresh out of undergrad, I felt on top of the world. I was an award winner who had 5 job offers. I was relocated across the country to be a manager at a mid-sized hotel. Most of all, I was looking forward to quickly picking up the skills needed to succeed while charming my team members into respecting me.  Of course, I would immediately be a great leader, right?

Fresh out of undergrad, I was woefully unprepared to be a leader. We were short- staffed, and I made poor hiring decisions. I found myself leading a team of people who had more industry experience in their pinky than I had in my entire body. I was nonconfrontational and avoided tough conversations. I worked 70+ hours a week and had my mind and body breakdown. I let colleagues bully me into what was personally best for them rather than what was best for the business. I failed to be a leader in those initial 6 months.

Eventually, I stopped feeling sorry for myself and made a plan that laid out what was needed for success. I asked my team members for constant feedback.  I learned to delegate tasks that I didn’t have time for. I shadowed our most skilled staff to understand our business better. I started to stand up for myself and my team. And I learned to ask for help. This resulted in me not only winning Manager of the Quarter, but also driving our team’s service scores to be in the top 10% of our brand.  I learned how to be a leader in those following 6 months.

And I know that I am still far from being a perfect leader. But this was an achievement of humility, confidence, and servant leadership that set the foundation of who I strive to be as a leader today.

Why did you choose this business school? We all come to business school wanting to get a better job, right? By default, Dallas is an incredibly favorable location to get your MBA due to it being home to so many Fortune 500 companies. But what makes SMU Cox special is how it has been able to penetrate the Dallas business community. From orientation week to student clubs to collaborating with firms, you are almost overwhelmed with the number of recruiting opportunities for you as a Cox graduate student. These were companies and industries that I didn’t even know existed, as well as roles and positions offering benefits and compensation to provide a strong ROI.

What was your favorite course as an MBA? Without a doubt, Business Analytics Consulting was my favorite course, even though it was on SATURDAYS from 9:00 a.m. – 12:15 p.m. This, of course, is one of the least desirable times to have any class, especially during football season!  But that didn’t matter because the course showed us how important it is to be able to have strong communication skills to support your quantitative analysis. With the world of business becoming more digitalized, the leaders of tomorrow not only need to know how to be comfortable around data but also how to be able to articulate the strategic decisions that their data support. The best spreadsheets, tools, and analytics are meaningless if you can’t convince your business partners, clients, or executives why your strategy is important. It connects directly to my intern project this summer at Microsoft, where I had to communicate the merits of an analytical framework to business partners, or when I had to convince hotel clients to buy in to my pricing strategies as a Revenue Specialist at Hilton. The story associated with data is a key part of Business Analytics consulting success.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? We have a mandatory immersion called the Global Leadership Program, where full-time students are placed in groups and provide strategic recommendations for small companies that can’t afford the services of an actual consulting firm. Although this is a fast-paced project that is completed within two months, it’s a great professional development opportunity for students to solve complex, ambiguous problems with minimal guidance from our professors. For example, my group traveled to Argentina and consulted with a small, gender-equality nonprofit on how they can increase fundraising and membership.

Regarding personal development, the privilege of traveling to another country and being immersed in another culture has its merits too.  When you have the opportunity to eat, drink, socialize, and explore someplace different than what you’re accustomed to, you learn a lot about yourself.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? Ideally, I would’ve spent more time exploring career opportunities before enrollment. Once classes start, you are bombarded with competing priorities, which makes you thankful for what prep you did before school (and regretful for what you didn’t do!). For example, I took the time to work on my resume and cover letter, have coffee chats with current students, attend pre-MBA conferences, and read b-school preparatory books; fortunately, I have found my ideal post-graduate role. In hindsight, though, things would have been less stressful if I had taken the time to have more coffee chats with SMU alumni in various industries and roles before starting school.

What is the biggest myth about your school? I thought that SMU Cox would be very cutthroat, leading to a lack of collaboration between students. Fortunately, I was wrong.  Whether it’s an industry connection, interview prep, case analysis, or a personal issue, I’ve never struggled to find classmates or friends to solve problems with.  This was a welcome relief due to all of the challenges that we face in business school; you really can’t do it on your own and survive without a support system

What did you love most about your business school’s town? Dallas has over a dozen districts and neighborhoods, each with its own unique flair and vibe. No matter who you are, Dallas has a place for you. Here are examples:

  • Lower Greenville is a quaint neighborhood with a robust bar scene
  • Bishop Arts has galleries and boutiques
  • Oak Lawn is a trendy, gay-friendly neighborhood
  • Arts District has museums and performing arts venues
  • East Dallas has White Rock Lake and the Arboretum
  • Carrollton is full of Asian restaurants, bars, and shops
  • South Dallas is home to many of the city’s black-owned businesses

What surprised you the most about business school? I had no idea how busy business school could be. Classes, case analyses, homework, clubs/organizations, happy hours, dinners, company information sessions, mock interviews, coffee chats, nights out on the town, group projects, presentations, case competitions, Zoom/Teams calls, super days, conferences, treks, seminars, industry speakers, etc.!

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? As with this Poets & Quants submission, I was not afraid to authentically be myself when applying to SMU Cox. For example, I was not afraid to vulnerably show my passion for diversity, equity, and inclusion. I was not afraid to show my social personality. I was not afraid to show how my strengths and areas of opportunity would fit within not only Cox but SMU as a whole.

Why? If you don’t show people who you are, then how are they supposed to know if they can help you grow into the person you want to be?

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Philip Bowie is brilliant not only in the classroom but outside of it.  Because he understands concepts so quickly, he has more spare time than most students. Yet, instead of using this additional time on himself, he unselfishly gives back and goes out of his way to help people in our cohort and in other cohorts working on their coursework. This has included late-night phone calls on finance homework, taking the lead during an analytical project when everyone else struggled to figure out where to begin, and pep talks when his fellow students are feeling lost. His selflessness is an admirable pillar that I strive to replicate. TLDR (too long didn’t read): the world needs more Philip Bowies.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? Immersing myself in the cultures of people different than me is my biggest passion, which is why I want to work abroad at least once. Leisurely or professionally, traveling to another country for a few days or weeks doesn’t compare to the personal growth gained from setting roots down for a few months or years.

Additionally, I would also like to be able to spearhead a new department and team from scratch; this would include objectives such as hiring, training, SOPs, and goal setting.  While I have done things like this in an academic setting within a school, the opportunity to do so professionally would truly test my abilities.

What made Okechi such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2023?

“It’s virtually impossible not to smile when you speak with Okechi Nwabara. His authenticity, positivity, and humility can break the defenses of even the most stoic interviewer. Within five minutes, our admissions interviewer already knew we would admit him to our MBA program, and by the end of the interview, we were confident we’d found someone special. We knew from his academic performance and financial acumen that he would excel in the classroom; but it was Okechi’s leadership experience, directing a team of Revenue Managers to oversee $200M in revenue for a major hotel chain, that made him stand out and led to his selection as both a Diversity and Community scholar.

Since starting his MBA, Okechi has taken on multiple student leadership positions at the Cox School, including serving as the President of the Black Graduate Student Association, Vice President of Diversity for the Cox Student Advisory Board, and as an MBA Peer Coach. He supported first-year students in landing roles in consulting and brand management, consulted with the career office on adding even more tools to support international students, and has been instrumental in planning a school-wide cultural celebration this spring. These actions are all the more impressive considering he has done them while thriving in a rigorous academic curriculum and securing a highly-competitive Finance Manager role with Microsoft after graduation. Okechi has made a measurably positive impact in the lives of his classmates and enriched the Cox MBA program, truly living up to the definition of “Best & Brightest.”

Jason Rife
Senior Assistant Dean
Career Management Center & Graduate Admissions
SMU Cox School of Business 


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