2023 Best & Brightest Online MBA: Alex Blain, North Carolina (Kenan-Flagler)

Alex Blain

University of North Carolina, Kenan-Flagler Business School

“Adventurous, curious, tenacious, and dutiful approach to life, staying loyal while problem-solving.”

Age: 41

Hometown:  Raised in Everett, Massachusetts; live in Alexandria, Virginia

Fun fact about yourself: I am training for my first triathlon while also pursuing an MBA, all while my wife is earning her PhD – and we have a 2-year-old at home!

Undergraduate School and Degree:

Master of Science, Management, Troy University

Bachelor of Science, Business Administration, Columbia College

Where are you currently working? I work for the U.S. Army Inspector General’s office, providing objective advice and oversight for Army stewardship, accountability, and readiness.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? As a professional, I am most proud of an achievement during my time as a human capital manager for 700 employees. On my first day on the job in 2019, I encountered a soldier who was on relocation orders to a family-dependent restricted tour location without his family. He had a high school child, middle-aged kid, newborn, and his wife was pregnant with another baby on the way. Seeing the stress the family was going through, I promised the soldier that I would take care of the matter personally. Within a week, I found a job for him at his current location where he could stay for an additional three years, giving him and his family peace of mind. Though not a typical business function, I felt proud to help this soldier who was personally struggling with the impact of his professional career on his family. In my opinion, showing empathy as a leader was crucial in this situation, and I am glad I was able to make a positive impact on his life.

Why did you choose this school’s online MBA program? I decided to pursue an online MBA program at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School to bridge my military background with the business world. With years of experience serving in the military, I have developed skills such as leadership, teamwork, and problem-solving. However, I realized that I lacked the formal business education necessary to translate those skills into the corporate world.

Enrolling in the MBA program has given me a comprehensive understanding of core business principles such as accounting, finance, marketing, and operations. The program’s vertical on consulting provided me with the opportunity to apply my military experience to solving complex business problems. I am especially excited about the Student Teams Achieving Results (STAR) program, which allows me to collaborate with a diverse group of classmates and work on real-world business challenges.

I am confident that earning an MBA from UNC Kenan-Flagler will provide me with the tools and resources needed to transition successfully from the military to the business sector. The program equips me with the skills to navigate future challenges in the business world while leveraging my military experience to offer a unique perspective and valuable contributions to any organization.

What was your favorite part of being in an online MBA program? Personally, the best part of my online MBA program was undoubtedly the chance to collaborate with talented classmates from all over the world. I was able to meet a diverse group of individuals and exchange ideas with them. I also enjoyed the weekly live Zoom sessions with my professors, which provided opportunities to delve deeper into course topics and engage in meaningful discussions. Moreover, the flexibility of attending class from anywhere in the world and balancing work and personal life was incredibly beneficial as a working professional. Overall, I found the online format to be a highly effective way of pursuing my MBA without sacrificing my other commitments.

What was the most surprising thing about an online learning environment? I was surprised by how dedicated, prepared, and motivated my classmates were during our live online sessions in the MBA program. The emphasis on group work helped me step out of my comfort zone and learn how to collaborate with individuals from different time zones while building my hard and soft skills. One of the best aspects of the program is the opportunity to attend Summits in Chapel Hill, which provide an enriching in-person experiences with classmates and faculty.

How did your online experience compare with your in-the-classroom experience as an undergraduate student? In my experience, online learning has required me to be more responsible in managing my time effectively to complete class work and submit assignments on time while also balancing my work, family, and personal life. In contrast, when I was in the classroom, I felt like I had more flexibility with my schedule since my only obligation was school, without any other distractions.

Additionally, being in an online environment means that I cannot immediately approach a professor or classmate for help face-to-face. Instead, I have to schedule a virtual office call due to the physical distance between us.

What is your best piece of advice to an applicant for thriving in an online MBA program? As someone who has completed an online MBA program, I highly recommend prioritizing time management, cultivating a supportive network, attending in-person events, and forming study groups for effective collaboration. Developing both soft and hard skills is crucial for success, and utilizing career resources can be beneficial. However, it’s essential to avoid taking on too many classes at once and instead focus on fully understanding the material and enjoying the experience.

Through my own experience, I learned that stepping outside of my comfort zone was vital to my success in the program. As vice-president of the MBA program’s Student Advisory Board, I volunteered and gained valuable mentorship and career advice from other students while navigating the program. It was also gratifying to help upcoming students navigate the uncertainties of an online MBA program and provide feedback to the school administration to improve the program.

What would you change about an online MBA Program? As an online MBA student, I believe that the inability to secure an internship can be a major obstacle to obtaining a full-time job offer, particularly in industries such as consulting, banking, and tech. While there are exceptions, most employers in these fields place a high value on internships as a way to evaluate candidates and make hiring decisions.

However, as an online student who is not physically on campus and working full-time, I find it challenging to participate in networking events, coffee chats, company presentations, invite-only dinners, interview preparation, and internship interviews. Even securing an actual internship can be difficult without the same level of in-person access to recruiters and company representatives as on-campus students.

Therefore, I would like to see online MBA programs develop more robust and accessible opportunities for virtual networking and engagement with potential employers. This could include online networking events, virtual coffee chats, and more opportunities to connect with companies through online platforms. Additionally, I believe that online MBA programs should work to create partnerships with companies that offer remote internships or project-based work opportunities, allowing students to gain valuable experience while still maintaining their full-time jobs and online coursework.

How has your online education helped you in your current job? My online education has significantly contributed to my job at the U.S. Army Inspector General Agency, providing me with a business mindset that I apply to various tasks. I have gained skills in financial forecasting, economic impact analysis, streamlining operations, data analytics, and negotiations that have enabled me to analyze and solve complex problems quickly and effectively. Moreover, my professors emphasized the importance of understanding what makes a business work, which I have found particularly useful in my work with the Army.

Did you earn a promotion while in the program or immediately after graduation? Although I did not receive a promotion while I was in the online MBA program or immediately after graduation, I did experience annual raises during that time. Moreover, I was able to shift from one function area to another within my organization because of the expertise and knowledge I gained through the program.

Why did you pursue an online MBA program instead of a full-time residential program? I chose to pursue an online MBA program for various reasons. First, it provided me with the freedom to complete coursework on my own schedule, which was crucial for me as military personnel who could be deployed at any moment. Secondly, the MBA@UNC program had a concentration in strategy and consulting, which aligned perfectly with my career aspirations. Moreover, the professors were understanding of the fact that we were working professionals juggling a 40+ hour workweek with schoolwork. It was important for me not to compromise on academic reputation and standard, and UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School consistently ranked as the top online MBA program. Another benefit was the chance to take elective classes, participate in the Washington Campus, and attend the Doing Business In Program (DBI) in person with the full-time MBA students after completing core classes. This allowed for networking opportunities and the ability to complete coursework faster compared to online delivery.

Number of Hours Per Week Spent on an Online MBA: 15-20+

What is your ultimate long-term professional goal? My long-term professional goal is to utilize my past knowledge and expertise to solve intricate problems that promote sustainability and stimulate growth in the consulting industry.


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