2023 MBA To Watch: Rinji Kassem, Vanderbilt University (Owen)

Rinji Kassem

Vanderbilt University, Owen Graduate School of Management

“I am a thoughtful, compassionate, adaptable, open-minded, and enthusiastic leader passionate about improving access and opportunities for underserved populations.”

Hometown: Jos, Plateau State, Nigeria

Fun fact about yourself: I learned how to solve a Rubik’s cube in my second year of business school, and in three weeks, I clocked a personal best time of under 2 minutes.

Undergraduate School and Degree:

  1. University of Jos, Bachelor of Pharmacy
  2. Nigerian Defense Academy, Master of Development Studies

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Pharmasymbiosis, Key Account Manager

Where did you intern during the summer of 2022? Eli Lilly, Indianapolis

Where will you be working after graduation? Eli Lilly, Associate Director of Marketing

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School:

  1. Owen Black Students Association -VP of Alumni Relations
  2. Owen Global Business Association- VP of Communications
  3. Owen Partners Club – VP
  4. Honor Council- Member
  5. 2023 Orientation Committee- Member

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I am proud of several things I have achieved at Owen, both academic and extracurricular. On the academic side, as part of a team, I consulted on real business projects for two companies through the Israeli Project Course and an independent study.

Also, in my first year, my group placed second in the Vanderbilt Business Healthcare Association (VBHA) case competition sponsored by Humana.

On the extracurricular front, a group of classmates and I, under the name Owen Airballers competed in a school-wide intramural basketball competition and placed second in our first year. We are competing again this year and plan to win it all this time.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? One of the proudest moments of my career was when I led an “access to medicines” project that helped provide access to good quality anti-diabetic and anti-hypertensive medications to tens of thousands of patients who would otherwise not have been able to afford them in Kaduna state, Nigeria.

Another achievement I am proud of was the project I worked on during my summer internship. I felt proud of my achievement here because, within 12 weeks, I learned about a new marketing medium I had no previous experience with and developed a launch strategy for new brands through that channel.

Why did you choose this business school? I chose Owen for several reasons, including the small class size, the personalized approach, and the strong healthcare program. The Small class size was essential for me because I love building relationships. I wanted a program that would not only offer me world-class business education but one that also offers me the opportunity to develop lifelong relationships with incredibly brilliant people. After almost two years at Owen, these expectations have been met and greatly exceeded.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? It’s not easy to pick one favorite professor because Owen has several outstanding professors who are extremely smart and personable. If I were forced to choose, I’d pick Tim Vogus because his teaching methods provoke deep discussions and stir you to question your assumptions about leadership. He is also very friendly and approachable outside the classroom.

What was your favorite course as an MBA? I have several favorite courses, and my favorite classes at Owen were those that forced me to rethink many of my assumptions. They include Leading Teams and Organizations, Managerial and Organizational Effectiveness, and Management Communication. I also loved Essentials of Project Management, a Fall elective taught by Professor Nancy Hyer, because it was the most thoughtfully organized course I have ever taken.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? Closing Bell. This is a weekly social event held every Thursday where all members of the Owen community (students, faculty, and staff) come together to socialize over drinks, food, and sometimes entertainment. This event is my favorite because it personifies the Owen culture.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? If I could do it over again, I’d spend more time exploring Nashville. I feel like I did not thoroughly explore the history and beauty of Nashville, and I might have to come back as a tourist to explore the city.

What is the biggest myth about your school? The biggest myth I heard about my school was that only people from certain professional and social backgrounds could get admitted into the program. This was different from my experience because I met and interreacted with people from different social and professional backgrounds. Owen does an excellent job of accepting people from diverse backgrounds, which adds to the richness of the experience.

What did you love most about your business school’s town? Nashville is famous for music, but there is more to the city than just music. What I loved the most about Nashville were the people, the ease with which you could find good food, and the “southern hospitality”.

What surprised you the most about business school? What surprised me the most about business school is the diversity of professional backgrounds that make up the classroom and faculty and how that diversity makes for a great learning experience. I have learned a lot from listening to my classmate’s comments about their experiences in class, and I was also surprised about how truly transformative the business school experience was.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? What gave me an edge during my application process was being authentic about who I was and my experiences. Applicants frequently try to present an almost perfect picture of who they are to impress the admissions committee, but that always makes them sound like any other candidate. Showing your authentic self through your essays and interviews gives you an edge as a unique and interesting candidate different from others.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? A classmate I admire most is Mohammed Abouzaid. I admire Mohammed because he is very open-minded and always genuinely looking to help others. I also admire him because of the depth and breadth of his knowledge about just any topic.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list?

  1. Work in the different continents of the world
  2. Become a C-suite executive at a great organization.

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

“Rinji Kassem elevates. Through his sharp intellect and his deep and abiding commitment to helping others realize their full potential, Rinji elevates the Owen School. He does this through making sure his classmates (and instructors) think globally and expansively, pushing us to see every course concept and framework in a deeper, yet more practically impactful way. But even more important is the kindness, openness, and warmth that Rinji always puts on full display. He makes every room he’s in safer and more inviting and in doing so, creates the conditions for transformational learning. He is the exemplar for deep learning by pairing the person he is with generously and compellingly sharing his considerable insight that inspires others to share, learn, and grow.

Outside his role as student, Rinji has made a considerable impact through his committed work to the honor council where he is able to bring his experiences those most in need as a community health educator and mentor to ensure fairness for all at Owen. Rinji was also a spectacular TA in my course Leading Teams and Organizations. He consistently gave great advice on how to draw out students who might be less comfortable speaking in class and even took efforts on his own to kindly encourage them and provide strategies for success. Rinji also helped me rethink and reformulate a failed experiment diagnosing and redressing a toxic organizational culture from a prior year’s class in a way that was more engaging, inclusive, and open. Every student benefitted from him generating better examples and a better process for executing the class. His work at TA is emblematic of what makes Rinji so outstanding – smart and wise insights, a profound commitment to helping others, and deeply open and kind.

Rinji is a model of the growth mindset and humble inquiry that is a hallmark of great leadership and the foundation of creating a psychologically safe, inclusive environment that brings out the best in everyone. He consistently and continuously works to elevate others in ways big and small be it empathically modeling his learning mindset, sharing his wisdom, or ensuring Owen upholds its highest ideals of integrity and openness that help his peers achieve their personal, professional, and social goals.”

Tim Vogus
Brownlee O. Currey, Jr. Professor of Management


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