Meet Virginia Darden’s MBA Class Of 2025

Let me tell you a story…

The venture started promising enough. The market was ripe for disruption. The first adopters bought in – and the big players soon followed. Forbes hailed them and business students emulated them. And then the real work began. Where do you invest? How do you scale? In some cases, the protagonists miscalculated: They hired the wrong people and implemented the wrong strategies. In crisis, they hid behind lawyers. In failure, they pointed fingers. Eventually, they forgot why they started and what made them different.

They are stories as old as time. In business school, they are called case studies, often tales of hubris, half-measures, and overreach as much as vision, synergy, and, grit. Here, MBAs live through the protagonists, studying how they harnessed – or botched – growth, change, conflict, and crisis. At the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, full-time MBAs can expect to analyze over 500 cases during their two years in Charlottesville. Call it daily practice in sizing up situations, identifying factors, recognizing limits, weighing alternatives, and devising holistic solutions. In the process, they simulate general management decision-making, replete with conflicting and incomplete data where everyone has an agenda and the outcome is rarely certain.

ACCESS TO 300 YEARS OF BEST PRACTICES IN ONE CLASS

“Storytelling is important because it makes facts more memorable,” says Kelly Okun, a first-year MBA who last worked in SEO and content. “Take fables in the Bible, for example; those learning may only remember the story itself at first, but eventually they’ll take away valuable lessons as well. As students, we can internalize best practices from the case studies and pull from them as managers. Having examples of success can also support our initiatives when deciding direction with a group of colleagues.”

One advantage of the case method: It is a force multiplier. Rather than simply coming to class and expressing opinions, Darden MBA teams first meet to discuss cases. That way, each member can be exposed to peer insights and strategies that can be taken back to the larger class. Even more, case discussions leverage the wide range of industry, functional, and cultural experiences of class members, says Jeremy Halversen, a chemical engineer who became a senior business analyst at McKinsey.

“If the 70 people in my classroom each have just 4 years of work experience, we’re talking about nearly 300 years’ worth of interactions with managers and leaders. While none of us in the room are perfect managers, we have all witnessed and been a part of moments of near perfect leadership. Darden’s case method is so good at providing a framework for that experience to be shared in a constructive, formulaic way. It’s amazing to have a helicopter pilot who spent nearly a decade in the US military sitting next to the founder of a tech startup in India. They show up to class, start discussing a case, and pretty soon, without even trying. they are teaching each other what great leadership looks like.”

Darden’s newly-opened Forum Hotel

SIMULATING A BOARD ROOM…OR AN AUTOPSY?

More than that, the case method teaches students how to plan communicate. In case discussions, MBAs must lay out their positions, grounded in fact and encompassing the critical questions and angles inherent to the situation. That’s because students will often be challenged to defend their positions by classmates. In many cases, they will learn new information and modify those positions, an experience that prepares them to address similar gaps in future cases. In some ways, you could say the Darden classroom is the academic equivalent to a board room – where students grapple with everything from tradeoffs to first steps to build consensus in politically-charged situations. At the same time, case discussions act as autopsies, where students collaborate to understand why decisions were made, how they reverberated across the organization over time, and what they can learn from the process and outcomes.

As much as learning, the case method also enforces accountability. After all, every voice is expected to bring value. When students don’t prepare, they risk the dreaded ‘cold call’ – being volunteered by professors to share their insights. For business school students, the most embarrassing moments often involve coming to class unprepared – and then watching their position systematically broken down through the Socratic Method. When everyone  prepares and contributes, the case classroom is a safe space to make mistakes, break bad habits, and embrace an open-minded approach.

“With this prepared classroom, the debate that ensues makes you question your own opinions and broadens your horizon,” says Lohit Kabbathi Natesh, a product manager who once had an elephant chase him through a national park. “The peer learning that happens when your section mate tells you how they looked at the problem gives you varied perspectives. This prepares you for the real world wherein there is no one to give you the right answer and it’s the team that you work with for the best solution. It also takes out the initial hesitation of you speaking up, it pushes you to put your opinion to the test and not get attached to an idea.”

FROM MEDICAL MARIJUANA TO PRO SOCCER

Tales from the Darden MBA Class of 2025 could make some compelling cases themselves. Think Darden caters to the buttoned-down, straight-laced types? Meet Jade Kimpson. A Spelman College grad, she co-founded a cannabis dispensary, Inhale Detroit, with her brother in 2016. In fact, her firm beat out over 165 applicants to land one of the city’s 75 medical marijuana business licenses Her mission: “Legal, safe and affordable cannabis.” Meanwhile, Kelly Okun – a former golf pro with two holes-in-one and a 67 low score to her credit—helped build her agency to the point where it was sold to Sports Illustrated and became SI Golf. And Okun isn’t the only pro athlete in the class, either.

“I played soccer professionally for a club in Budapest called FTC, and my team won both the Hungarian League and Cup titles in our 2020-2021 season,” says Betsy Brandon. “I will never forget the moment I scored in our Cup final – that was such a happy moment. You could see my beaming smile after the goal, and I was quickly embraced by my teammates…I remember rolling around in the confetti after we won, cheering and dancing with teammates in the locker room, and taking photos with the trophy…It was a blessing to fulfill a lifelong dream in another country alongside incredible people and to close out 20 years of soccer on such a positive note.”

Before Darden, Sarah Doss worked in affordable housing commercial real estate for Wells Fargo, Long-term, she hopes to launch a venture. Jessi Kim spent over six years as a kitchenware merchandiser for CJ ENM, one of South Korea’s largest retail and entertainment enterprises. Working in Peru’s CPG industry during COVID-19, Lieneke Ratto Schol delivered needed supplies to 10 nonprofit organizations that reached over 100,000 people. Outside of working as a Deloitte strategy manager, Nico Martinez helped DC-area immigrant families with “significant health, legal, financial, and familial challenges.” By the same token, Brianna Huff mentored nearly two dozen high school students who were part of a college and career readiness program when she wasn’t working in communications for Navient.

“I intentionally exposed Black teens to careers in marketing and communications, where we are traditionally underrepresented, and coached them on leadership. To instill leadership skills, for example, I created team-oriented scenarios where teens developed companies and acted as spokespersons to solve crisis events. After presenting their statements to peers, many shy teens shared that they felt more confident in speaking to groups…[I also developed] equitable college-focused workshops, encompassing topics like applying for school and financial aid. After each workshop, students expressed they felt better equipped to make well-informed decisions about college.”

Darden MBA, EMBA and other students arrive on campus in August. Darden photo

DARDEN STUDENTS SELF-SELECT

Thus far, the Class of 2025 has been impressed by their peers. Lohit Kabbathi Natesh loves how everyone – students, faculty, and alumni – are “Genuinely eager to help.” He also enjoys the Humans of Darden events organized by second-years, where students sit down for intimate dinners. Thus far, his favorite moment has been the relay race at the Darden Cup, a series of intraschool competitions ranging from soccer to artistic talent.

“This event brings out the best in students, as everyone rallies behind their respective sections to win the coveted cup. While my section didn’t secure the victory, what it truly showed was our unwavering support for one another. I’ll never forget a friend who fell four times while racing after the dizzy bat challenge. Despite his disorientation, the entire section ran alongside him, providing directions and encouragement. This experience cemented my belief that these are the people I can count on for life.”

For Betsy Brandon, one of the best moments came at Darden Before Darden (DBD), the pre-MBA program where she bonded her Learning Team before enjoying homemade milkshakes at a teammate’s home. Jeremy Halversen even cites former co-workers as his inspiration for joining the Class of 2025.

“More than graduates from any other program, Darden grads absolutely lit up when they would tell you about their experience. It didn’t matter whether it was the faculty, the case method and pedagogy generally, or Charlottesville itself as a pristine backdrop to their two years. Graduates consistently raved about this program to me. After arriving it didn’t take long before I was bought into it myself.”

LIVING AND BREATHING TEACHING

Another popular group on campus are the Darden professors themselves. They have been described as ‘the best MBA teaching faculty in the world.’ One reason: the school emphasizes teaching excellence as much as research prowess in tenure and promotion decisions. What’s more, Darden is a destination school for teaching faculty. Here, faculty teams engage in intensive preparation and rehearsals on cases, with junior faculty enjoying ongoing evaluation and mentorship from master teachers. This teaching difference was something that Brianna Huff immediately noticed when classes started.

“They didn’t just spoon-feed information; instead, they encouraged us to think critically, pushing us to develop our problem-solving skills and analytical thinking,” she observes. “Throughout DBD, I witnessed first-hand how the faculty’s dedication translated into action. Here, we delved into the nuances of navigating the case method classroom setting, tackling intricate quantitative topics, and even adjusting to the demands of returning to an academic environment…It was truly remarkable to see how they expertly guided us through complex concepts while maintaining a patient and encouraging atmosphere.”

The class has certainly heard the legendary names: Greg Fairchild, Yael Grushka-Cockayne, R.Edward Freeman. In Nico Martinez’s experience, the faculty roster is stacked, all connected by being teachers who are “brilliant, approachable, and care about our development.” He adds another superlative about the faculty– “Interesting”, thanks to having one professor being a professional poker player and another who played in various rock bands. Not surprisingly, the faculty has been described internally as “high touch, high tone, high octane”.

“Darden’s professors are a different breed,” writes Jade Kimpson. “They really live and breathe what they do. They want us to learn and succeed. I signed up to learn from the passionate ones, and Darden delivered. Learning from people who love what they do? That’s what it’s all about.”

Next Page: Interview with the Senior Assistant Dean

Page 3:  Profiles of Class of 2025 Members

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