2024 Best & Brightest MBA: Athena Saldanha, University of Chicago (Booth)

Athena Saldanha

University of Chicago, Booth School of Business

“Persistent entrepreneur who’s passionate about helping others, and loves traveling, good food, and great movies.”

Hometown: Schaumburg, IL

Fun fact about yourself: I’ve watched every episode of Friends…at least 8 times

Undergraduate Degree: University of California, Berkeley

What was the last place you worked before business school: Oliver Wyman

Where did you intern during the summer of 2023: I started Owler AI

Where will you be working after graduation: Owler AI, CEO / Co-founder

Community work and leadership roles in business school

  • Booth Education Club, Co-Chair
  • Booth Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital, Co-Chair

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school and why? I am most proud of planning and hosting Booth’s flagship entrepreneurship conference, Rattan L. Khosa SeedCon, with my co-chair. This was a 250-person event for Booth students, alumni, and Chicago professionals in the VC and entrepreneurship space. Our theme for the event was “Innovating Amongst Giants in a Down Economy.” The day was made up of industry panels (e.g., HealthTech, CleanTech, Consumer, FinTech, Social Impact, B2B), function-aligned panels (VC, Start-up Operator, and Founder), as well as a wonderful keynote with serial entrepreneur and investor, CoCo Meers. I am most proud of this experience because we were able to have a diversity in gender, ethnicity, and job experience on every panel. The feat did not go unnoticed by several of my female peers who were proud to see themselves represented in the careers they are pursuing!

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career and why? I am most proud of starting my company, Owler AI. Starting Owler has been one of the most difficult challenges I have ever taken on, and by far the most rewarding. Owler’s flagship product is a machine learning-enabled site that compares student work to the teacher’s grading criteria and leaves A.I. generated feedback on every essay within 45 seconds.

I got the idea from a few teachers who were telling me they planned on spending 10+ hours of their weekend grading essays. After some quick research, I saw that Stanford did a study that was published in the New York Times titled – “Can AI grade your next essay.” From there a spark was lit. I spent my first 6 months at Booth talking to every AI professor to understand the technical implications, and every middle or high school teacher I could find to see if this was something they would want.  After finding my co-founder and CTO, Owler was off to the races.

We launched our MVP this year, and continue to iterate with teachers who are using our product every day. What keeps us going are the emails from teachers like this one – “I might cry from the relief I feel in using this product. From the bottom of my teacher’s heart, thank you for making a product such as this.” OwlerAI’s mission is to help educators leverage A.I. to save time on repetitive administrative tasks, so they can focus on creating effective and engaging classrooms. We are in the process of selling to middle and high schools around the country to help more teachers who need some relief!

Why did you choose this business school? I chose to attend UChicago Booth for its entrepreneurship resources, flexible curriculum, and location. My hope was to attend a business school with a reputation for producing and supporting entrepreneurs. UChicago’s Polsky Center has been a great resource to access mentors that have been in my shoes and could guide me, especially during the early stages of launching a company. The flexible curriculum allowed me to focus my experience on classes that would help me grow as a founder in the social impact space. Lastly, I knew I wanted to start a company here in Chicago. Our teachers in the Chicago Public School were the inspiration for starting Owler. I love this city for its friendliness, grit, and entrepreneurial spirit.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? Michael Alter has been one of my favorite professors during my time at Booth. He has repeatedly made himself available to answer questions, and help with events that support students. His class, Entrepreneurial Selling, was not only applicable for founders, but also helped every student become a more effective communicator. I appreciate his enthusiasm for the content, and his support of the student body!

What was your favorite course as an MBA? My favorite course has been Accounting for Entrepreneurship. As someone who is very much not an accountant, it was the best crash course in understanding the accounting and business implications for establishing a company. It was extremely relevant to my professional career and something that I reference often.

What was your favorite MBA event and tradition at your business school? My favorite Booth event is the Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club Socials. These socials are normally held in fun places around the city and, as it is the largest club on campus, it is a great way to connect with my peers.

What is the biggest myth about your school? The biggest myth about Booth is that it is extremely finance-focused. While some of my classmates are going into Investment Banking, I’ve been surprised by how many people were interested in tech, energy, healthcare, etc. Booth’s build-your-own curriculum allows students to stoke whatever their passion is!

What did you love most about your business school’s town? I love Chicago! I love that there is always something fun to do whether it is going to an amazing restaurant, seeing a play, going to a concert, or going to a neighborhood street festival.

What surprised you most about your business school? There was a heavy focus on the soft skills. LEAD is a leadership class that every Booth student takes, and it focuses on helping students identify their strengths and opportunities as a person and as a leader.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? I admire Mittul Patel – he is an entrepreneur through and through! While at Booth he launched his e-commerce company, Zaars, and bought a coffee shop that he used to work at. It is inspiring to see someone be so driven in their pursuit.

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

1) Get Owler in the hands of as many middle and high school teachers as possible

2) Go back to business school, but this time to teach a class on entrepreneurship

What made Athena such an invaluable member of the Class of 2024?

“I met Athena in my Entrepreneurship Unplugged class, where I help founders with the common milestones they will face. Over the course of the year, I saw Athena grow as an entrepreneur. When we started, she was searching for a co-founder, and was new to the start-up and VC world. Over the course of the year, I saw her pass major milestones that got her to launch a product and start selling to clients. Her journey from concept to execution in such a short span is a testament to her persistence, resilience, and entrepreneurial acumen. I am confident that her inclusion in this prestigious list will be justly deserved, highlighting her as a shining example of the entrepreneurial spirit and leadership excellence that the MBA program aims to cultivate.”

Mia Saini Duchnowski

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