The 100 Best & Brightest MBAs: Class Of 2024

Melissa Cunningham, Southern Methodist University (Cox)

CHAMPIONS FOR WOMEN

Melissa Cunningham required strategy just to get through her days at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School. By day, she served as president of the Consulting and Corporate Strategy Club, not to mention a VP of the Student Advisory Board, peer coach, and student ambassador. Away from school, she was a mother, Girl Scout volunteer, and even lunch monitor. Despite the demands, Cunningham excelled at school and home – and even landed a job with EY-Parthenon.

“I’m proud of successfully juggling full-time business school and being a mom,” she tells P&Q. “At SMU one of my goals was to lead a club and create positive change, and I am especially proud to say that I achieved that goal. During my tenure as president of the Consulting and Corporate Strategy Club, membership increased by 20% from the year before…I recruited and worked with a leadership team who brought talent and passion to their roles; this developed a model for the next cohort of leaders.”

When leadership was needed, the Best & Brightest were the first to step forward. When COVID-19 shut down Chicago’s largest veterans’ food pantry, Akbar Arsiwala authored a plan that resulted in 100 tons of food being distributed to 2,400 families over 14 months. In 2022, Priyal Keni was tapped by the UN Women’s 30 for 2030 network to work alongside leaders across 15 countries to foster gender equality. In response, Keni produced a toolkit to tackle online gender-based violence. The program was so successful that she netted the UK-India Achievers Honor in the UK Parliament.

For Saamia Noorali, no job is too big, complex, or scary. “I was part of a five-person secret operation, greenlighted by the White House, to reunify Yazidi women from Iraq with their children in Syria,” writes the UVA Darden grad. “The Yazidi women had these children while sexually enslaved and raped by their ISIS captors. Once freed, the Yazidi women were re-admitted to their communities on the condition that they leave their ISIS-fathered children behind. However, within weeks, some of these young women desperately sought to be reunited with their babies and toddlers. I worked alongside Dr. Neman Ghafouri, an Iraqi-Swedish cardiothoracic surgeon and renowned humanitarian, to navigate the social, political, and cultural barriers that stood between the Yazidi women and their children. It took two years, but we successfully completed the mission in March 2021. Today, these women and children are united and living safely in a Western country. Nothing makes me prouder than to have been a part of their reunification.”

FUN FACTS ABOUT THE CLASS

More than leadership, the Class of 2024 delivered results. During COVID-19, Alexis D’souza, an IIM Ahmedabad grad, drove her real estate team to 400% revenue growth. After joining Forever 21’s fledgling Home & Gift division, the University of Georgia’s Laura Emerson tripled sales in just one year.  At Heineken, INSEAD’s Sami Mavrothalassitis developed a safe driving rewards app that was used by 80% of consumers who downloaded it. At the same time, Shubham Singhal was a vital contributor to a remarkable growth spurt.

Moritz Fath, Esade Business School

“I am most proud of transforming Rupeek’s Growth team, enabling the fintech startup’s growth from $8 million to $350 million in less than three years and reducing stigma against taking gold loans in India,” writes the UC-Berkeley Haas MBA. “When I joined the company, I had no idea what growth meant as a function. Using first principles thinking, I led initiatives across sales, marketing, and product, created a culture of data-led decision making, and built business processes that helped the company scale dramatically and remain intact even to this day.”

Speaking of scale, Benjamin Cole Williams was once entrusted to run a $12 billion dollar chip-manufacturing construction project. Before that? The Brigham Young University MBA enjoyed a stint as a rodeo clown. That’s just one of the eye-opening stories about this year’s class. Looking for a nightmare first job? Dreaming of becoming a marine biologist, Nicole Ventrone took a job at a NOAA laboratory – where she was responsible for siphoning fish sperm. Contracting COVID-19 cost ESADE’s Moritz Fath a shot at qualifying for the Olympics – but he came back to notch personal best times in three events in the Swimming World Cup five months later. For Richard Balagtas, a hobby has turned into a means to comfort those who need it most.

“[I am a] Semi-professional magician with a repertoire of 20+ card tricks,” notes the UCLA MBA. “I originally learned magic as a medium to better communicate with adolescent patients when learning about their disease journeys as a consultant for biopharmaceutical companies. It’s often scary and challenging for children to have to share what it’s like to live with chronic diseases. Performing magic for these patients helped to make me and the storytelling more approachable and allowed our team to better learn more about the day-to-day experiences of these patients.”

Magic wasn’t the only talent the Best & Brightest MBAs brought to business school. The London Business School’s Priyal Keni has racked up 100 medals in rifle shooting and holds three national records in India. Her compatriot, Arya Diwase of Duke University’s Fuqua School, represented India at the International Harmonica Competition. UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Farisha Ishak won a singing competition in Singapore, which netted a record deal and hosting and acting gigs. Dumi Mabhena has published a children’s book, Tuku’s Dream. Before business school, Sourya Mukherjee played project manager by day and rocker by night. After joining Northwestern University’s Kellogg School, he plied his talents to reach the biggest MBA accomplishment: Beating cross-town rival Chicago Booth in a Battle of the Bands.

“Beyond the exhilarating feeling of performing for 1,400 raging MBA students, preparing for the performance was an invaluable learning experience in collaborating with equal stakeholders (in the band) and effectively influencing without authority. ‘Battle of the Bands’ was another testament to how Kellogg exceeds one’s expectation from business school.”

Stefan Sayre, MIT (Sloan)

ONTO THE FUTURE

For the Best & Brightest, business school was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Juliet Powell still marvels at being part of the University of Cambridge, with its 550-year history and resemblance to Hogwarts. At MIT Sloan’s School of Management, Stefan Sayre points out that he was able to pose questions to several business leaders: “Jeff Zucker (former President of CNN), Sue Desmond-Hellman (former CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), and Luis von Ahn (CEO of Duolingo).” And this was just in one class! That said, similar opportunities were available at New York University’s Stern School, adds KJ Brown.

“Coming to Stern gave me the opportunity to complete a semester-long consulting project for Warner Bros. Discovery, compete in case competitions for Paramount, Adobe, WeWork, and other companies, as well as attend company treks to TikTok, NBC Universal, YouTube, and Sirius XM.”

What’s next for the Class of 2024? Rice University’s Ahmad Tipu pictures himself taking a venture from idea to funding to IPO. Derrick Afriyie, a University of Georgia grad ticketed to Citi, hopes to someday deliver a TED Talk. IMD Business School’s Siya Xabanisa plans to lead a global think tank on youth and conflict resolution – before opening a pub-stye restaurant featuring “hearty roasts and comfort food.” While HEC Paris’ Victor Heaulme lists working in SpaceTech is his ultimate goal, he is working towards something far more satisfying.

“I want to wake up one morning saying, ‘I can’t believe I actually get paid to do this!’”

See pages 4-5 for 100 in-depth profiles of this year’s Best & Brightest MBAs. 

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