By Jeff Schmitt
June 25, 2015

(Poets&Quants) — You wouldn’t expect Scott Gates, 33, to have had time for an Executive MBA program. The president and COO of Western Window Systems, Gates was grappling with a challenging transformation. Four years ago, his company was another “sleepy, 50-year-old window and door manufacturer.” Since then, the firm’s revenues have increased more than six-fold by smartly building on a reputation for quality and service with new products and robust marketing. That kind of progress would delight most executives, but Gates still felt that some formal business training would prepare him for the company’s next challenge. “I knew that someday I wanted to be a CEO,” he tells Poets&Quants. “And I also knew that I needed to grow in several areas of business before I would be ready.”

Today Gates is, in fact, taking the reins as CEO of his company. To prepare for the role, he had enrolled in the executive MBA program at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business in 2013. His toughest lesson? Pinpointing his personal limitations. “You learn quickly that you will never be an expert in all of the various subjects,” Gates points out. “An MBA exposes you to all of the different components of business. However, it also highlights for you just how much help you will need to succeed at the highest levels.”

The EMBA program was an endurance test for Gates, stretching him to set priorities and focus in the moment. “The difficult part of business school is the sacrifices you end up being forced to make with your family,” Gates adds. “We all enter the program with busy careers and social lives, and then we inject 20 to 30 hours of homework and 16 hours of classroom time … and the only way we can accommodate the new demands is by making sacrifices in droves.”

In the end, it was worth it for Gates. “It is not an exaggeration to say that my MBA has fundamentally changed the way I look at and approach business. I am much more prepared, and much more confident regarding the unique challenges of running a $100 million business.”

Gates is one of Poets&Quants’ 30 most exceptional executive MBA graduates from the class of 2015. Unlike full-time MBA students, executives who gain an executive version of the degree must balance work and family with an often grueling educational load. Gaining the degree, and the confidence that comes with it, is no easy task. This inaugural feature from Poets&Quants spotlights the best-and-brightest EMBAs who’ve differentiated themselves from their peers. And this year’s group is as diverse as it is distinguished.

For starters, you’ll find nearly as many physicians, attorneys, and researchers on the list as you will C-suite executives. As you’d expect, men outnumber women on the list, but the 17-to-13 margin points to an increase in the number and quality of women pursuing leadership roles in business. More surprisingly, several “best-and-brightest” EMBAs are earning their MBAs in their 50s – a trend that signifies the flexibility of the format as much as it foreshadows lengthening career spans and changing business dynamics that require more adaptive skills.

To compile its list of outstanding EMBAs, Poets&Quants extended invitations to 60 of the top-ranked EMBA programs (including 12 programs from outside the United States) to submit one nominee who exemplified the best of their respective schools. In the end, 37 schools returned nominations, with Poets&Quants evaluating candidates on their professional achievements, academic prowess, and personal narratives.

When the general public thinks of executive MBAs, they often picture thirty- and forty-something executives taking weekend classes (on the company dime) to prep them for the next promotion. That model is largely a reflection of the past. No doubt, you’ll find EMBAs from Goldman Sachs and big pharma on the list. But increasingly, you will also discover students who are paying their own way, working for smaller to mid-sized companies, and eager to try their hand at a startup.

Take Father Pete McCormick, 38, the director of the campus ministry at the University of Notre Dame. He earned his EMBA at the school’s Mendoza College of Business. Why would a priest need a business degree? For McCormick, leadership skills enhanced his ability to serve his community. What’s more, he says the training made him less risk averse, replacing gut instincts with quantitative analysis in evaluating challenges. Even more, his interactions with students provided inspiration, reminding him of the bigger picture. “If you get caught up in all that needs to be done, things become overwhelming very quickly,” he says. “There will be times when there are struggles, but always remember why you chose this path and be willing to sacrifice on its behalf.”

Another top EMBA graduate, UCLA’s Derek Herrera, 31, is no stranger to sacrifice. In 2012, he was left paralyzed from the waist down, taking a bullet while serving as a Marine Captain in Afghanistan. Aided by an exoskeleton that enables him to walk, Herrera earned his MBA at Anderson and has used the degree to launch his own business. He credits his peers for his success, quoting the school’s admissions director that “it takes diamonds to polish diamonds.”

“No matter what your title is or what industry you work in, you will be required to work in a team or interact with consumers and clients in a professional manner,” Herrera notes. “At the end of the day, individual skills are only a portion of what is required to be successful in business. Personal relationships and teamwork play a very important role in any company and I am very happy that the MBA program forces every student to grow in this area.”

But these nominees are just the tip of the iceberg. Want to know the caliber of professionals on campus these days? Duke’s Peter Saba, 54, boasts a Supreme Court victory as a corporate counsel. Penn State’s Steve Ettinger, 55, who earned his classmates’ respect for his insightfulness and helping hand, is ranked among the country’s top doctors, And the University of Chicago’s Sebastian Cerezo Montañez, 39, has already founded a leading independent M&A house and served as CEO of two companies, before he turned 40.

But it is how many of these students performed once they entered their programs that made them the best in their classes. MIT’s Ashley Sager, 32, and Purdue’s Stacey Mueller, 47, were celebrated by their classmates for their high GPAs and willingness to coach their peers (at seemingly any hour). Despite the grueling hours expected of an investment banker, Columbia Business School’s Karl Blunden, 30, was known for his involvement in campus life, winning the school’s distinguished scholarship and outstanding service awards. And Northwestern’s Meera Atkins, 42, worked tirelessly as an ambassador for the program.

Of course, several students brought colorful backgrounds to the table. The University of Florida’s Jonathan Tenanbaum, 38, has gone from hip hop artist to attorney to MBA. IE Business School’s Dulce Altabella Lazzi, 43, completed the New York Marathon while pregnant (unknowingly).

From six sigma disciples to social do-gooders, these standout EMBAs bear watching in the coming years. Here is a little more about eight of the people that made this year’s cohort of top executive MBAs.

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