(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.
Sebastian Cerezo Montañez
The University of Chicago, Booth School of Business
How is this for a resume? After spending a handful of years in investment banking, Sebastian Cerezo Montañez helped found the leading independent M&A house in Spain. In addition, he has served as CEO for two different companies. And he hasn’t even turned 40 yet! Originally from Madrid, Cerezo Montañez enrolled at Booth after determining his decision-making had become “very local, outdated and lacked a systematic structure.” At Booth, he graduated in the top five percent of his class and was selected to be the closing speaker for the London graduation ceremony.
Where are you currently working? CEO of Oneworld Packaging, a recently-established company involved in the manufacturing and commercialization of pulp trays for the catering industry.
What are your long-term professional goals? My long-term goal is finding the right place to develop my leadership skills. As I mentioned in my closing ceremony speech, I truly believe Booth is a school of leaders, this world needs leaders capable of driving changes and that’s why we all have to take a decisive leadership role. In my case, whether it is in a large company, in a start-up venture or in politics, which I am seriously considering, is yet to be seen.
“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I felt my learning curve was on the decline and the way I approached my business decisions was very local, outdated and lacked a systematic structure.”
What did you enjoy most about the executive MBA program? I did really enjoy the interaction with students from the three campuses (Chicago, London and Singapore). Being exposed to so many different cultures was quite a rewarding experience. Over and above, I enjoyed the study weeks, the case discussions, the camaraderie and the collaborating spirit in each of every class, all of which were significantly intellectually enhancing to me.
Peter B. Saba
Duke University, Fuqua School of Business
Imagine being a faculty member at Duke and seeing Peter Saba in your class. A Harvard Law graduate, Saba has served as an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Energy and taught at Georgetown and American University. He led a team that prevailed in a U.S. Supreme Court tariffs case. And he works as a senior vice president and general counsel for a top uranium enrichment firm. Pretty intimidating? Not at all, says John Gallagher, associate dean for Executive MBA programs. He ranks Saba among the 10-best students he has encountered. He adds that while many students have much to say, “Peter is someone who has a lot to contribute.” And his fellow students agree, electing him as the graduation class speaker. A prolific volunteer, Saba is heavily involved in his local church, YMCA, and Boy Scouts troop.
Where are you currently working? Centrus Energy Corp., a global energy company that enriches uranium for nuclear fuel. I hold the position of Senior Vice President, General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer & Corporate Secretary
“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…while watching a movie at home with my wife, she asked me if I had any regrets in life and I realized that if I did not earn my executive MBA now, then I never would and that is something I would have regretted. I wanted to pursue an executive MBA because I believe that continuous learning and new challenges are the keys to keeping life interesting and to personal development, I wanted something positive and forward looking to work on while my company went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and I felt that a MBA would strengthen my leadership and business skills and make me a stronger business partner as general counsel. As I complete the Duke GEMBA program, I can definitely say I have no regrets.
What are your long-term professional goals? To be part of the executive management team as General Counsel of a Fortune 100 multinational company and to apply my experience more broadly by serving on corporate boards.
What did you enjoy most about the executive MBA program? Getting to really know and work with my international classmates during the global residencies.
Jonathan D. Tenenbaum
University of Florida, Hough Graduate School of Business
A Brooklyn Law grad, Jonathan Tenanbaum is the general manager for NameJet, a domain name aftermarket auction company. He is renowned for his ability to “command a room and work a crowd,” not surprising coming from a one-time member of a hip hop band that opened for acts like the Wu-Tang Clan and Naughty by Nature. In his spare time, Tenanbaum is a guest lecturer at the Florida Coastal School of Law and Wilkes University.
Where are you currently working? NameJet, LLC – General Manager
“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…while working as in-house counsel for Web.com and NameJet, I recognized the need to expand my skills and abilities in order to provide more value to the companies and to further grow in my career.”
What are your long-term professional goals? Long-term I would like to further grow and evolve professionally, perhaps running a publically-traded company (or a large division thereof) while also putting myself in a better position to help others through different charitable efforts. I can also see myself getting involved with an early-stage company and helping to take it public.
What did you enjoy most about the executive MBA program? I most enjoyed expanding my knowledge base, my skill-set and my professional network. My fellow cohorts have not only become friends but also greatly enhanced the overall value of the program, in that I have learned almost as much from them as from the professors and curriculum.
University of Virginia, Darden School of Business
No one can say that Jennifer Schretter wasn’t busy or effective at Darden. Along with working at Goldman Sachs and running her startup, she was the co-head of the Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital Club and a member of the Darden Capital Management Club, Retail and Luxury Goods Club, and the Graduate Women in Business. In addition, she was one of the forces behind Darden’s partnership with 1776, a global incubator located in Washington, DC. As a graduate, her goals are equally ambitious: “To be an innovator and a leader, to create meaningful impact and measurable value, to be passionate about my life’s work, and to leave a legacy.”
Where are you currently working? Goldman Sachs, Investment Management Associate
“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I started and managed my company, KOLTON.J, at 25 with no business or industry experience. I realized that while you can learn-as-you-go, business school provides an enterprise perspective and cohesive tool kit to prime managerial success.”
What are your long-term professional goals? To be an innovator and a leader, to create meaningful impact and measurable value, to be passionate about my life’s work, and to leave a legacy.
What did you enjoy most about the executive MBA program? Having the opportunity to meet people that I deeply admire and respect. The professional expertise and mix of the cohort in conjunction with the design of the EMBA program allows for a rich learning experience with immediate applicability of learned concepts. The faculty made the classes fun and dynamic.
Kevin M. Smith
Georgia Institute of Technology, The Scheller College of Business
As a manager in Coca-Cola’s financial arm, Kevin Smith was facing a crisis all too common to seasoned professionals. His window was closing and if he didn’t head to business school now, he would probably get left behind. Described as the “ideal EMBA student” by Brian Jennings, associate dean of the program, Smith made his mark by his “willingness to go the extra mile, put in the extra hours, and help his fellow cohort and team members to excel with him.” Those are a few reasons why his classmates nominated him to receive the school’s Executive Leadership Award (along with being a school ambassador). A CPA and a six sigma green belt, Smith is also a decorated member of Toastmasters International and a volunteer with the Boys & Girls Club of Atlanta.
Where are you currently working? The Coca-Cola Company, Commercial Leadership Finance Manager III
“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I had this epiphany: it was of a window gradually closing and I knew if I didn’t apply in the coming months that window may never open again. Luckily, I was able to catch that window before it closed – thankfully.”
What are your long-term professional goals? My goals are to continually progress in my career by taking on challenging assignments; work internationally for a few years in an emerging market; and serve as a Vice President – Finance and CFO for a multi-national company.
What did you enjoy most about the executive MBA program? I enjoyed the fact that I could learn a new concept in class one week and find myself applying the concept the following week. In addition, the students that were in my class had very diverse backgrounds and in many instances could share their on the job application of a concept. This made classroom learning very active. Lastly, I enjoyed expanding my leadership capabilities. Working in teams throughout the semester offered challenges and opportunities to hone in on the leadership skills that are critical in business.
Columbia Business School
When it came time to pick a business school, Karl Blunden didn’t have to look far for a recommendation. His wife had earned an MBA from Columbia Business School in 2012. Despite a grueling schedule that included working as a vice president in credit research for Goldman Sachs, Blunden became one of the most visible members of his class. He coordinated CBSMatters, a student forum for sharing ideas. He served as the class’ academic representative and won the Nahum Melumad Memorial Prize for outstanding scholarship. Even more, his classmates elected for him to receive the Executive MBA Distinguished Service Award and deliver the graduation speech.
Where are you currently working? Goldman Sachs; Vice President: Credit Research
“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I experienced the strong community at Columbia as a member of the Columbia Business School Better Halves Club (while my wife attended Columbia’s full-time MBA program).”
What are your long-term professional goals? They are constantly evolving, although I am fairly sure they will involve investing…with a global tilt.
What did you enjoy most about the executive MBA program? I enjoyed interacting with fellow students outside of class – after class on Saturdays, on informal trips, and during our organized international seminars.
Steven Mark Ettinger
Penn State University, Smeal College of Business
Steve Ettinger jokes that “you’re never too old to learn.” At 55, he embodies this maxim. The Director of Clinical Operations for the Penn State Heart & Vascular Institute, Ettinger is described as “one of the best students I have seen in more than 30 years of teaching Executive MBA students” by Dennis P. Sheehan, the school’s faculty director for MBA programs. Then again, that shouldn’t surprise anyone, as Ettinger has been listed among the “Best Doctors in America” by Woodward by White. Eventually, he hopes to direct a cardiovascular program and become a CEO.
Where are you currently working? Penn State Hershey Medical Center, Hershey Pennsylvania as the Director of Clinical Operations for the Penn State Heart & Vascular Institute.
“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I wanted to be an active participant in the ongoing conversation regarding healthcare reform.”
What are your long-term professional goals? To be a Director of a Cardiovascular program and within time be promoted to CEO of the organization.
What did you enjoy most about the executive MBA program? I fully enjoyed the professors and the students in my EMBA program. I was amazed by the level of insight and intelligence of the class discussions, the lifetime experience of the student body and the integrity of my peers. Recognizing that there are different ways to teach and to learn, I found myself looking forward to the time I would spend in class with my colleagues. It is something that I know I will miss after graduation.
Dulce Altabella Lazzi
IE Business School
Dulce Altabella Lazzi knew time was running out. Despite a bustling career and family, she knew that her experience would only take her so far. And not going back would mean that she had “wasted 18 more months.” So Lazza enrolled at IE Business School to augment her engineering background. And she made the most of her time, earning the school’s award as the top executive MBA student in 2015. But awards are nothing new to Lazza. She scored a perfect GPA when she earned her M.Sc. in electrical engineering, along with garnering two management awards at Sony Ericsson. In her spare time, Lazza is a USA licensed road cyclist racer and avid long distance runner
Where are you currently working? BM USA, Senior Engineer/Scientist Development
“I knew I wanted to go to business school when…I realized that the skill-set needed to achieve my long term career goals could not be attained from solely work experience.”
What are your long-term professional goals? I would like to build all necessary skills to lead a successful technology company one day. Assignments that are out of the comfort zone and challenge me are key to my future development as a business leader one day.
What did you enjoy most about the executive MBA program? Professors, students, and program managers alike. The global network developed and the friendships that I made along the way will last a lifetime.