Sometimes, it’s easier to attack the messenger than to understand the problem. That was the situation facing Cheryl Campbell as she testified before Congress in 2013. The senior vice president of CGI – the IT contractor who orchestrated the launch of healthcare.gov – Campbell was tossed into the political gladiator pit. With the website dogged by bottlenecks and bugs, she faced a wall of finger pointing and nitpicking, where critics seemed more intent on scoring points and pushing agendas than offering solutions.
Then again, few beyond Campbell could grasp the scope of the project, which involved managing unparalleled technical intricacies and bearing the weight of accompanying “national, political, financial, legal, and media complexities.” According to Bloomberg, the former included the management of 55 different subcontractors. And that meant stitching together thousands of interconnected pieces so users could interact with, in Campbell’s words, “five different agencies, including HHS, DHS, U.S. Treasury, VA, and SSA, clearing them all simultaneously with the ability to address over 15,000 insurance plans across 50 states and four territories privately and securely.”
After enduring growing pains, healthcare.gov has rebounded and has enrolled 12.7 million users, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And Campbell – a 2016 graduate of the Georgetown-ESADE Global Executive MBA program – considers her leadership in implementing the Affordable Care Act to be her crowning achievement, so far.
Of course, Campbell has no plans to rest on her laurels. In fact, her EMBA experience has only whetted her appetite to keep learning. “As a senior executive, the years of practical experience are invaluable,” she tells Poets&Quants. “But it is equally important to continue to hone your craft....” And she has a few words of advice for MBAs everywhere: “Continue to invent and invest in yourself.”
Reinvention and self-investment have always been driving forces behind MBAs, even more so among the 50 leaders who comprise Poets&Quants’ 2016 Best & Brightest Executive MBAs. For many, returning to campus was a monumental step. Suddenly, these top performers were squeezing another 20 to 30 hours of work into their already cramped and chaotic weekly schedules. They shifted priorities between work, family, and school, wrestling with the reality that they couldn’t always be perfect – or available. Sometimes, they were driven from their comfort zones, as they learned to leverage team strengths over individual talents and proven practices over gut instincts. For every triumphant epiphany they enjoyed, they endured a humbling moment that reminded them how far they still had to go.
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By the numbers, P&Q’s second annual list of top EMBAs mirrors the diversity of business schools themselves. These graduates range in age from 29 to 63, with 40.7 years being the average. They were equally split between men and women at 25 a piece. However, American schools held a decided advantage: 41 of the 50 spots – a split that reflects the EMBA programs that responded (28 American schools and eight from overseas). The cohort's alma maters stretch from Lagos State (Nigeria) to Graceland University (Iowa). And their business role models range from Elon Musk to Mother Teresa. They include decorated military officers and acclaimed surgeons, not to mention Juilliard-trained cellists and accidental entrepreneurs. Aside from the U.S. military, just one other employer has two executives on this year's list – the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (from two different programs, no less). Among the 50 Best & Brightest who answered, 38 had a significant other, while another 36 were raising children while attending school. For this group, the Executive MBA was the undisputed preference, with just four nominees even considering an online program.
And why would they? Who wouldn’t want to sit alongside SMU’s Brian Scott Cossiboom, the director of operations for the Office of George W. Bush? U.C.-Irvine’s 2016 class includes Christopher Yarbrough, a design engineering manager, who has won awards from organizations like NASA for helping to develop optical systems that have been used on Mars and Jupiter. Cornell’s April Salas oversees planning and analysis for emergency response at the U.S. Department of Energy. Susan Moffatt-Bruce is the academic director of the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, consistently ranked among the best academic medical centers by the University HealthSystem Consortium. And Georgetown’s Ellen Davis is the Senior Vice President of Research and Strategic Initiatives at the National Retail Federation, where her claim to fame is coining the phrase, “Cyber Monday.”
Some figures from this year’s class seem almost larger than life. Take UCLA’s Christian Dunbar, a 23-year Navy SEAL who is the Deputy Commander for the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Center. The recipient of several Bronze Stars and Service Medals (among other awards), Dunbar had to leave his UCLA EMBA program for a time so he could lead special forces operations inside Afghanistan, which included (in Dunbar’s words) “11 different battalions, from 7 different countries, 13 different governmental and non-governmental agencies with over 6,000 personnel with no positional authority over the networked organization.”
Dunbar was a major contributor to the UCLA community outside business school, too. Last summer, he founded the ETHOS Project, a student-led social enterprise designed to reduce sexual assault which has since spread to other campuses. It is a project close to Dunbar’s heart as his eldest daughter recently turned 13. “The biggest lesson I gained from business school is to follow your passion in work and business and to ‘do what moves you,’” he tells Poets&Quants. “Business school has emboldened me to make career changing decisions with confidence and a great deal of personal gratification.”
MIT’s Abeel Mangi’s resume is equally imposing. An Associate Professor of Cardiac Surgery at the Yale University School of Medicine, Mangi has performed over 2,500 heart surgeries and ranks in the 90th percentile of cardiac surgeons globally. He has pioneered several surgical techniques and manages a team of 60 people and a budget of $30 million between two of his programs. His research has been published in peer-reviewed outlets like Circulation and The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery. When it comes to Mangi, forget the God complex stereotype sometimes attached to surgeons. Like Dunbar, Mangi is revered by classmates and faculty alike for his humility and his focus on giving back.
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For Mangi, the EMBA curriculum was an eye-opener. “I enjoyed learning that teams resolve difficult problems far more effectively than individuals ever can,” Mangi explains to Poets&Quants. “This is a very different mentality from that of a surgeon…. I cherished interacting with, and learning from, my peers and classmates. Frankly, I enjoyed learning again.” Mangi even managed to have two sons during business school. “My wife and I figured that what the heck, we are up all night anyway…. Why not have a couple more babies.”
In fact, “Why not” is the mantra for almost every MBA student, young or old. It was a guiding principle for McGill’s Martin Carrier when he pitched Warner Brothers to come to Montreal – and promptly built their video game studio from 4 to 500 employees. You’ll find that same spirit in Emory’s Isabel Lowell, who launched a clinic for transgender patients during B-school to help this often underserved population. No doubt, Carrier’s classmate, Louise Richer, answered “Why not” when she enrolled as an MBA after turning 60.
To construct the Best & Brightest list, Poets&Quants reached out to 40 of the highest-ranking EMBA programs in the world. Each school was asked to submit two nominations for EMBAs who “epitomize excellence in your program.” As part of the nomination process, select students answered questions related to their biggest academic and professional accomplishments, along with sharing their favorite courses and professors and the high points and low points of their experience. Schools could also include an optional faculty or student recommendation to provide a deeper look into the candidates’ contributions.
P&Q reviewed 70 submissions from 36 schools, with nominations evaluated on the candidates’ achievements, insightfulness, and distinctiveness. Our mission had three components: First, we wanted to recognize many top EMBAs (and the people who supported them) for their excellence. Second, we hoped to expose future EMBA students to the caliber of students they’ll encounter in programs. Finally, we wanted to humanize these students, who are often the brightest minds and best leaders in the organizations where they work.
Without a doubt, this year’s class is an unusually gifted and accomplished collection of professionals. While she attended the University of Virginia’s EMBA program, Univision’s Mayra Rocha earned an Emmy for her reporting on 43 missing students in Mexico. At the same time, the London Business School’s Jo Buckross nabbed the 2015 International Bank Manager of the Year Award at Lloyds Banking Group. This year, McGill’s Richer was appointed to the Order of Canada after running the revered École nationale de l’humour (National Comedy School) for nearly three decades. Before becoming EMBAs, Cornell’s Salas earned a Civilian Meritorious Medal for her work at the U.S. Africa Command, while Notre Dame’s Ruth Riley won an Olympic Gold Medal in basketball at the 2004 Olympics (plus two WNBA championships).
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. USC’s Daniel Tarbutton was once a Marine One helicopter pilot who transported both President Bush and President Obama. Before taking the reins at Las Vegas’ Nobu Hotel, Arizona State’s Gaman Guadagni oversaw the renovation of 2,500 rooms at the acclaimed Harrah’s Las Vegas. In between classes at the University of Toronto, Adrian Fung was an executive producer and performer on the album Spin Cycle, a mix of hip hop and classical music that was nominated for a JUNO Award (Canada’s answer to a Grammy). As a Rhodes Scholar, U.C.-Berkeley’s Mark Gorenflo, a former nuclear submarine commander, once teamed up with Newt Gingrich at an Oxford Union Debate. And let’s not forget UCLA’s Linda Liau, a neurosurgeon who developed the first cellular vaccine for brain cancer. At 19, she had already graduated from Brown University – and then sold houses on commission to pay her way through Stanford Medical School. As you can guess, she was debt free by graduation.
Others savored more personally satisfying victories. Duke’s Kirsten Castillo and the University of North Carolina’s Ryan Carfley lauded their long-time family businesses climbing into the Inc. 5000 list of the fastest-growing firms. At Columbia Business School, Andrew Asnes helped develop a successful strategic marketing plan for Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance – where he had launched his career as a performer 25 years earlier. As the Seascapes Director at Conservation International, Laure Katz, a University of Virginia EMBA, raised $38 million dollars to protect Indonesia’s Bird’s Head Seascape, which she describes as “the single greatest reservoir of marine species on the planet.” And Emory’s Major Patrick Henson, who studied for his MBA alongside his wife Meegan, takes pride in “amazing professional accomplishments” of the members of the platoon he commanded during the Iraqi surge.
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So what drew such a dynamic and disparate group back to campus? A yearning to make an impact was one reason. “I realized I wanted to be one of the people creating and defining organizational strategy, not just implementing it,” explains the University of Minnesota’s Audrey Klein, a foundation head whose research examines treatments for alcohol and drug addiction. Virginia’s Katz echoes Klein’s reasoning, adding that she hoped an MBA would give her an authoritative voice. “I kept identifying problems in my field and saying to myself, if only I were in charge. I realized that if I wanted to help make some of the changes I thought were possible, I needed both the skills and the credibility to lead.”
For others, the decision was a concession that their window was closing. “I realized that I would have to grow up someday and learn about something other than the SEAL Teams,” says UCLA’s Dunbar. And Georgetown’s Davis considers business school to be the natural extension of her passions. “I knew I wanted to go to business school when I got more excited about Fast Company and Harvard Business Review showing up in my mailbox than People magazine. I’m a learner, I can’t help it.”
For the University of Chicago’s Omri Krigel, a former Israeli Navy Commando, an MBA degree was the culmination of a long and painful path. In a 2011 accident, he broke the vertebras in this neck. His doctors predicted he would be paralyzed from the neck down. Instead, Krigel embarked on a rigorous rehabilitation program that allowed him to eventually walk again with the aid of crutches – a “medical miracle” according to his doctors. “One of the most important rehabilitation steps for me was to re-pursue my MBA dream, as if the injury never existed,” Krigel confides.
Aside from a desire to serve and an openness to new ideas and experiences, the 2016 best and brightest EMBAs were further united by their appreciation of business school. U.C.-Berkeley’s Sally Allain says she got an immediate return from what she learned in class at her job. And the time crunch she endured came with an unexpected sliver lining. “Not having the time has forced me to make assessments and decisions at a higher view and move on them faster.” North Carolina’s Carfley found wisdom and solace through his classmates. “I have often commented that leadership can be lonely at times,” he notes. “I have truly enjoyed the camaraderie and most importantly the diversity in the perspective of the program.”
Par for the course, these EMBAs benefited from experiences that they couldn’t get anywhere else. In U.C.-Berkeley’s entrepreneurship immersion program, for example, Allain visited 28 companies in one week. “We were face-to-face with CEO’s and founders of companies in different stages from start-up to IPO,” she explains.
Now that the 2016 class have their diplomas, what advice would they share with the professionals who follow in their footsteps? Emory’s Henson warns his successors to prepare for a dose of humility. “I can be pretty competitive at work or in class, but being surrounded by such a high-performing group of peers really helped me to see the value in listening and understanding other opinions…. I have learned to value patience in decision making and being humble enough to realize that my opinion isn’t always the best one.”
At the same time, U.C.-Berkeley’s Gorenflo reminds the Class of 2018 to focus on how they use the limited time they have. “Recognize when the perfect is the enemy of the optimal.”
When all else fails, the London Business School’s Reem AlBanna encourages students to keep their wits. “Keep calm, stay grounded, take baby steps, and never stop smiling,” she advises. AlBanna also discourages the temptation to try to go it alone. “Don’t be afraid or embarrassed to put your hand up and say you need help."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to Martin Carrier as Mark Carrier.