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The Best and Brightest MBAs in the Class of 2016

Wharton's Ami Patel, one of Poets&Quants' 100 Best and Brightest MBA Grads of 2016Wharton's Ami Patel, one of Poets&Quants' 100 Best and Brightest MBA Grads of 2016
Wharton's Ami Patel, one of Poets&Quants' 100 Best and Brightest MBA Grads of 2016Courtesy of The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

Business schools are known for “rock star” professors. But Professor Trip Davis at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business never imagined he’d have a real rocker among his students. In his first class with Peter Mathias, Davis assumed he was dealing with a “harsh analyst,” due to Mathias’ serious manner and pointed questions. Little did he know that Mathias was actually the drummer for Filligar, a decorated alternative rock band that had opened for Counting Crows and traveled the globe as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department.

Notwithstanding marathon tours and recording sessions, the past two years have been a wild journey for Mathias, who will graduate from Tuck this spring with his younger brother Johnny, Filligar’s lead singer and guitarist. In fact, Peter Mathias admits that he returned to Hanover with “virtually no business mechanics, only instincts.” “I saw the limits of venture building through trial and error, admits Mathias, who spent two years growing a record label before starting business school. “I wanted to learn business from the best and brightest faculty, the equivalent to training with a master musician rather than trying to teach myself.”

And his choice quickly paid dividends. Last summer, Mathias was tapped to dispense media strategy advice to CEOs at BMG and Penguin Random House. In the process, he developed an interactive music app (Heartstring) – all while working towards a master’s degree in public administration from Harvard. “I have come to believe that the scarcest resource on Earth is someone else’s attention. Business school’s biggest lesson has been what to do with that attention once you have it.”

Grabbing attention won’t be an issue for Poets&Quants’ Best and Brightest MBAs. In fact, you could describe this year’s recipients as the rock stars of their own classes. Amid never-ending demands, these second years were the ones who were always available to organize events, tutor peers, and recruit future students. They were leaders, volunteers and problem-solvers, who started conversations, challenged conventions, rallied peers, and inspired change. Lauded for their passion, ingenuity, and humility, they were tagged with labels like the “cream of the crop” and the “total package.” Said one professor about the University of Texas’ Stephen de Man, “It is not a matter of whether he will reach his goals, as much as when he will reach them.” And that bold prediction could easily apply to the other students who comprise the 2016 Best and Brightest.

By the numbers, this year’s class could be a case study in diversity. Some 57 of the 100 members are women – a milestone considering that women traditionally represent a third of their MBA classes. They hail from 53 different MBA programs globally, representing nearly every school in Poets&QuantsTop 25 American and Top 10 International business programs (with only Harvard Business School and HEC Paris declining to participate). Nearly a third (32) of the best and brightest were born overseas, with graduates found everywhere from the blustery plains of Mitchell, South Dakota to the coastal bustle of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Not only that, but the best and brightest are nearly impossible to categorize. They came to business school from nearly every corner of life. Some started in public service. Jessica Davlin returned to Duke after working at the White House on cybersecurity issues. The University of Wisconsin’s Angie Peltzer devoted seven years to fighting child labor and human trafficking at the U.S. Department of Labor. Three graduates – Notre Dame’s Molly Burd, Wharton’s Steve Weiner, and MIT’s Brian Kirk – drove submarines before becoming MBAs. Cornell Tech’s Ian Folau earned a Bronze Star for his work as an intelligence officer in Afghanistan. And UCLA’s Britney Sussman orchestrated 15 meetings between business executives and senior Obama administration officials at the 2012 Democratic Convention.

Others made a difference through social enterprise. INSEAD’s Tan Wenyou helped cut prison recidivism in Singapore by training ex-offenders to become entrepreneurs. The London Business School’s Tom Vanneste partnered with Vodafone to finance a new maternity hospital in Tanzania. Duke’s Libby McFarlane established a nonprofit to provide mental health care to survivors of the 2015 Nepal earthquake. At Teach For America, Wharton’s Ami Patel launched a charter school in New York City and developed its writing curriculum. And the University of California-Berkeley’s Dan Fishman helped to raise over $35 million dollars for San Antonio schools.

To produce the Best and Brightest MBAs of 2016, Poets&Quants reached out to 62 of the top-ranked full-time MBA programs worldwide. Interested schools received a nomination form, where nominees outlined their academic and professional accomplishments, extracurricular involvement, along with sharing their experiences such as their favorite classes, best advice, and where they’ll be working after graduation. Schools could also include a faculty or staff recommendation to provide a deeper insight into each student’s impact. Each school was able to submit up to four nominations for students “who exemplify the best of your program” – with P&Q giving examples of “academic prowess, extracurricular involvement, personal excellence, or … a striking personal narrative” as possible factors to weigh.

P&Q received 197 submissions in March and April, with P&Q staff evaluating each nomination, paying careful attention to areas like leadership, tangible achievements, and insightfulness. Our objective was threefold. First, we wanted to recognize many of the top graduating MBAs for their excellence (along with those who helped them along the way). Second, we hoped to expose future MBAs to what it takes to become a stellar MBA student, along with sharing some of the big takeaways they gained along the way (which will be covered in a series of articles over the summer). Finally, we wanted to humanize these graduates as they head out to become the next generation of CEOs, angel investors, startup sensations, and social entrepreneurs.

Not surprisingly, these celebrated graduates were in high demand. Overall, they landed with 55 different employers. McKinsey and Deloitte hold bragging rights here, with each snagging six graduates from the best and brightest. Another 15 graduates had yet to choose an employer, while seven others planned to work at their own startups. In terms of internships, 45 graduates are heading back to the company where they spent their previous summer, compared to 25 who’ve chosen a different employer. (Another 30 graduates were launching a startup, hadn’t completed an internship, or were still weighing their options.) However, the hallmark of this group is their willingness to change. Among students who’d landed a job, 70% were switching careers from what they’d done before graduate school.

However, there was one area where the best and brightest were actually average: Student debt. Among students who reported debt and financial aid data, the 2016 class racked up $4.15 million collectively, for a $42,833 average debt per student. In fact, 33 students graduated with no debt at all, though 13 reported debt over $100,000 – including one unlucky graduate topping out at $250,000. That’s not to say business schools weren’t generous. The best and brightest amassed $3.75 million in financial aid, for an average two-year package of $39,049 (though 18 graduates actually paid full sticker price).

However, you won’t find many graduates complaining. Just 13 admitted that they would have taken a path other than business school if debt wasn’t a factor (with most choosing entrepreneurship as the alternative). More strikingly, when asked to assess their MBA experience on a scale of 1-10 (with 10 being “completely exceeded expectations”), this 2016 class gave their alma maters an average score of 9.15, with 44% of students awarding perfect scores.

That’s not to say that there weren’t any bumps along the way. Like MBAs before them, they grappled with the leap of faith – going from thriving professionals to unpaid students. Forget the idea of b-school being an academic cake walk, says Sarah Esty, who interned at McKinsey and earned a dual law degree during her time at Yale. “There are constantly problem sets due, short papers, presentations, and lots of team meeting times to do group work.” Sometimes, the late nights and time crunches caught up with even the best students. “There were times when I questioned if I had made the right decision,” admits Duke’s Davlin. “I loved the life I had before business school, so the uncertainty was unsettling. However, I held on to my faith. After some initial character building, it wasn’t long before I started realizing the personal and professional benefits of my decision to return to school.”

Others were tempted by the dizzying array of activities and opportunities prevalent in business school. And many made the classic first year mistake: Making commitments to things where they lacked the time or passion to excel. For the first times in their lives, many had to learn how to say “no,” and accept that they would occasionally miss out. “It is hard for hundreds of overachievers to collectively and individually recognize that they can’t do it all,” explains Northwestern’s Blair Pircon, an award-winning entrepreneur. “The sooner you can define what you don’t want to do during business school, the better.”

So congratulations class of 2016. Welcome to the club. If you’re a graduate, you probably share the same sentiment as MIT’s Brian Kirk: “I feel very privileged to be a part of such a stellar group of individuals and an even more impressive collective; I smile every morning when I put my Grad Rat class ring on!”

And if you’re a member of the 2018 class taking the graduating class’ place, don’t feel too intimidated, confides Carnegie Mellon’s Samantha Grant. “There’s a whole team of professors, faculty, and students who want to see you succeed.” Instead, follow the advice of Wharton’s Steve Weiner: Business school isn’t an automatic rocket ship that takes graduates to the moon. It’s more like the fuel inside the rocket. It still requires a spark to ignite … and that comes from you.”

More from Poets&Quants:

Complete List of the Best & Brightest MBAs of 2016

The 2016 Ding Report: Why Exceptional MBA Applicants Get Rejected

Average GMAT Scores For The Top 50 Business Schools