Executive MBAs helped launch the careers of these 10 C-level executives

BY Meghan MalasSeptember 02, 2021, 2:00 AM
Sylvia Bugg accepts the Lisa Quiroz Media Advancement Award during the NALIP Media Summit’s Latino Media Awards in July 2019. (Photo by Michael Kovac—Getty Images for NALIP)

Experienced professionals looking to take their career to the next level may consider applying to an executive MBA program. By allowing students to work full-time while they learn, EMBA programs also offer the opportunity to exercise business and leadership strategies alongside other seasoned professionals. 

Do these programs deliver on their promise? Fortune queried 10 executives about how their executive MBA experience helped to advance their careers. While each professional had a distinct reason for pursuing this degree in the first place, one of the more common advantages expressed was the collaboration with program peers who bring years of industry knowledge to class activities and discussions. 

Here’s what they said.

1. Ellen Johnson, CFO of Interpublic Group

“Pursuing an executive MBA was one of the best decisions I ever made,” says Ellen Johnson, who graduated from New York University Stern’s EMBA program in 1995. “All of my classmates were working while they were earning their degree, so the discussions were incredibly rich and practical, with as much learning coming from our peers as from our professors. 

“The experience was incredibly rewarding for me, and also a win for the company I was working for at the time,” adds Johnson, who was formerly with Revlon and now is the chief financial officer of Interpublic Group. “They supported the experience financially and in terms of the time I spent at the program. And in return, I committed to stay with the company for a period of time after earning my degree. I would highly recommend this path for anyone interested in furthering their studies and their career.”

2. Anthony Vitale, CIO of SF Fire Credit Union

“I went into the executive MBA program at Santa Clara University with a strong foundation in technology, and gained the ability to think holistically about all areas of business and how they intersect and support each other,” recalls Anthony Vitale, a 2011 graduate of the program and chief investment officer of SF Fire Credit Union. “This way of thinking helped propel me into an executive role where I can speak confidently about leveraging technology to achieve business objectives at a broad level.”

3. Dr. Dawn Walton, vice president of medical affairs, Holy Cross Hospital

“I was making a transition from clinical medicine to leadership, and this program has changed the way I approach problem-solving and given me opportunities to advance my career in health care,” says Dr. Dawn Walton, who pursued an EMBA degree at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business. “I finished the EMBA and started my role one month before the first coronavirus cases in Maryland. 

“I’ve been amazed—I use skills I gained in the program every single day, from ethics issues to global supply-chain issues to employee satisfaction and negotiation skills,” notes Walton, the vice president of medical affairs at Holy Cross Hospital. “It was so valuable to have a cohort representing many industries to share their experiences. Honestly, they were an incredibly amazing group of people.”

4. Alex Attumalil, deputy chief information security officer at Under Armour

“I was attracted to the Smith EMBA program’s ranking, and the faculty reputation was another big asset,” says Alex Attumalil, another graduate of the University of Maryland. “I wanted professors who were in tune with real world needs and applications. The professors were always open to taking time to talk, not just in class but outside of class. I still email professors now if I have a question.

“The program put all the pieces together in a way that was really an eye-opener for me,” adds Attumalil, deputy chief information security officer at Under Armour. “It filled the knowledge gap. I also appreciated my cohort. We started as a team and graduated as a family.” 

5. Sylvia Bugg, chief programming executive and general manager of general audience programming, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)

“I chose the Smith EMBA program because it was an opportunity for me to gain a top-tier education from an institution that included personalized executive coaching,” says Sylvia Bugg, another graduate of the University of Maryland. “One of the most helpful aspects was the commitment to growing students’ leadership skills and capacity. 

“Executive coaching was immensely helpful for me as I was exploring career growth and leadership opportunities,” notes Bugg, the chief programming executive and general manager of general audience programming at PBS. “The sense of camaraderie, faculty support, and learning environment were worth the time and investment.”

6. Monica Lee Foley, chief of staff, NASA’s Johnson Space Center

“The MIT executive MBA program affords deep study of the confluence of scientific theory and proven business practice,” says Monica Lee Foley, a NASA physicist and chief of staff at the Johnson Space Center who attended Sloan. “Experience has proven that there is a small group that can do the math and an even smaller group that can apply it for problem-solving; those that can do both are yet even fewer. MIT Sloan produces the student who can do both.”

7. Van Gurley, president and chief executive officer, Metron

“The MIT EMBA program gave me the knowledge and skills necessary to take over the leadership of a growing 35-year-old technology company on the founder’s exit and reignite its growth from a small to mid-tier business,” says Van Gurley, another graduate of MIT Sloan. “The program accelerated my journey from active-duty military to private business executive to C-suite to CEO in just six years.

“I entered the EMBA program confident in my leadership and management skills based on a prior 26-year career in the military, but conscious that I knew very little about the actual business of running a business,” adds Gurley, the president and CEO of Metron. “By the end of the program, I was surprised at how much I had grown in the areas where I knew I was weak and also in the areas—leadership, management, strategy—where I thought I was already strong.” 

8. Sean Jennings, executive vice president and chief technology officer, UnitedLex

“My primary driver for entering the EMBA program was to function more effectively inside a large enterprise, which was unfamiliar territory for a serial entrepreneur,” says Sean Jennings, who began MIT’s EMBA program after his fourth startup, Virtustream, was acquired by EMC. “Those new skills absolutely enhanced my career at EMC and, later, at Dell. 

“I was surprised, too, to develop new perspectives on innovation and entrepreneurship inside established companies,” notes Jennings, adding that he now uses the insights developed in Sloan’s active learning curriculum every day as the chief technology officer of UnitedLex. “I lead a team that is disrupting how corporate legal departments serve enterprises across the globe by becoming first-class digital citizens.” 

9. Jawad Ahsan, CFO, Axon

“The biggest thing I gained from my EMBA was confidence,” says Jawad Ahsan, a 2014 graduate from MIT Sloan’s program. “MIT is academically rigorous, and my classmates were super accomplished. It was intimidating at first, but I realized that if I could hold my own at this school with these peers, I could hold my own anywhere. 

“This confidence has been invaluable to me as CFO of a publicly traded tech company,” says Ahsan, who works for Axon. “It also inspired me to share my views on leadership in my first published book, which became an Amazon bestseller and in turn led to my first appointment on a board of directors.”

10. Nick Triantos, founding partner, NextStep Ventures

“I was a tech exec at a large company, but I wanted to grow beyond tech,” recalls Nick Triantos, who graduated from the EMBA program at the University of California Berkeley—Haas in 2006, and was working as a vice president and chief software architect of Nvidia at the time. “My executive MBA has given me the breadth of skills I needed to take on two different CEO roles since, and I’m now a general partner at a venture capital firm. 

“People sometimes talk about taking a right turn after business school, but my executive MBA was more of a sharp turn up, rather than right,” adds Triantos, the founding partner of NextStep Ventures. 

See how the schools you’re considering fared in Fortune’s rankings of the best executive, full-time, and online MBA programs.