Aruna Sriraman doesn’t look like your traditional MBA. She wears a distinctive bow-tie with streaks of teal cascading through her hair. And she didn’t start her career as a banker or marketer, either. Chances are, you’re familiar with her work though. Before joining the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, Sriraman was gamer-turned-designer whose fingerprints are all over popular Zynga games like Farmville and Mafia Wars.
She describes her role then as “sneakily putting complex narratives into simple games.” However, it wasn’t Sriraman’s command of coding that made her one of Poets&Quants’ Best & Brightest MBAs of the year. Instead, it was her impact that rippled across the Class of 2019 – and beyond. For example, she led Rotman’s LGBT and Gaming clubs, platforms she used to launch a Diversity & Inclusion Case Competition in partnership with Bain & Company and the Bank of Montreal. However, her best moments came during coffee chats or quick responses to people struggling to find their identity, says Neel Joshi, who heads student and international experience at Rotman.
That doesn’t mean Sriraman shies away from the spotlight; she just knows when to pick her spots. “You are worth being a voice at the table,” she says. “I explained that I know the feeling of having to speak louder and perform better just to be recognized as an equal. I know that calling out toxic cultures and behaviors will likely come back to bite me. But I have realized that once I earn the respect of my peers, it is truly worth the negative consequences. I will never allow anyone to silence me again.”
You won’t find many “silent” students among this year’s 100 Best & Brightest MBAs. Like Sriraman, these second-years turn talk into action. They stood out among their peers, strong-willed self-starters who led by example, broke new ground, and ultimately brought out the best in those around them. This year, P&Q received 243 nominations from 67 MBA programs for inclusion in the Best & Brightest. The schools ranged from powerhouses like Stanford, Wharton, and INSEAD to upstarts like Babson College, McGill, and Wisconsin.
Candidate submissions were judged by P&Q editorial according to three criteria: extracurricular activities, academic and professional achievements, and the insightfulness of the responses. Overall, 56 candidates were women, with another 34 hailing from outside the United States. As undergrads, they majored in everything from Astrophysics to Political Science. Come summer, you’ll find them spearheading major projects at the likes of McKinsey, Google, JP Morgan Chase, and Boeing.
Their ranks include the Yale School of Management’s Nate Silver. Before starting his MBA, he worked in theater, even serving as the associate director for 2015 Tony-nominated play Disgraced – when he wasn’t managing the finances and operations for the Jackalope Theatre Company, that is. His classmate, Vito Errico, came to New Haven from the Pentagon, where he served as an assistant executive officer to the U.S. Army’s CFO and a special assistant to the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. When Naila Kassam isn’t taking MBA courses at Ivey Business School, she is teaching medicine to physician trainees. If you’re looking for impact, Ohio State’s Neethi Johnson fits the bill…and then some. When she joined her family business seven years ago, it was generating $5 million dollars a year. After leading several acquisitions, the company recently topped out at $100 million dollars.
This year’s Best & Brightest MBAs didn’t shy away from shouldering real responsibility, either. Take the University of Notre Dame’s Charlotte Pekoske. In the U.S. Coast Guard, she was the Chief of Law Enforcement in the Key West sector, where her team rescued 8,100 migrants at sea. Compare that to Warwick Business School’s Sandhya Ramula. Starting out at Ernst & Young, she managed a team of 20 in Bangalore. In her first 18 months, she tripled her function’s business growth. Soon enough, she was leading three teams and 400 full-time employees!
Like those numbers? Here’s one you won’t forget: $100 million dollars. That’s how much MIT’s Janelle Heslop saved New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection on a long-term transformation project she led as a consultant. Working in crowdfunding, Louis Williams – a cage fighter outside IESE Business School – generated £10mn of capital for 20 start-ups. At the same time, Jennifer Bae will be re-joining Deloitte Consulting after graduating from UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Why not? Before earning her MBA, she had developed a learning program that was rolled out worldwide in her practice.
That momentum didn’t stop when the Best & Brightest stepped onto campus. At the University of Florida, Chris Salinas, a partially-disabled veteran who helped to build Saudi Arabia’s equivalent to the Coast Guard, brought General Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the business school to speak about leadership. In contrast, Ashley Brown decided to leverage her classmates at Duke University. As President of the Black and Latino MBA Association, she partnered with the undergraduate Black in Business Club to provide mentoring and career guidance to their younger peers. MIT’s Eilon Shalev took this formula even further. Alongside four faculty members, he founded a campus-wide Blockchain Lab. Here, 60 students gained field experience on everything from software prototyping to AI algorithms by working on projects from top firms like the Boston Consulting Group and Fidelity Labs.
What made these Best & Brightest MBAs so successful? Many times, they had great role models. That was the case for New York University’s Lia Winograd. An entrepreneur with a thriving women’s apparel line, she learned from her paternal grandfather, who immigrated to Colombia to escape the Holocaust. Over the decades, he built a factory business that supported hundreds of Jewish families.
“I believe that most of the best entrepreneurs out there have to be immigrants like my grandfather,” Winograd explains. “When you have nothing and you step into a new country, your instinct for survival forces you to be creative and identify market gaps to find a place for yourself. His story inspires me every day, and I know even in the days when I’m financially challenged, I’ll push through and figure out a way to succeed.”
For Georgetown University’s Susi Eckelmann, her mom set the example. In elementary school, she returned to graduate school. The family quickly became “all hands on deck,” with everyone pulling extra weight as she commuted four hours to class. Her mother’s determination left an impression on Eckelmann as she pondered furthering her own education
“Education was a gift, and it took sacrifice,” she says. “Going back to graduate school may have felt disruptive and difficult, but I have an inspiring role model who made it seem possible.”
It may be disruptive, but it is also transformative. That’s how Marcus Morgan views the MBA experience. According to this Dartmouth grad, “If any of us leave here the same as when we arrived, we’ve all failed each other.” Based on the 180 degree turns made by many Best & Brightest, you won’t find many who feel they’ve failed.
For Wharton’s Medora Brown, the biggest change has been in how she approaches being a leader. “In the first couple months of school, most of my “leadership” involved herding large groups of classmates (i.e., I could shout louder than most people),” she admits. “However, over time, as I have taken on more leadership positions, I have begun to figure out what it means to organize, motivate, and lead by example (and not just by decibel level).”
On the surface, Geoffrey Calder’s epiphany may seem simplistic: Grit trumps brains. Over his time at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, he saw this truth crop up time-and-time again – and it profoundly shaped his outlook.
“It has become clear after attending seminars with dozens (maybe hundreds?) of investors, entrepreneurs, and business leaders that what separates the “winners” from the “losers” isn’t intelligence,” he explains. “Rather, it’s passion and perseverance. It isn’t as romantic, but you’d rather be hardworking than smart. Set aggressive goals, seek feedback, practice, and push through adversity!”
For ESADE’s Frederick Gifford, the biggest takeaway can be summed up in one word: Confidence. “I’ve always loved ambiguity, but I think I saw certain parts of the business sphere as out of bounds for me. The MBA filled many gaps I had where this might have been true, but also shined a light on areas where this probably wasn’t true. It’s been transformative because I feel ready to tackle anything.”
To read 100 in-depth profiles of the Best & Brightest MBAs of 2019, click here.
John A. Byrne is editor-in-chief of PoetsandQuants.com, the leading website covering business schools. He is also the former executive editor of Businessweek and former EIC of Fast Company.