The best and brightest MBA grads of 2015

John A. Byrne, special to

The best from the business schools

Frank Whitney | The Image Bank | Getty Images

It's a great time to be graduating from a business school. MBA hiring is at an all-time high, with nine out of 10 U.S. employers planning to hire MBAs this year. Starting salaries and bonuses are up. And the best and brightest in the Class of 2015 is an impressive lot.

These talented young professionals upend the stereotypes that MBAs are detached quants and sharp-elbowed climbers. They are former Marines, athletes, actors and lawyers. They have managed charities just as often as they've worked on Wall Street, and some have done both. And perhaps the biggest surprise of all is that women form a solid majority of the 50 most exceptional graduates on this new list from Poets&Quants, the business school resource.

You'll find these 50 MBAs hailing from locations as disparate as New Hampshire and the United Arab Emirates, with 15 students on the list born outside the United States. Although traditional powers like Harvard and Stanford are represented, you'll find plenty of MBAs on the list who are graduating from public universities, including Texas A&M, Purdue, Maryland and Minnesota.

To compile this list, Poets&Quants surveyed 60 of the top-ranked full-time global MBA programs to find those 2015 graduates who "exemplify the best of your school" as evidenced by academic prowess, leadership in extracurricular activities, personal excellence and striking personal narratives. Selected by administrators, faculty and fellow classmates, more than 100 MBA graduates were nominated.

Here are profiles of 10 of those grads. You can see the full list and story here.

—By John A. Byrne, editor-in-chief, Poets@Quants
22 May 2015

Ellen Gartner Phillips, Indiana University, Kelley School of Business

Ellen Gartner Phillips, Indiana University, Kelley School of Business
Source: Poets & Quants

How is this for a career change? In two years, Elena Gartner Phillips went from being a music teacher to being a senior consultant in strategy and operations at Deloitte Consulting's Chicago office. And this modern day viola-playing Eliza Doolittle even graduated at the top of the class! What's her secret? She just dived in and didn't listen to the naysayers. She eventually led a project team to Ghana to help entrepreneurs build a clean water system. She also earned first place at the Consulting Academy Deloitte Case Competition and was nominated by faculty to be a coach to first years. Talk about scoring one for the introverts!

Eric Johnson, the school's director of graduate career services, describes Gartner Phillips as Kelley's answer to Ronnie "Sunshine" Bass from "Remember the Titans." "Bass enters a highly competitive environment and is immediately underestimated and misunderstood. Over the course of the movie he turns out to be the best player on the Titan football team, the glue that holds the team together, and the catalyst for the team's eventual championship. Ellen is Kelley's Ronnie Bass."

For her part, Gartner Phillips encourages prospective MBA students to embrace the experience. "B-school is what you make of it, and you have to be unafraid to ask the hard questions to get ahead."

Tim O’Neil, University of Minnesota, Carlson School of Management

Tim O'Neil, Minnesota
Source: Poets & Quants

How is this for living the business school dream? Last December, Tim O'Neil's venture was featured on the front page of the Minneapolis StarTribune. Talk about a smash debut! O'Neil, a former Marine Corps infantry officer, epitomizes dedication. Commuting three hours to Minneapolis daily while raising two young children, O'Neil is known as a student who leads by example and tackles the hard challenges. No wonder his company is called Fidelis ("faithful").

Seth Werner, a senior lecturer in marketing at Carlson, considers O'Neil to be the real deal. "Tim O'Neil is a Top 50 MBA Graduate. Not just because he is an excellent student, but because he is an excellent leader…. It is easy for me to recall the many instances when Tim's question prompted a moment of enlightenment or when Tim took initiative when others were hesitant. The best part of Tim's leadership style is his unassuming manner. He leads by example, by completing, by accomplishment, by showing what success looks like."

After graduation, O'Neil plans to continue building his venture, Fidelis Co. At the same time, he looks back on his time at Carlson with a smile. "I enjoyed the camaraderie of classmates, building new friendships and deepening lifelong relationships. The opportunity to meet like-minded peers, learn from their experiences, understand their goals and ambitions as well as they mine is something that can never be undervalued."

David Fajgenbaum, Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania

David Fajgenbaum
Source: Poets & Quants

Many students come to business school with a specific purpose. David Fajgenbaum, a medical researcher and physician, enrolled at the Wharton School to learn how to better fight deadly diseases. For Fajgenbaum, it is an intensely personal struggle because Fajgenbaum himself nearly passed away from Castleman disease, which attacks the immune system. Although Fajgenbaum has created a global research network to fund promising projects, he learned that business problems ranging from poor strategy to inefficiency often doom such efforts. Now, Fajgenbaum is applying business tools and models to managing his research efforts. At Wharton, Fajgenbaum led a team whose Cure Accelerator business plan won the WBPC Social Impact Prize. And his Wharton classmates chose him to be the speaker at this year's MBA commencement. He was also named among the "Top 30 Under 30" by Forbes.

In the Wharton community, Fajgenbaum is considered an inspiration. "He has innovated the way research is done in rare diseases by building an entirely new way of managing and developing communities of researchers and patients, says June Kinney, the associate director of the health care management program at Wharton. "Many of our students have rallied around David and plan to continue working with the Castleman Network in a variety of ways. I don't think there has ever been student in our program who has had this kind of impact on so many in our community."

Fajgenhaum himself appreciates how Wharton allowed him to work on his cause as he learned "Every one of my projects I've worked on here can actually go to my nonprofit. Wharton does a great job of being flexible with the courses to let us have our projects be dedicated to our start-ups."

Robyn Peters, Texas A&M University, Mays Business School

Robyn Peters, Texas A&M
Source: Poets & Quants

Robyn Peters wondered if she belonged in a top MBA program when she stepped foot on the Mays campus. Two years later, she was valedictorian for the Class of 2015. During her two-year MBA experience, Peters volunteered to lead whenever she could, serving as a vice president for Texas A&M's chapter of the National Association of Women MBAs and the Mays Business School MBA Association. The example she set made her a natural to be both a liaison with prospective students and a class agent with alumni.

"Robyn Peters is one of those rare students who feels more like a colleague than a student," said John Krajicek, an executive professor at the school. "From the very beginning of her time here, she demonstrated strong, independent thinking, incredible drive and motivation, and genuine care for her classmates, professors and school. Robyn is a natural leader, but she doesn't simply rely on her natural talents. She works very hard to improve herself…. I am honored that she is representing Mays Business School. We couldn't have a better ambassador."

However, Peters happily admits how important others were to her success. "I enjoyed working with people of such diverse backgrounds. It is an incredibly humbling experience to work with tremendously experienced people [who] are far smarter than me. I learned just as much from my classmates as I did from my professors. There were certainly sleepless nights pushing to finish a deliverable, but it was fun and worth it because we were in it together. They are now my Aggie family.

Taylor Mallard, University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School

Taylor Mallard, UNC
Source: Poets & Quants

Entrepreneurs are those who don't rely on precedents or shy away from obstacles. Instead, they can envision a better world and have the courage to bring it to life. In that sense, Taylor Mallard is a true entrepreneur. At Kenan-Flagler, Mallard left her legacy by launching its Social Impact Summer Grants (SISG) program, which provides stipends to free up students to perform more socially conscious work. She also developed a Shark Tank competition for grade school students to expose them to business concepts at a younger age. In student government, Mallard was an executive board member and vice president of community work. She also earned several fellowships, as well as the school's Leadership Core Value Award, which honors teamwork, integrity and community work.

"Taylor Mallard is a true servant-leader and an invaluable member of the Class of 2015," said Sridhar Balasubramanian, associate dean of the MBA program and professor of marketing at Kenan-Flagler. "In her many activities, she focuses on what is best for her classmates and the school. She does not seem to even consider how all of her hard work will help her career…. Taylor is dedicated, motivated, tenacious, hardworking, thoughtful, diplomatic and caring. Each year, there are a few students who seem to have a positive impact on everything they touch, and Taylor is one of those exemplary students."

For her part, Mallard attributes diversity as one ingredient for a strong business education. "Far fewer people come from a traditional business background than what I expected. I think it's pretty natural to think that your own story is insufficient for the way it has prepared you for the challenges of an MBA, but that's simply not true. The diversity of experiences and perspectives are what makes the program exciting and enriching."

Kanika Chopra, University of Rochester, Simon Business School

Kanika Chopra, Rochester
Source: Poets & Quants

Described as a "role model," Kanika Chopra was the heart and soul of this year's MBA class at Simon. She started a buddy program in which second-year MBAs take incoming students under their wings to help them adjust to the rigors of Simon's program. As the president of the student council, she also shepherded initiatives such as Campus Bolt, a more robust course as well as a professor evaluation platform. For her efforts, Chopra received the Dean's Leadership Award and the Community Builder Award in 2014.

"It is interesting to see Kanika in action," said Karen Dowd, Simon's assistant dean for career management and corporate engagement. "She is relentless at advocating for positive change, and she does it in such a way that you are inspired to work with her. She is excellent at building relationships and partnerships… That is the essence of Kanika: selfless, enterprising, always thinking of her next move, inevitably a move that will benefit those around her."

Chopra, who is headed to Citigroup after graduation, encourages current and future MBA students to look at a big picture beyond academics. "Intangible takeaways are more important than the tangible learnings. By being in the classroom, everyone would take away the technical aspects. But it takes an extra step to make all this B-school experience worthwhile by being involved in the school, getting to know your classmates and being disciplined to the daily schedule. Every minute that I have spent at the school, I have learned something."

Naomi Johnson, Emory University Goizueta Business School

Naomi Johnson, Emory
Source: Poets & Quants

Brian Mitchell, Goizueta's associate dean, describes Naomi Johnson as "the total package." And it's hard to disagree. A former teacher for Teach for America and a verifiable poet, Johnson has embraced the business school ethos, transitioning to human resources (and a job with General Mills). Known for her advocacy and service, Johnson has served as the president of Goizueta Gives, co-president of the Human Capital Club, co-chair of the Core Values Council, and admissions chair for the Goizueta Consortium.

"I have three young daughters," Mitchell added. "I want them all to be like Naomi when they grow up!... She is an academic all-star, she actively engages the entire student community socially, her energy is limitless, and I have never seen her without a smile on her face. In the past two years, every time I have shown up to play a role with the local youth that we are privileged to serve, Naomi has been there as an organizer and a leader. I ask all of our students to consider how they will leave Goizueta a better place than they found it. Naomi has done that with her example for our first-year students, and for a host of younger kids who will impact our lives in future years."

Think all of that comes easy to someone like Johnson? Think again. "My classmates are brilliant and amazingly talented people. However, it can be difficult to effectively lead in a room full of leaders (effectively being the key word). Goizueta does a phenomenal job with ensuring that students understand that a leader = a teacher = a collaborator. It was surprising to realize how much practice is required in order for people to internalize and master this concept. Everyone had to eat a slice of humble pie."

And with practice comes patience, Johnson pointed out. "You're not going to be great at everything, and at first you may feel like you're not good at anything. But if you put one foot in front of the other, you're moving forward."

Liat Kaver, MIT Sloan School of Management

Liat Kaver, MIT
Source: Poets & Quants

Business school is a truly immersive experience. But how would you fare if you couldn't hear—and English wasn't your first language? Spanish was. Those were challenges that Liat Kaver not only confronted when she arrived on campus at MIT Sloan but triumphed over. She emerged as one of MIT Sloan's most accomplished and respected students in 2015. In addition to receiving the Dean Fellowship Award, she was also elected president of the Sloan Jewish Student Organization and leader of the Latin Business Club Cultural Function team.

"During her time here, [Liat] has been a trailblazer for students with hearing loss and a champion of diversity and inclusion more generally," said Catherine Gamon, director of student life at Sloan. '[She] is a woman who is not only defying expectations about her own capabilities but also committed to making more inclusive communities wherever she goes, empowering every member to live up to his or her full potential."

Kaver will be starting work at Google, the perfect place for committed innovators. I envision myself leading and creating breakthrough technology products that promote accessibility and inclusiveness worldwide," Kaver said. "As a woman with a disability, I'll be implementing strategies that help and encourage people with disabilities and other minorities to become productive members of the society."

Michael Martin, Harvard Business School

Michael Martin, Harvard Business School
Source: Poets & Quants

How is this for a fish-out-of-water story? A Carleton College graduate from Rockport, Indiana, heads to Harvard Business School and becomes one of the school's most decorated entrepreneurs. That's the story of Michael Martin, whose RapidSOS start-up idea has brought him multiple awards ranging from first place at the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition (worth $50,000) to being named the best mobile technology at the MIT 100K entrepreneurship competition. In addition, Martin served as co-president of the Energy and Environment Club, along with participating in the Harvard Graduate School Leadership Institute, Tech Club, Social Enterprise Club, Investment Club and the Entrepreneurship Club.

"Two things impress me most about Michael—his endless positive energy and his accountability," said Mike Murphy, associate director of MBA student and academic services at Harvard Business School. "He demonstrated over the entire year that as a leader he would accept full accountability for the decisions and activities of his club, and repeatedly got personally involved to make sure that promises were delivered upon. HBS is proud to count among its graduates such a talented entrepreneurial leader who demonstrates exemplary personal accountability. Michael will be making a difference in the world for years to come."

Martin has a message for prospective MBAs considering Harvard: Don't believe the stereotype. "I think I was most surprised by how much the culture differed from the stereotypes I had heard. I have fairly blue-collar roots and values coming from rural Indiana. I certainly knew of stereotypes of expensive trips and parties, and I pictured an elite culture where I wouldn't belong. However, that stereotype couldn't have been further from the truth. I was amazed at how little a factor social-economic background was during my two years at HBS…. The HBS Section experience is an interesting social engineering project, where it's hard not to leave with 90 new lifelong friends."

Jenny Dare Paulin, University of Southern California, Marshall School of Business

Jenny Dare Paulin, USC
Source: Poets & Quants

A Broadway actress by trade, this quintessential poet entered business school and immediately emerged as a business powerhouse. Academically, she has made the Dean's List every semester, while serving as a teaching assistant in the core global economics and global strategy courses. But it is how she has stepped up as a natural leader where Dare Paulin truly stands out. For 10 months, she led a 12-person team on the APEC Business Advisory Council research project to enhance economic growth in 21 economies, traveling as far as China, Brunei and the Philippines.

In 2013, she led a team to first place in the GE ELCP Case Competition, where Dare Paulin herself was awarded best individual presenter. She then served as lead coach for the Marshall case competition program, where she selected and personally guided 23 teams. In addition, she helped develop various leadership and development programs for future Marshall students, along with planning an event in partnership with the U.S. military's SERE School (survive, evasion, resistance and escape).

"Jenny Dare Paulin is one of the rarest of MBA students; among those I count on the fingers of a single hand, even after a 30-year career teaching business students," said Carl Voigt, professor of clinical management and organization at USC. "Two things truly distinguish her from her colleagues: First, her bone-deep conviction that MBAs can and should make the world a better place, that her efforts and the efforts of her colleagues should add up to something larger and better, for everyone. She is completely selfless in the hours she devotes to her peers, student organizations and charitable projects. Second [is] her ability to manage and leverage conflict. A sentence that I will always remember, one made in an intense, highly stressful team project situation, was this: "Criticism is only a suggestion delivered poorly."

Dare Paulin, who will remain in Los Angeles to work for Ernst & Young, has bigger goals in mind for her future. "I want to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And I want to guide that company to make a significant, positive impact on the world. I want to be a leader in redefining business toward greater global consciousness and responsibility. I want to live up to my full potential both professionally and personally."