The Class of 2020 won’t enjoy their ‘moment’ this spring. Come May, these business majors won’t bask in the applause after collecting their degrees. There won’t be grand speeches or impromptu hugs. For them, this spring will be a lost semester with so much left undone.
Seems fitting. After all, the senior class was born into a world at war and grew up amid a financial collapse. Now, they watch as a pandemic sweeps away their opportunities. After every upheaval, some people step up to drive recovery and restoration. Make no mistake: this class will be the one who rise to these demands. After all, they have been wrestling with adversity from the beginning. They will be the catalysts who inspire action, the innovators who unleash talent, and the dreamers who scrap their vision into reality. They may miss the pomp and circumstance, but their best moments have yet to come.
PITT GRAD IS SEEMINGLY EVERYWHERE AT ONCE
That’s particularly true for this year’s Best & Brightest Business Majors, seniors who differentiated themselves through their academic excellence, extracurricular leadership, innate potential, and personal character. This year’s class features students from all walks of life: elite athletes, social activists, military veterans, and company founders. Despite insanely busy schedules, these forces of nature are always there for others, to lend help and lead by example. In the end, they are the students who’ll be remembered, the ones who left their schools better than they found them.
They include students like the University of Pittsburgh’s Sarah Braza, a Deloitte hire known for always saying “Yes” to opportunities presented to her. Why else would she take on a triple major? In the process, she has traveled to Vietnam and Spain as part of school projects – and held leadership posts in her sorority and student organizations. Not surprisingly, Braza has racked up an enviable stream of awards and scholarships at Pitt. Still, these aren’t the reason why she was nominated to be a Best & Brightest. Instead, her legacy involves a rare virtue she brought to her class. She is, in the words of her professors, an “elevator” and “includer” who brings out the best in those around her.
“A great student does not only improve his or her own knowledge base as part of the course but elevates the class as a whole,” explains Kaushik Mitra, a clinical assistant professor. “Through her interactions, she acts as the catalyst in the classroom that transforms it into a vibrant, powerful learning platform.”
“IF HE DID IT, WHY CAN’T I?”
You could say the same about Deven Rodriguez, a St. John’s University Management major who once ran a 105-mile ultramarathon. Inside class, Rodriguez boasts a perfect GPA and led a dozen classmates to Los Angeles for a week of service. Outside the Tobin College of Business, he is an ROTC Battalion Commander who’ll serve as a 2nd Lieutenant after graduation. In fact, he ranked among the top three Army ROTC cadets in its annual merit list, which is based on physical fitness, school performance, and leadership competencies. He also completed the U.S. Army Airborne School, a rigorous 21-day jump course. Not only did Rodriguez earn his airborne wings, but he was named “Honor Graduate” – or “essentially ranking #1 out of 361 soldiers/cadets at the course.”
Rodriguez wasn’t pushing his limits to simply pad his resume, however. Instead, he views his achievements as a platform to inspire others to imagine themselves in roles that they see as beyond their capabilities. “All my life I have never been the smartest, fastest, or most naturally gifted,” he admits. “For a while, I used that as a crutch to explain why I couldn’t be like “them.” I’m referring to the people who did extraordinary things on a regular basis. It was only once I stopped limiting myself by putting titles on others that I started to see that I didn’t have to have any natural ability whatsoever to be like them…I want [these honors] to be the beacon of light for other cadets and students. I want others to think, “Well if he did it, why can’t I?”
Braza and Rodriguez won’t be alone in leaving big shoes to fill after graduation. Take Miami University’s Laura Mena. She uplifts her peers – and the larger community – through entrepreneurship. Last spring, she co-founded one of the country’s first student-led undergraduate social impact funds. As chairman of the Red Dress Gala, which supports women’s heart health, she raised $30,000 – a 150% improvement over the previous year. In addition, Mena took on the role of co-managing director of the RedHawk Ventures – where she manages 20 people in the school’s $300K seed-stage VC fund. Her goal for her senior year? Raise $1.5 million dollars…and she is on track to do just that.
Sure enough, Mena has grabbed attention beyond the Farmer School of Business. Over the past two years, she has been named a Cincy Inno 25 Under 25, which honors innovators in the Cincinnati area’s tech and startup ecosystem. “Laura is full of energy and passion, a true leader in every sense of the word,” observes Tim Holcomb, who heads up the school’s John W. Altman Institute for Entrepreneurship. “Not only has she made the most of her educational experience in the classroom, but she also has actively engaged in a variety of practice-based, co-curricular programs to create a better educational experience for herself and her fellow classmates.”
STUDENT REPRESENTATIVES FROM THE TOP BUSINESS SCHOOLS
Since 2016, Poet&Quants has honored 100 of these students who majored in business-related fields. This year, P&Q invited business schools from the top 50 undergraduate business school ranking to submit two students who fit the Best & Brightest profile. Overall, this year’s students include 60 women and 40 men. In addition, 46 of the Top 50 programs submitted representatives for the Best & Brightest. Among the Top 25, just the University of Texas and the College of William & Mary declined to participate; they were replaced by the University of California-Berkeley and Ohio State University.
The Best & Brightest reflects far more than making the dean’s list or landing jobs with Google or Goldman Sachs. Some command a room and bind people together with the infectious energy they exude. Others operate in the shadows, never missing a detail on tasks that classmates take for granted. As relentless as they are fearless, the Best & Brightest are always pushing and never satisfied. Still, they’ll go out of their way to make time for others. From first-generation grinders to heartland homesteaders, they are the consciences of their classes. When the time comes, they will say, in the immortal words of Notre Dame’s Bruce Morris, “I will help out wherever I’m needed!”
That includes working as residence directors, teaching assistants, and research assistants – or leading orientations, panels, or task forces for that matter. Caitlyn Lubas, for one, has mentored over 150 students during her time at New York University. Her classmate, Aldo Gonzalez Aragon, rose to editor-in-chief of the school’s undergraduate newspaper, The Gould Standard. Think those are hectic schedules? Try being Liam Walsh. At Carnegie Mellon, he balances a full load with being a teaching assistant in five – five! – classes.
CREATING CAMPAIGNS THAT GET RESULTS
You’ll also find the Best & Brightest volunteering heavily in their fields…and their communities. Look no further than the University of Washington’s Jackie Yeh, a business major with an eye towards dental school. Three years ago, she spent over 50 hours shadowing two dentists to learn how to better serve fearful and developmentally disabled patients. She clocked a similar number of hours tutoring economically disadvantaged students in chemistry. At the same time, she helped dentists provide care to homeless residents in the Seattle area. Yeh even put her marketing skills to the test as an intern at Everyone for Veterans, a nonprofit where she connected over 50 dentists with combat veterans. Her work also impressed the American Dental Association, which featured Everyone for Veterans on the front page of its website and newsletter.
Sometimes, the Class of 2020 contributed directly from the classroom. In his capstone course at Georgia Tech, Jason Quill’s team partnered with Caterpillar for nine months. The result? “We were able to fully analyze Caterpillar’s value chain to deliver over $13 million in present value cost savings,” he explains. In her Marketing Management course at Babson College, Haley Pesce’s team produced a campaign for the school’s “Amnesty Policy” – a safe haven when a student calls Public Safety to help a classmate “incapacitated’ by drugs and alcohol.
“The campaign became called “I Call Because I Care” and re-framed the thinking of students from “amnesty” to “care,” thereby encouraging calls to Public Safety based on friendship and concern,” explains Sandy Bravo, a lecturer at Babson. “Haley and two other students presented the campaign to the clients…As the client, Ryan Travia, put it….Haley’s team “knocked it out of the park!”… She showed great compassion, creativity, marketing expertise, resiliency, and a drive for excellence. This policy will be part of her legacy to the Babson community.”
FROM “CRAZY IDEA” TO THRIVING VENTURE
Their legacies may also hinge on the companies they start. At Cornell University, Samay Bansal is operating Million Meals Mission, which has supplied meals to the underprivileged in India, Cambodia, and Madagascar. His classmate, Jessica Tao, co-founded PediCure, a patented toenail trimmer for people who cannot reach their toes. The experience, she says, has produced its share of highs and lows. For her, it has been the pursuit itself that has made the effort so worthwhile.
“We have grown from a crazy idea, just on PDFs and paper, to having a working prototype and gaining the support of the National Science Foundation, NY State Department of Health, and Cornell University,” she points out. “Our company has pitched at the NYC World Trade Center and we’ve interviewed with venture capitalists at the age of 21. I love to reflect on these milestones, but I also appreciate the messy middle; from being belittled by lawyers who didn’t take my female co-founder and I seriously, or stressful late nights to meet a patent deadline, entrepreneurship has taught me to embrace uncertainty and be fearless.”
Some Best & Brightest simply rise to the occasion. That was the case with Samantha Maryann Stevons. In 2019, she won the “Best Pitch” award in the Innovation Challenge Case Competition. It was a major step for the Michigan State student, who didn’t consider herself to be an “expert coder.” In fact, she would describe herself as an “incomplete puzzle” who didn’t know how to put her pieces together. Still, she made a leap of faith with a four-member team, absorbing their technical knowledge as she tutored them on effective presentations. The result? The team came away with first place – and a monetary award along with it.
“I felt accomplished,” she says. “I learned to never be afraid of an opportunity to grow even if it seems far-fetched because you will never know what you will benefit from it.”
GOING AROUND THE WORLD
The same could be said about adversity. Just ask Jordyn Elliott. Recruited to play women’s soccer at U.C.-Berkeley, she started off being redshirted before tearing her ACL…twice. After that, many athletes would hang up their cleats. Not Elliott. She doubled down and worked even harder. The result? She made team captain and earned the team’s Leadership of a Champion as a senior. That same grit can be found in Notre Dame’s Bruce Leonard Morris. His dream was making it onto the school’s legendary Marching Band. Just one problem: he played the bass clarinet – for seven years, no less – an instrument that doesn’t even exist at the collegiate level. In response, Morris spent the summer before freshman year learning the trombone. Three years later, he had emerged as a CORE Band Leader.
“Learning a brass instrument at a proficient level in two months after years of woodwind conditioning parallels trying to train a monkey to win Jeopardy: possible, yes – but extremely challenging. After countless hours of practice, learning an entirely new language of notes, developing muscles in my face which I didn’t know existed, and one noise complaint…I still managed to botch my music audition. Combined with a positive attitude, reception to constructive criticism, and the marching audition, I earned my spot in a long line of trombones.”
As business students, many Best & Brightest sought out adventure. When she wasn’t studying at Villanova, Julia Snitzer was taking classes in London and Cape Town – even interning for an advertising agency, packaged goods manufacturer, and even an airline union. Outside the Wharton School, Katherine Ku spent over two months on an archaeological dig in Turkey. Then again, the University of Wisconsin’s Jenna Scheffert shipped out to Paris to study fashion management, Hong Kong to brush up on finance, and Brussels to practice her media skills in the U.S. Mission to the European Union.
To read in-depth profiles of 100 of the Best & Brightest business majors, go to pages 3-4.