Business Students Most Admire A New Generation of Leaders

Most Admired By Business Undergrads: Starbucks' Howard Schultz (top left), Apple's Angela Ahrendts, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg (bottom left), Tesla's Elon Musk, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and PepsiCo's Indra Nooyi

Most Admired By Business Undergrads: Starbucks’ Howard Schultz (top left), Apple’s Angela Ahrendts, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg (bottom left), Tesla’s Elon Musk, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi

Every generation has its heroes. Twenty years ago, business students gravitated towards Jack Welch, Bill Gates, and Sam Walton. They were oracles and problem-solvers who set the bar and personified their era. Today, undergrads are patterning themselves after a new generation of business icons. And they aren’t the command-and-control number crunchers of the past.

Instead, they dirty their hands by tackling the big issues. They overcome setbacks, defy odds, break down barriers, and open doors. Passionate and purpose-driven, they are teachers, advocates, and servants who understand their true shareholders are the global community. Many of these difference-makers are household names like Elon Musk, Sheryl Sandberg, and Salman Khan. But business majors are also finding role models among authors, chefs, and parents whose values and vision speak to their ideals.

Recently, Poets&Quants honored 50 business majors as the “best and brightest” from the Class of 2016. Selected by their schools, these students distinguished themselves by their academic performance, extracurricular leadership, personal character, and innate potential. As part of their nomination, these undergraduates revealed the executives and entrepreneurs they most admired. While the names were intriguing, their reasoning provided some real insight into what makes the next generation of business leaders tick.


Most notably, these top students value leaders who devote their resources to helping the less fortunate. Several say they are inspired by the reinvented Bill Gates, Microsoft founder turned global philanthropist who has emerged as this age’s answer to John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie. The University of Michigan’s Reetika Purohit, who’ll be joining Goldman Sachs this summer, acknowledges Gates’ imprint – asserting that “even today, no computers can run without Microsoft’s software systems and products.” However, she wonders if his philanthropy will someday be his biggest legacy. “His philanthropic work across the world in third-world countries for water and sanitation and providing vaccines highlights the importance of remembering how immeasurable the intrinsic reward is of helping those in need.”

When it comes to social good, Starbucks’ Howard Schultz also comes to mind for students. Georgetown’s Vaibhav Agarwal, a future member of JP Morgan’s mergers and acquisitions group, appreciates how Schultz has the courage to spark conversations about social justice. “Schultz has embodied the idea of “conscious capitalism,” that social engagement doesn’t have to come at the expense of corporate profitability,” Agarwal writes “His unconventional and often controversial approach has redefined the roles and responsibilities of corporations in the public forum and has paved the way for other executives to leverage their platforms towards a more open discussion and future social progress.”

Malala Yousafzai

Malala Yousafzai

Of course, some of the best leaders aren’t necessarily the conventional choices. Boston University’s Emily Tillo lists Malala Yousafzai, a teenage Pakistani activist who was nearly murdered by the Taliban for her beliefs, as both a professional and personal inspiration. “I consider [Yousafzai] to a social entrepreneur because of everything she’s done to push for universal education rights and for her efforts in creating the Malala Fund, which invests in educational opportunities for young girls. After reading her autobiography, I Am Malala, I was amazed at her maturity, fearlessness, and passion for learning. Her story helped me appreciate the value of my education and caused me to reflect upon how fortunate I am to live in a country that celebrates, rather than condemns, knowledge.”


The Class of 2016 also lionized several leaders who defy convention and break the rules. Virgin’s Richard Branson was one leader who captured the imagination of students. “I love the fact that he isn’t afraid to be a contrarian,” writes Boston College’s Claudio Quintana, a risk-taker himself who started his first company at 13.

Tesla's Elon Musk

Tesla’s Elon Musk

Risk also endeared Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to Cara Grandstaff of the University of Florida.  “Bezos [left] a comfortable, steady career to take a huge risk as an entrepreneur. I also greatly admire him because even through his huge successes, he has remained incredibly humble.”

“Humble” is a quality sometimes applied to the most popular business leader among the Class of 2016: Elon Musk. In fact, he seemingly embodies the Millennial craving to take chances and make a difference. “I respect his courage and willingness to see problems from a completely different way than anyone else has ever done,” explains Stetson Starkey, a North Carolina University who, like Musk, enjoys solving complex problems. “His willingness to take huge risks in order to achieve global goals encourages me to dream big as well.”

From Listening to William and Mary’s George Rudebusch, you quickly realize that Musk’s drive and and imagination is also contagious. “His ingenuity is inspiring. His leadership is one-of-a-kind. His ambition is unmatched. He has founded six organizations, three of which have revolutionized (or created) its industry. He currently sits at the helm of two multi-billion dollar organizations. And he’s not even 45 years old. I turn toward his drive and work ethic when I am in need of a bit of motivation. What I appreciate most about him is the way he lives his life: no minute is wasted; no opportunity is left unpursued.”


Liz Myers

Liz Myers

Musk isn’t the only leader setting the right example. At Japan Airlines, CEO Haruka Nishimatsu establishes a culture of trust by getting to know his employees personally. Even more, writes the University of Illinois’ Monica Chen, he is an executive who truly walks the walk. “His loyalty to the company, like taking pay cuts to match everyone else’s for example, is the type of leadership that I respect and aspire to embody in the future.”

For the graduating class, maybe the most key to success was finding a positive mentor willing to devote some time and attention to them. And Cornell’s Ashini Ganesalingam experienced just that during her internship at J.P. Morgan when she worked for Liz Myers, the firm’s head of Global Equity Capital Markets. While Myers’ resume would automatically command respect, it was her demeanor that warranted reverence. “She is one of the women who have reached the top senior ranks on Wall Street because of her passion, skill, and humility,” Ganesalingam writes. “I was impressed by not only how she led the team, but also how invested she was in everyone’s personal growth, including the interns.”

Five Most Admired Business Leaders Today

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Business Leader Claim To Fame
1. Elon Musk Serial Entrepreneur & Founder of Tesla Motors
2. Bill Gates Co-Founder of Microsoft & Global Philanthropist
3. Steve Jobs Co-Founder of Apple
4. Sheryl Sandberg Chief Operating Officer of Facebook & Author of Lean In
5. Indra Nooyi Chairperson & CEO of PepsiCo

Source: Poets&Quants’ survey of top undergraduate business students

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