On the surface, Kasese is heaven on Earth. Nestled in western Uganda along the equator, Kasese is home to peaceful grasslands, glistening lakes and towering waterfalls. Here, tourists take safaris through Queen Elizabeth National Park to witness lions, elephants, and gorillas in their natural habitats. Others hike the Bukurungu Trail, scanning the never-ending horizon from the snow-capped Rwenzori Mountains.
It is here where Father Arthur Joseph Ssembajja tends to his Catholic ministry, a place he says is “drowning in poverty, disease, cultural tensions, and poorly distributed resources.” To better their lives, many of his parishioners – particularly women – are beginning to band together to form business ventures. That creates a conundrum for Father Ssembajja.
“These people constantly come up with these brilliant ideas without the slightest idea of how to implement them, manage them for productivity, and maintain them for sustainability,” he tells Poets&Quants. “The major reason for this gap is a lack of knowledge in the proper formation of these concepts, their management and administration. It is at this point in time that these people turn to ‘their priest’ for advice and guidance. Unfortunately, the priest is also equally unknowledgeable in the field of business management and administration.”
This realization has led Father Ssembajja to a most unexpected path: earning his MBA at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business. His mission is founded on a passage from scripture: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” That starts with opening a microfinance platform for his diocese. “A complete life is a life built in the mind, the hands and the heart,” he explains. “As a Catholic priest, I preach to people’s hearts. With the MBA, I will enrich their minds and empower their hands.”
Father Ssembajja is just one of this year’s “go-getters” from the MBA Class of 2021 (see Meet The MBA Class of 2021). MBA applications at the top schools are down for the second consecutive year, but it hasn’t stopped truly exceptional students from studying business. They are leaving jobs at Google, McKinsey, Goldman Sachs and Amazon to pursue their visions. In the process, they are sacrificing two years of pay and career advancement so they can do more and be more in the future. Each year, Poets&Quants profiles such MBA students from the most renowned business schools. Like Father Ssembajja, this class doesn’t fall into the stereotype of deeply privileged and connected wunderkinds looking to stake their claim to the c-suite. Instead, some of this year’s most promising MBAs hail from fields like teaching, theater, public service, professional sports, aeronautics and medicine.
How unconventional are these MBA candidates? Take the Wharton School’s Andrew Crane. Boasting a Master’s in Mechanical Engineering from Brown University, he joins the Class of 2021 after becoming a professional brewer and volunteer firefighter in his boyhood hometown. UCLA’s Ariana Cernius is a published author and attorney looking to learn, among other things, how to better provide more functional and affordable housing for the developmentally disabled. Before Columbia Business School, Katy Obr served as a senior development executive for a British television and film production company. She isn’t the only member of the class with a firm footing in the arts. Washington University’s Alexandra Ignatius is former professional ballet dancer – a role that prepared her for communications positions at Edelman and Ogilvy.
“The qualities I learned from ballet—the constant pursuit of excellence, discipline and teamwork—have made me a great businesswoman,” she explains. “I spent days and weeks rehearsing, analyzing and rethinking behind-the-scenes, so that when the curtain went up and I had my brief moment with the audience—in a boardroom now, rather than a theater—I could have maximum effect.”
That’s not the only unexpected background from this year’s class. Columbia Business School’s Kristin Jantzie is a former Rockette at Radio City Music Hall, where she performed alongside her identical twin. Before joining the University of Washington’s MBA program, Devin Doyle played Aaron Carter, a singer with The Backstreet Boys, on a cable TV show. HEC Paris’ Léa Urien studied opera at the French Music Conservatory, while Wharton’s Peixin Mo was a belly dancer in her college troupe.
And how is this for a dichotomy? “I spent 6 years in the military jumping out of planes,” writes Georgia Tech’s Marcus Harmon, “but I am afraid of roller coasters.”
The class is equally accomplished as it is diverse. Look no further than Duke University’s Jackie Callahan. In the U.S. Navy, she oversaw maritime operations for 25 warships in the Middle East, including counter-smuggling and warship transit through points like the Strait of Hormuz. IESE’s Alix Chausson notched the [email protected] UK Award in 2017, an honor given to individuals who produce results through innovation. Looking for starpower? Wharton’s Stephanie McCaffrey is a former member of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team before turning pro. That pales in comparison to what Jeremy Leung achieved as head of policy for the American Australian Business Council. After tariffs were slapped on aluminum and steel imports by the United States, he managed to get President Trump to reconsider his position.
“I responded on behalf of the AABC by writing a letter to the President from our CEO members led by prominent Australian businessman Andrew Liveris, former Chairman and CEO of Dow Chemicals,” the University of Michigan MBA explains. “The letter outlined the strong bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Australia and asked President Trump to reconsider the tariffs. I also asked former professional golf player and prominent Australian Greg Norman to make a personal phone call to President Trump to reinforce our message. The next day, we were pleasantly surprised by announcement by President Trump that Australia would be exempt from these proposed aluminum and steel tariffs.”
These MBA candidates may be impressive as individuals, but they’ll be unstoppable as group. Elizabeth Breiter, for one, describes her Harvard Business School classmates as dynamic. “A mentor once told me a good conversation is like a dance,” she writes. “My classmates at HBS have the ability to skillfully dance the tango, east coast swing, and ballroom all in one conversation. They effortlessly glide through numerous topics with an agility to delve into deep, thought-provoking conversations while maintaining an openness to go off beat and challenge their assumptions through their growth mindset.”
Emilija Davidovic, an Accenture consultant and University of Toronto first-year, assigns a different quality to her classmates: multifaceted. “I’ve met scientists, engineers, and classmates who’ve worked in NGOs around the world. There’s no “traditional” MBA candidate at Rotman, and that’s what I love about the program – you can learn from every single one of your peers.”
For Chain Vayakornvichit, a product marketer from Thailand, it requires a special kind of person – “focused but open” – to take a leap of faith, invest in themselves, and return to school. “At the same time, they have to wrestle with the uncertainty of where this path will take them,” the New York University MBA candidate adds. “These two factors are why I think the classmates I have met come in with a particular story, a particular idea of where they want to be at the end of the line, but they remain open to possibilities.”
More than that, they understand the commitment required. Just ask Caroline Green, a U.S. Air Force Major and Internal Medicine Physician. During her residency, she remembers grousing about how “those in charge” didn’t seemingly care about how physicians view medical care. Her mentor replied that “We have only ourselves to blame. Physicians gave up their seats at the table.” Now, Green hopes to someday return to the table as a medical director. Her next step towards that is joining the MBA Class of 2021 at the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business.
“The only way to help push for systemic change is to reclaim my seat to advocate for both doctors and patients,” she says. “Learning the language of business will help me do that.”