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The Next Step: How the Stern EMBA experience changed our lives

The Oppy is proud to continue ‘The Next Step,’ a new monthly series that will feature recent graduates who’ve made exciting moves after Stern. We hope that their stories will inspire you and excite you about what’s next.  

By Mambu Sherman, Christian McKenzie, Jay Freeman, Broderick Johnson, Matthew C. Meade, Allix Wright, Veronique Hutchinson, Michael Serwadda

Our Journey

The average percentage of Black students in a United States MBA program lingers around 8%. For context, it’s 5% at Harvard. The most recent cohort to graduate from NYU Stern was a record 20% Black. While top business schools and corporations struggle to recruit and retain Black talent, these nine recent NYU Executive MBA graduates reflect on the face of today’s Executive MBA: young, talented, and Black. Over the past two years, they have formed bonds, helped each other get hired, and continue to overcome barriers to entry into companies, organizations and social hierarchies, together. They are applying their education, experience, and expertise to the executive pipeline, demonstrating to those who come after them that there is indeed room at the table.

Personal reflections

Jay Freeman 

In these immensely unpredictable times, the world needs leadership that is agile and capable of making tough decisions on the fly. While many traditional executives and leaders attempt to understand and drive decisions based on certain challenges that are seemingly new to their organization, I feel more prepared than ever drawing on my personal and professional experience of the past to lead the organizations of tomorrow. Take for example the challenges many organizations are currently trying to navigate including differences in cultural backgrounds in the workplace, communication styles, and intergenerational workforces. As a first-generation college graduate from humble beginnings, to say the least, and then entering wall street this forced me to be thrust into a world and amongst people very different from anything I previously knew. Few if any looked, spoke, or shared any similar experiences to mine. There was however one thing that was exactly the same from where the other world I had come from, and where companies and leaders find themselves today, that is the mentality of quickly adapting or die. 

My career over the last decade has taken many twists and turns making stops in investment banking, turnaround and restructuring consulting, and ultimately private equity. One could look at these paths as a bit unorthodox, but each step provided me with new decision-making and problem-solving skills and a front-row seat to drive impactful from a financing, internal operator, and investor lense. Earning my Executive MBA at Stern was another step along the path of furthering my ability to lead organizations of tomorrow. Having the opportunity to focus on data analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence provided me with valuable insights and hands-on knowledge to understand these elements of technology can and will be used to shape the future of organizations in every facet. My position as a representative elected by my cohort ultimately led to spearheading NYU to land a former Senior Executive at Microsoft serving as a keynote speaker for our guest speaker series. 

Khali Gopaul

Securing increased career mobility was my top priority when applying to a professional program. I had narrowed my choice trajectory to two tried and true paths: law school or business school. As a minority woman of color, I wanted to attend an institution that concerned itself with issues that affected my community and culture. Upon my selection and acceptance to NYU Stern School of Business, my concerns were twofold; I was anxious to ascertain whether the group of incoming students with whom I would spend the next two years would share my values and concerns, juxtaposed with my ability to balance work, family, and the course load. I was pleasantly surprised and relieved to meet other students of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. We immediately established genuine connections with each other. Being surrounded by a support network of other men and women of color was key to my success in business school. Not only were the conversations about business ventures and entrepreneurship opportunities flowing, but when the horrific events of racial tension and discrimination began to unfold in various cities around the country, our bond grew stronger as we supported one another. NYU Stern has not always been the beacon of diversity, but the class of 2021 proved it was a step in the right direction for the program. My decision to attend NYU Business School has changed the way I think, the way I do business, my conversations with friends and family, expanded my network exponentially, and has been the backdrop of meeting the valuable group of diverse students who will remain lifelong friends.

Veronique Hutchinson

As a first-generation American, having grown up with pride within myself, my Caribbean heritage and culture, and later attending Howard University, I deepened that great pride in being a Black woman in America while also sitting with the pang that other young adults who looked like me weren’t being recognized for the gold that they were. That reality empowered me within both my professional and personal ventures to find solutions to inject pride and provide tools within the younger generations to recognize their own value. Choosing to apply and enroll in Stern was bigger than me; it was necessary for my purpose and mission for all those who come after me – those unsure about how their gold will unlock the padded lock to the American ideology of success. 

When I met these intelligent and diverse sets of people of color within my Stern EMBA cohort, I leapt with joy inside, knowing that the time here would be exemplary and full of zest.  Co-developing the first-of-its-kind programming with another Black EMBA student, centered around Black executives and their journeys to now, was not only extremely fulfilling but necessary, especially with the upheaval of the times we were in surrounding all of the senseless killings of Black men and women.  We created peace, camaraderie, and a will to move forward- all around a time in America where we were all grieving in some sort of way.  

As an entrepreneur looking to explore the corporate landscape for the first time, Stern granted access to top talents and their networks- opening new avenues to explore professionally. A new bout of confidence was gained within the new skills acquired and the ability to strengthen the core capabilities I entered with, granting myself with the access to shift from one career to the next and enter into a new layer of professional elevation.

But the beauty of all of this is that I, WE are just getting started! Stern was the launching pad to which we will all go from here into varied industries with pride, accolade, ownership, and a will to shift the current tide within organizations from an Executive seat.  

Broderick Johnson

Growing up, my parents instilled in me the value and importance of education. Not only is it vital to graduate from undergrad, but it’s also important to “expand your inner circle” with like-minded individuals around you. How did I go about doing that? Well, I figured it had to be graduate school. I decided to apply and see which institution would be the best fit for me, and it turned out to be NYU Stern School of Business. The most important aspect of attending business school was building my relationships with classmates who I could lean on but most importantly, who I could relate to. BEMBA’s (Black Executive MBA’s) make up a small percentage of the overall cohort in the Stern Executive Program and many other top programs around in the U.S. From the first day of orientation, we all gravitated toward one another and became more than just classmates. 

During the two-year program, some of us transitioned industries, started businesses, and gained a whole new perspective on what it means to be a future Black executive. The summer of 2020 was extremely emotional for all of us because of the police brutality that was occurring in our community. The continuous killings of Black men and women brought us together and aided in the development of creating dialogue among our entire Stern cohort. It was critical for us to address the issues that have plagued our community for centuries, but our goal was to help educate our cohort on how they could be supportive allies in their personal and professional lives. These discussions helped us form a bond that will last a lifetime, and I honestly believe I would have not had these experiences at any other institution. Stern has definitely changed my life and has given me the confidence and knowledge to excel in the business world, most importantly as a Black man. 

Christian McKenzie 

I come from a family of educators, preachers, and creatives. I have a cousin that was a 90s pop star in a group called La Bouche. My mother and both of her brothers worked in radio broadcasting. My grandfather was the principal of an all-Black boarding school. Every one of them was a great public speaker. They inspired others to aspire to greatness. I’m very unlike all of them, which I luckily don’t mind. I didn’t gravitate to any of the careers of the generations before me. I like working diligently, yet privately. So, when I told my family that I was applying to business school, they were surprised. We didn’t have a roadmap for this because no one had done it. But again, I was accustomed to being different.

When I started my program, I was elated and relieved that a staggering 20% of my cohort was Black. At the time, this was the most diverse MBA cohort that I was aware of in the country. In this group, I found a new family. This group of students supported me, had a lot of similarities to me, and regularly hyped me up. I have a different relationship with each one of the Black students in my cohort and I love that. I could not predict how much I would need them in the summer of 2020. When the tragedies of that summer brought to the forefront of the media the injustices that the Black community had been subjected to for centuries in the US, it was the Black students that worked together to create a series of town halls for our cohort members called Courageous Conversations. NYU took a similar stance on addressing the Black Lives Matter movement as most universities in the country by showing passive support or being eerily silent. But it was our group that decided to be open, honest, and vulnerable about the pain we were experiencing. In these town halls, we answered questions that non-Black students had. And we worked with our non-Black students to ensure that the topics, breakout sessions, and flow of conversations were inclusive and nonjudgmental. We talked about our unique experiences, examples of allyship and encouraged community and relationship building. I believe our group helped unite our cohort at a critical time.

No one with my skin tone is immune to discrimination. Being in an elite business school program did not protect me from police brutality. While I was in the program, I had the police called on me without cause, I experienced housing insecurity and I contracted COVID. Some of my professors were understanding when I asked for deadline extensions, and some were not. It was no easy feat for me to graduate. But as usual, the Black students in my cohort rallied around me. We studied together. We had regular virtual calls to make sure that everyone was safe and had all of their needs met. They texted and called to encourage me. And I am so grateful for every one of them. Our power is our collective cooperation and support of each other. Since we are all in a range of roles and industries, we can work together to uplift each other and the next generations across all business sectors. If I had not attended NYU Stern, I would not have found this second (or bonus) family.

Matthew C. Meade

We were one of the only classes in the last century to attend a portion of our Executive MBA experience in a global pandemic. Navigating the two-year experience through the pandemic, a historic presidential campaign, racial and social injustice, and global economic turmoil shows an ability to adapt to change, operate in ambiguity, and lead from the front.  Corporations need executives to spearhead organizations with change management, advanced strategy, and inclusive leadership.  

I am a first-generation Executive MBA graduate but certainly won’t be the last.  My career spans over 15 years on Wall Street, working within fixed income sales, corporate finance, enterprise risk management, innovation, and product management. As a result, I chose to concentrate on data analytics, strategy, and leadership during my Executive MBA experience at the NYU Stern School of Business.  Attending the McIntire School of Commerce at the University of Virginia for undergrad concentrating in finance and management and the Sponsors for Educational Opportunity Program equipped me with the skills to be successful on Wall Street.  I always knew I would go back to business school, but I wanted to go at a time when industries were rapidly changing, and markets and customer preferences were constantly evolving.  Currently automation, digital transformation, and self-service for clients remain at the forefront of several industries.  Learning from renowned professors and like-minded leaders across industries equipped me with the skill set to continue to lead as an executive and be an impactful and transformational steward in the C suite for several years to come. 

Michael Serwadda

Having grown up in three different countries that vary in culture since birth, I was raised to value and appreciate a global perspective. When I started thinking about where I wanted to get my MBA, I was naturally drawn to institutions that emphasized a global business education. NYU Stern stood out for its high ranking amongst the others, and as I look back on my experience, it was by far one of the best life decisions I have made.

NYU is a truly global business school with campuses around the world. However, it wasn’t until I started the program and met my fellow cohort members that I realized that we could really make an impact. Not only in business, but in society as well. Our opening class, Professional Responsibility with Professor Bruce Buchanan, emphasized the larger role that we have to play in society as business leaders. As a Black man hearing that, my mind immediately started thinking about how I could help others, who look like me, overcome barriers and make it in their respective fields. This class completely changed my idea of purpose as a business leader.

Another pivotal moment came when I met my fellow Black classmates. Before I started business school, I felt that Black executives should look and talk a certain way. This is true for many people of color working in the corporate world who feel like they need to “mold” themselves into someone in order to fit into a predominately white environment. It was very humbling and refreshing to connect with a group of individuals that looked like me, who were culturally competent and intellectually curious. My Black MBA classmates showed up as their true selves and it encouraged me to do the same. That moment has shaped how I show up at work today.

I am extremely motivated and excited to see how my classmates are going to have an impact on society. I believe that business leaders are the real change agents in society and my hope is that in the years to come we can see a larger pipeline of people of color getting admitted to top business schools.

Mambu Sherman

I started my MBA program at NYU Stern filled with anxiety, fear, and insecurity. I worked for a small nonprofit fund and didn’t have a business background, I didn’t go to a prestigious undergraduate program, nor did I have a big network. I was still relatively young – and the obvious – I was Black. Knowing that Black students comprise under 10% of students in MBA programs on average, I mentally prepared myself to play “the game.” When I say, “the game,” most Black professionals know exactly what I mean. The game – where showing up feels more like a performance – mental gymnastics just to make it through happy hour.

I could have never imagined that my MBA experience would offer so much more, and I would meet a dynamic group of Black professionals. I found my tribe at Stern. I found Black women and Black men who not only look like me but also share so many aspects of my lived experience of being Black in America and as a Black professional. Women and men, like me, balancing the tension of power and privilege afforded to them through an elite business school education, with the injustice, discrimination, and inequity they face every day. Women and men who are unapologetically Black. And damn good at what they do. Our time at Stern knit us together and we’ve formed a deep bond. And while the cloth that we’ve been cut from is distinct, our garments are not exclusive to Stern. We represent an emerging tribe of new Black leaders and executives. A tribe that is uninterested in playing “the game” – a new wave of leaders disrupting the status quo with creative ideas, new programs, and innovative strategies.

Allix Wright

Working in public relations has taught me that one is never truly done learning. From conducting research on new clients to keeping up with the ever-changing media landscape, it is my job to continue to learn, to grow, and to stretch myself in new directions. Pursuing my MBA felt like a natural extension of that growth; just as I help brands plug into what connects us all and find new audiences with whom to share their stories, I knew that NYU Stern’s Executive MBA program would help me to write the next chapter of my own.

My client roster has included passionate startup founders who have built businesses from scratch, as well as c-suite executives of multinational corporations. In a post-Twitter world where everyone considers themselves a media expert, my peers and I must increasingly justify our strategic benefit to an organization, despite the many ways in which ineffective PR can negatively impact a business. Business school gave me the tools to both better understand and drive critical decision-making, problem-solving and strategy development to achieve business objectives. It augmented the value I bring to my clients and to my colleagues and provided me with a global network of like-minded professionals.

While the virtue of education lies in the many doors it opens, I could not have predicted the doors I would walk through during my time at Stern. Being no stranger to exclusive educational institutions, I am also no stranger to the feeling of isolation born from habitually being one of few people of color in any given room, despite efforts that my alma maters like Sidwell Friends School and Haverford College make – guided by their Quaker principles – to foster community. Finding I wasn’t one of a few but instead one of many Black students in my program was a rare gift. No words can adequately encapsulate the feelings of kinship, support, and joy that going on this journey with them has brought me. We encourage each other to (and hold each other accountable to) show up as our full selves every day and prove that being Black while at [insert business of choice here] is a true superpower. Now it’s just time for corporate America to catch up. We’re ready.

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