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Diversity and Florida's executive MBA students

Executive MBA programs attract executives, professionals and entrepreneurs who usually have 10 or more years of career experience. The programs group students into cohorts (sizes range from 14 to 34 in Florida) who start and stay together throughout the degree program, which typically requires 18 months to two years. Formats vary, but students usually come together for about three full weekend days of in-person class on campus a month. The rest of the work is done independently or as team activities, with some programs including online courses in between. Some programs also offer an international trip as part of the curriculum; Rollins’ program offers two. Costs of Florida EMBA programs generally range from about $39,000 to more than $100,000.

Traditionally, most EMBA students were climbing the corporate ladder, and their companies paid their tuitions. Some still follow that model, but cohorts in Florida this year are far more diverse, with small-business owners, sales managers, engineers, financial consultants, physicians, nonprofit directors, logistics specialists, sports industry professionals, military veterans and even a fighter pilot. Most of the students interviewed for this article are paying all or most of the tab themselves.

The EMBA students were already juggling classwork, demanding jobs and family responsibilities when the pandemic struck. But they all say their universities didn’t miss a beat converting to online programs. Following are some student profiles.

Looking for Fresh Ideas

University of Central Florida, Orlando

If you need international packing tips, Donnaruma is your guy. Donnaruma joined TTS Energy Services, an Orlando-based engineering firm in the energy sector, as an intern when he was an undergrad at UCF in 2006. One of his early assignments took him to Kuwait for several six-week stays. Since then he has worked in at least 15 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico. In 2019, he was away from home half the year.

“I have always been like a sponge,” says Donnaruma, who is a senior controls engineer. “I want to learn new things, like why did they make a decision to do it that way?”

TTS recently put him in charge of a team tasked with generating ideas for the company. But with all of that, he has always wanted a business degree to formalize his business training.

Donnaruma joined UCF’s EMBA cohort of 14 students. “We have become a little family. It was really fortunate we had that semester and a half together before COVID. We forged close bonds; we have had dinners at each other’s houses.”

Donnaruma says his 50-person company has already put seven through UCF’s program. Donnaruma, and Chris Crowell, a TTS colleague, are Nos. 8 and 9. “I have been with my company going on 14 years now,” says Donnaruma. “I want to give back to my company by helping it grow.”

He graduates with his cohort in the spring of 2021. “I have no doubt that we will stay connected.”

A Better Understanding

Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton

Blanton, about 10 years into her professional career, is at the younger end for an EMBA program. But the former instructional designer has been working her way up the management ranks.

“I wanted to stretch myself and surround myself with professionals with a little more seasoning. I recognized as I got into some of these roles I needed to understand the impact to the business my team was having and understand the financial results of what my team is doing. I didn’t have that background.”

An instructional designer creates training materials for internal corporate uses. Blanton, who received her undergraduate degree in communications, was recently promoted and leads a team of instructional designers, talent development and internal communications professionals at pet products online retailer Chewy. The owner of a rescue dog — “she’s a little blind mix” — started at Chewy a year ago; previously she was a senior manager at Office Depot.

For Blanton, the EMBA and FAU have already opened doors, including to an international business conference in San Antonio, where she presented a paper she wrote for class. Blanton and her 30-member cohort graduate from FAU’s two-year EMBA program this month.

“There are moments when you are putting in a lot of hard work and it is so exhausting, but it is worth it. I am really happy I did it.”

Measurable Gains

University of Tampa, Tampa

Kollman doesn’t understand why MBA enrollment is down across the country. Companies may think they can teach you everything you need to know, but that’s only one perspective, he says. “The business world is not that simple.”

Kollman is pursuing an EMBA at the University of Tampa to bolster his management skills and expand his network. He is set to graduate in May 2021.

UT’s EMBA professors have industry experience as well as doctorates, and Kollman has been impressed with how engaged they are with the program. He and his cohort of 15 students challenge one another. “There is not a single person in this MBA program here to collect a degree and move on. Everybody wants to come in and really roll up their sleeves and work hard.”

Kollman is a vice president for Northern Trust in Tampa. Since 2002, he has worked in several offices and provides private banking services to high net worth individuals, families and businesses.

“A lot of our clients are in the affluent space and have multiple businesses spread out across the country. They have family needs and a multitude of advisory needs. I like digging deep into those issues and developing a plan to bring all that Northern Trust can offer. That sometimes means developing a team of people across disciplines to handle that.”

He’s taking new skills back to Northern Trust. “You cannot prove anything that you don’t measure. Being able to look at a process, every aspect of it, measure it and find ways to improve it and then measure that and report your results — those are the types of executive decision-making tools I was hoping to gain.”

Igniting a Spark

Rollins College, Winter Park

In no particular order, Sciullo is a business leader, an entrepreneur, a wife, a mother, a project manager, a Cub Scout den leader — and now a student in Rollins College’s EMBA program. “I’m all over the place; it keeps me going.”

With a degree in electrical engineering from Florida State, Sciullo spent more than a decade in the defense industry as a systems and logistics engineer before changing course to become a project manager at Disney World and now KPMG. She also owns Spark Innovations, an incubator of tech products, with her husband, a software developer.

Why Rollins? Sciullo compared all the programs, attended open houses and interviewed students, alumni and professors. At Rollins, “I felt their excitement about the program and how they felt it was a life-changing experience. That is something I wanted to enjoy, too.” She is set to graduate from the 20-month program with her cohort of 16 in May 2021.

Her goal is to learn how to take Spark Innovations to the next level. Already, the classes have inspired her to put together a solid business plan and use data analytics more robustly. With the entrepreneurial track and resources available at Rollins, she can get what she needs now but also later through its alumni network.

Sciullo knew from the start she made the right choice. During orientation they were put into teams and tasked with quickly solving a significant challenge for Darden Restaurant Group and Dine Brands. “It was one of the most intense four days in my life, but it was so exhilarating.”

Fillng in the Blanks

University of Miami, Coral Gables

During a career transition, an EMBA can be invaluable. Dux, a former TV news reporter, now runs her own communications and professional development firm, Dux Communications. When she decided to pursue an MBA, she chose the Global Executive MBA program at the University of Miami.

“I sit in any room more comfortably today than yesterday because I have that knowledge about topics that I have rarely spoken about before. We’re impacted by the changing global marketplace personally and professionally every day. You need the tools and insight to compete and be a strong force.”

Dux started in August 2019 with a cohort of 17 and will be graduating in December.

The Global EMBA draws students from all over, including South America and the Caribbean, spans industries including real estate, professional sports, communications and finance, and offers a great deal of access to C-suite executives during panel discussions and through the mentoring program, where each student is paired with a seasoned business leader for the duration of the program.

Dux is used to managing big changes. She was diagnosed with cancer while working at Channel 7 in 2018, just a month before she was supposed to be getting married. She went on medical leave to get healthy, then got married on a Friday and had successful cancer surgery on Tuesday. “I was lucky, but it was that moment in time. I am a storyteller, and at the heart of it I love teaching people how to share themselves, their unique value, and I want more positivity in the world.”

Adding Tools

University of South Florida, Tampa

Since 2005, Smith has worked in a number of departments at Moffitt Cancer Center. She is now a department administrator. “What I love about Moffitt is the entrepreneurial spirit in that we are trying to do something that has never been done — that is to cure cancer. You are partnering with these departments that don’t think inside the box.”

Once enrolled in the EMBA program at USF, she began applying what she was learning almost immediately. Her communications class helped her with public speaking in department meetings and the ability to win buy-in on her proposals. A change management course helped her during a big physical move early this year. And during the pandemic, she’s also been learning about crisis management through the experiences of her cohort of 30 set to graduate in May 2021.

“Sitting around the class with these brilliant peers — they are amazing and bring different perspectives — it changes the way you approach (issues) and how you think,“ she says.

During orientation, second-year students gave the new cohort advice: Stay on top of the work; don’t wait to the last minute. Ask for help, lean on the team and support one another. Make sure your family understands when you need to study. That’s her advice, too, and she adds: “You are never going to regret getting additional education and tools for your toolbox. It’s so inspiring, and you can apply it now.”

Thinking More Strategically

Florida International University, Miami

Cardenas, born in Venezuela, moved to the U.S. in 2002 and enrolled at FIU to finish an engineering degree. After graduation, he was hired by Cummins Inc. and found out his calling was sales. Today, he is Cummins’ Latin America sales manager of the alternator line of business, based in Miami.

“With the position I now have, I have to step back from the technical and start thinking more strategically, to see years ahead, not a day or week or month.” He decided to return to FIU for a 16-month EMBA to develop a business mindset and explore different aspects of leadership. He graduates in December with his cohort of 34 students.

“I came with the idea that the MBA was going to instruct me from books. And yes, interaction with the cohort is the greatest asset. In the end, I realized it gives you not only knowledge but perspective — to step back and put the books aside and actually make you think and ask the whys.”

Still, the father of two says family plus career plus EMBA add up to “a complete mess from a time perspective” but it also challenges you to improve your organizational skills.

Cardenas hopes the MBA helps him add value to the company he works for, ensure financial independence throughout life and impact the community in a larger way. He mentors in Broward County elementary and middle schools.

A Healthy Appreciation for Learning

University of Florida, Gainesville

After the Great Recession, Orange joined the Army. “I wanted to be a medic and see if I had the stomach to practice medicine. It turns out I did. I am also a people person so I’m really good with dealing with the patients.”

After leaving active duty at Fort Bragg in North Carolina in 2015, Orange went to physician assistant school at UNC Chapel Hill and then worked as a PA at a Jacksonville family care practice. Orange, whose wife works at Duke University's transplant and immunology lab, is on the front lines in the emergency department at Duke Regional Hospital.

Earning an MBA was always in his plan. Health care is a business, and it is imperative to understand the forces that dictate patient care, Orange believes. He is set to graduate from UF’s 20-month EMBA program in April 2021.

Why UF? “As far as juice for the squeeze, I could find the exact same thing as I would at UVA, Duke, UNC, Miami for basically half the money. I looked at the quality of the faculty, and it was fantastic.”

In every class, Orange has learned something applicable to his life or his job right now. “I took business communication, and I could succinctly write better. In finance, I was able to look at things and have a better perspective.”

In his work, Orange has treated a number of COVID-19 patients, and in class they debate pandemic-related business problems in real time. “We’ll get through it. There will be much for med students to learn from this and really interesting cases for business students — living history as we speak.”

An Eye on Expansion

Babson College, Miami

It was never a question that Junior would help run the optical retailer that his father founded 40 years ago in Curitiba, Brazil.

At age 13, Junior started working at Otica Ponto de Visão, which means point of view in Portuguese. Today, at 31, he is the 50-store Brazilian company’s general manager. “I have four directors here, but I am focused on everything. I’m talking to accounting. I’m visiting stores. I am talking to lawyers, meeting with suppliers and landlords. It’s busy.”

Junior earned business degrees in Brazil but looked to the U.S. for an MBA because of the programs’ reputations; the entrepreneurship focus of Babson’s Blended Learning MBA stood out. The 18-month program offers online courses taught by Babson faculty in between intense coursework during in-person (pre-COVID) four-day weekends every 45 days. Junior, who flies in from Brazil for those sessions, is set to graduate in May.

Employees of the family business stay a long time, so there isn’t the mixing of new ideas from different minds, Junior says. In the MBA program, he’s learned about leadership and taking more calculated risks. Using data analytics, he identified and corrected a staff problem, lifting a store’s sales by 60%. “We are also developing our digital transformation. We really need this right now because this situation with COVID is really ugly.”

Junior says he wants to expand the company, perhaps by franchising. “Right now our goal is surviving the situation, but I’m getting the knowledge and will be able to apply it to growing the business and making it more successful.”


Read more in Florida Trend's August issue.
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