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Real Humans of Vanderbilt Owen’s MBA Class of 2022

Ben Varhula, Vanderbilt Owen MBA Class of 2022

Age: 27
Hometown: Racine, WI
Undergraduate Institution and Major: University of Minnesota – Twin Cities; Applied Plant Science
Pre-MBA Work Experience (years, industry): 5 years; Nonprofit Management

Why business school? Why now?
I wanted to use an MBA to gain the skills necessary for a career switch (both industry and function). I felt like I had a lot of leadership training and experience, but just needed some of those analytical skills to take my career to the next level. It was a bit of a process – I was considering an MBA for a couple of years – but the application process was incredibly self-reflective and it solidified my decision to come to school to become a more well-rounded business leader.

Why Owen? What factors figured most prominently into your decision of where to attend?
I chose Owen for the smaller class size, the emphasis on leadership development, and for its connections across the country (and world!). My class is about 180 people, so I’m able to know every single person. I really think this small class size creates a strong connection to the school, and it allows Owen to truly live out its mantra of “personal scale.” Its Leadership Development Program (LDP) gives every student the opportunity to have an executive coach during your first year and helps us to improve our emotional intelligence along with the skills we learn in class. The LDP program was a huge draw for me and I think speaks best to the kind of top-notch, personalized experience you get as a student at Owen.

Vanderbilt and Owen’s huge alumni network was also a prominent decision-making factor for me. I’d like to be in the South/Southeast long-term, and Owen’s particular strength here means I have connections across the region. On top of that, Owen’s name carries well across the country so I know that it will stand out no matter where I end up.

What do you think is your most valuable or differentiating contribution to the Class of 2022?
I worked at two Jewish nonprofits before business school, so I think that I just bring a totally different perspective than a lot of classmates. Something I appreciate about Owen is that there are so many varied backgrounds, but I think my very niche work experiences give help me think through problems from very different angles.

Fun fact that didn’t get included on your application?
I cashed in a lifetime-supply of good karma and won the opportunity to buy face-value tickets to the World Series the year the Chicago Cubs won. As a lifelong Cubs fan, I got to see the first-ever World Series game win by the Cubs at Wrigley Field! Certainly a night I’ll never forget.

Post-MBA career interests?
Post-MBA, I want to pursue management consulting or supply-chain/operations roles. Long-term, I’d love to merge my background in plant and agricultural sciences with what I learned in business school to work for a food and beverage or agricultural company.

Advice to current prospective applicants:
–One thing you would absolutely do again as part of your application process?

It sounds cliché but it was so important for me to talk to as many current students and alumni as possible. It was exhausting, but it’s the only way to truly learn about the culture you’re entering. Knowing what type of atmosphere I was looking for, and asking questions to see if each school’s culture fit that, was important in helping me decide where to even apply. You’ll take a lot of similar classes no matter where you go, so it’s the culture that feels like the real differentiating factor.

–One thing you would change or do differently?
I wouldn’t have been so afraid to identify myself as a career switcher or a “nontraditional” candidate. So many people are in the same situation, and schools are really looking at how you can contribute to the MBA program and if you have the leadership skills to succeed after school. Owen has an incredible variety of backgrounds, so I promise you won’t be the only person that has never taken a finance class before.

–Part you would have skipped if you could—and what helped you get through it?
I would have loved to skip the period between my interview/application submission and when I received my acceptance. There’s not much you’re able to do at that point and I don’t like not being in control! I was lucky enough that my fiancée and I were both applying to MBA programs and were going through the same thing for the same schools, so it was helpful to have someone that could understand what I was feeling.

What is your initial impression of Owen’s students/culture/community?
Owen likes to describe itself as “competitive, not cutthroat” and that couldn’t be more true. Everyone here wants to be their best self and continue to improve, but they also care that their classmates are equally successful. It’s a culture of collective accomplishment, and that continues to get passed on from class to class. A huge part of that comes down to the humble-yet-impressive people that the Admissions team recruits, and it shows up every day in classes and clubs.

One thing you have learned about Owen that has surprised you?
One thing that has surprised me is how accessible all my professors have been. Something that stayed with me when I first visited Owen last November was how long most of the faculty have stayed here, so I didn’t anticipate any of them being inaccessible. However, every single professor seemingly goes out of their way to make sure you are understanding the material. For example, our Financial Accounting professor had office hours every Friday afternoon and would stay until every question was answered – sometimes two and a half hours after the session started.

Thing you are most anxious about in your first year?
I hadn’t taken a math class in 7 years, so I was nervous for some of the analytical classes but also about how difficult meeting my classmates would be in the era of COVID-19. Owen cares so much about each person’s success, part of the beauty of being a relatively smaller program, and gives us so many resources to make sure we do well and that we feel supported. It’s been immensely helpful on both the academic and social side so far this year.

Thing you are most excited about in your first year?
Beyond the warm weather in Nashville, I am most excited about meeting my classmates! I’m of course at Owen to soak up as much information as possible in just two years, but also to create a network for a lifetime. Another benefit of the size at Owen is that I’m able to create real relationships with everyone in the MBA program, not just my class.

Posted in: Real Humans of MBA Class of 2022, Real Humans of MBA Students

Schools: Vanderbilt / Owen

About the Author

Christina Griffith  

Christina Griffith is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She specializes in covering education, science, and history, and has experience in research and interviews, magazine content, and web content writing.

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