In May, the Executive MBA program at the VCU School of Business graduates its 25th class. Since its introduction in 1994, the 20-month, AACSB-accredited program has steadily grown in size and prestige. The program historically attracts seasoned executives with an average of 15 years work experience who seek to accelerate their career without interrupting it.
We invited four graduates and a current student to reflect on why they decided to pursue an MBA, why they chose VCU, and the aspects of the EMBA program that most enhanced their careers.
“Astounded” by the number of EMBA graduates
Sam Dortch, co-owner of Libbie Market, a beloved independent grocery store in Richmond’s West End, didn’t fully understand the breadth of the alumni network until late August 2019, when his market made a playful post on its Facebook wall.
It featured a photo of Sam, wearing a backpack and gamely posing on his front porch like a grade-school kid. The caption read: “Libbie Market co-owner Sam Dortch, ready for his first day of class at VCU’s MBA program. We hope he gets on the right bus.”
The post quickly earned more than 800 likes and dozens of comments. In the weeks that followed, as Sam went about his business, the power of the VCU alumni network became increasingly apparent to him.
“I’m astounded how often other VCU EMBA graduates come in and congratulate me on enrolling in the program,” he says. “Since that Facebook post, I have customers coming up to me all the time, telling me the year they completed the program, and asking how I like it. There’s a lot of excitement. Customers can tell we are doing this to invest in them and in the store.”
In 2016, the store’s original co-owners, David Taylor and Buster Wright, invited Dortch to join Libbie Market as part of a succession plan to safeguard the store’s long-term success and allow Wright to gradually retire. After Dortch joined Libbie Market, Taylor encouraged him to pursue an MBA.
There’s nothing like a formal business education
“David had earned his MBA in the early 1990s, and he couldn’t say enough good things about it – what it had done for his career and his knowledge as far as running a business,” Sam recalls. “He said to me, ‘Buster and I know that you know how to run the store, but we want to ensure that that you know how to run the business of Libbie Market.’
“I earned my undergraduate degree in marketing and communications. And I’d learned plenty on the job from being in the grocery business, but I’d had no formal education on finance, accounting, statistics or operations. So I agreed that it would make sense to go back to school. I’m confident this will help me make our business more successful.”
Dan Rodenhaver, CEO of Meru Biotechnologies, pursued his MBA at VCU for much the same reason. “I was a small business owner at the time I enrolled. I was an engineer by education and had been in medical device sales and distribution. As my business began to grow, I realized I hadn’t had a formal business education. I wanted to add to my knowledge base and was interested in the challenge.” Rodenhaver graduated from the EMBA program in 2018.
“When I first started the program, it was such a great feeling to know I was doing this for me – to improve myself,” she declares. “This was really about my personal growth. No matter why you decide to seek out a degree, this really helps you become a more well-rounded individual.”
Hines found having an MBA and financial management experience gave her more credibility as a business person within the healthcare industry. “Sometimes, when you have a clinical degree, you get pigeonholed. People say, ‘Oh, you’re an R.N.?’ And they think that’s your lane and that all of your job options must be in some type of clinical role. Having an MBA opened up a multitude of opportunities where I could stay in healthcare and do so much more or leave the industry and do something else.”
Ankit Mathur the founder of Roundtrip, a digital healthcare transportation marketplace, earned his MBA in 2012. “My career has flourished since achieving my EMBA,” he says. “I view my degree as a deep understanding of all the skills in my professional toolbelt. VCU’s program is uniquely focused on creating and nurturing leaders. If I would have done one thing differently, it would have been to do it sooner.”
Growing up, and as an engineering undergrad, Ken Forster, executive director for Momenta Partners, a venture capital firm based in Zurich, always had a systems focus. “As a flight engineer in the US Air Force, and as a Control Systems Engineer for a large aerospace company, I learned to appreciate the interaction of systems,” he says.
“What I liked about the MBA is it provided a similar systems view of business. You develop a thesis, test in the market, invest for scale, and eventually sell the company to a strategic buyer. Everything in business is actually a system, just as in engineering. For me, being introduced to those business topics in VCU’s executive format was very helpful.”
Forster graduated from VCU in 2002. “Once you’ve already established yourself professionally, getting an MBA is really about taking that real-world, practical experience and being able to put it into daily use. For me, in venture capital, that is absolutely critical. At VCU, it wasn’t theoretical learning. It was practical, real-world applications”
EMBA’s integrated, modular curriculum ideal for working executives
The VCU EMBA program offers classes every other Friday and Saturday and uses an integrated, modular curriculum.
“I liked the interwoven topic workstream approach,” says Forster. “We didn’t just spend six weeks in strategic finance. We would do several hours of it, but then we would go into two hours of accounting or statistics, and then two hours of business strategy. To me, that was a really interesting model and it served me well because the reality of business is very much the same.
“When I’m looking to invest in a company, I’m doing due diligence. I’m going to hit all the topics that I learned at VCU: the technology, the founding team, the company fundamentals and legal components. So, having that broad grounding is helpful as I’m able to quickly judge the health of a business.”
Rodenhaver felt VCU’s EMBA program was the right choice in terms of schedule and commitment. “That’s even more clear now,” he says. “It allowed me to run my business and accomplish my goals.”
“I sought out the education I wanted,” Rodenhaver explains. “I was particularly interested in finance and leadership and I still apply what I learned every day. I’m starting a new small business now, and I’m creating financial models. I didn’t know how to do that prior to this. I’ve entertained several new ventures and I’ve been able to look at them from a financial standpoint. I know my industry and, before getting an MBA, I would have had to go with a gut feeling. Now I’m able to make a truly informed decision.”
Students immediately apply learnings
Like most MBA students, Dortch considered other options before selecting the VCU Executive MBA program. “I’m not a ‘night school’ kind of guy. I spend long days at the store and don’t have brain power at night,” he says. “I also wasn’t interested in traveling out of town. I love the VCU schedule. Coincidentally, my days off are Friday and Saturday so it worked out perfectly. And it’s nice to have summers off.”
Now in his second semester, Dortch quickly recognized that pursing an MBA was a wise decision. “In every class, I’ve been able to find something I could apply immediately at the store,” he says.
Ties that Bind
Most graduates have benefitted from the VCU alumni network, but virtually all agree that their bonds are closest with their EMBA cohort.
“Classes ahead of mine said that, historically, your first-year team is the one that everyone stays closest with over the years. That’s certainly true in my case,” says Rodenhaver. “My first team is in constant contact. These are folks who are at the top of their game in their own industries.”
“I’m still connected to my EMBA group,” says Hines. “In my cohort, there were a few of us in healthcare. We had people from manufacturing, technology, health sciences, and some retail so I had a glimpse of other industries. So much about being a CEO isn’t about the industry you are in, but how you lead strategically. We all had different personalities and strengths. Our team projects taught us how to work with different people and get things done.”
Mathur meets VCU alumni all over the world. “Every time, I’m comforted to know that we share a common bond and experience. Getting my MBA from VCU taught me the true value of a world-class education and a powerful network. Together, they are a formidable combination.”