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Top 40 Under 40 winners: Was an MBA worth it?

Dr. May Griffith displays a biosynthetic cornea that can be implanted into the eye to repair damage and restore sight. She did an MBA to have a safety net after surgery left her unable to walk temporarily.

Ottawa Hospital Research Institute

The decision to pursue an MBA is prompted by considerations as varied and numerous as the reasons for where you choose to do it, what you learn from it and the effect on your life and career as you study and after you graduate. For some of the high-achievers who've been on the Caldwell Partners International list of Canada's Top 40 Under 40, MBA school was a positive part of their education and experience. Why and where these past 40 Under 40 winners did their MBAs, what they took away with them and how they would advise future MBA prospects offer some insight.

Kenneth Brooks

41, Senior Vice-President, Transaction Advisory Services, Ernst & Young Inc., Montreal. MBA 1999, John Molson School of Business, Concordia University

Why an MBA? A year after completing a Bachelor of Commerce at McGill in 1991, Mr. Brooks' boss in a boutique mergers-and-acquisition firm suggested that he start an MBA. In the tight job market, "MBAs were very high in demand."

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Why Concordia? He was looking to study part-time, which Concordia welcomed (he took the 21 courses over more than six years). Concordia's MBA was also more practically focused than some others. And going to an different institution than the one where you did your undergrad means exposure to new professors and teaching methods, he says. "It's a different channel."

Was it challenging? "I had no time," he recalls. The pain on his personal life was compounded by a 60-hour-a week job, but it all worked out. "By the end of the degree I was married, I had two kids and I was on my second mortgage."

How was it useful? "I was able to apply to my job what I was learning at night." Relationships and network-building were critical, he says, and doing the degree over a half-dozen years meant "I got to know six different MBA graduating classes." He learned about time-management, teamwork and working with people of different cultures, work-styles and ways of communicating.

A career builder? The MBA broadened his skill-set and competencies so he could switch from mergers and acquisitions to work on restructuring activities. He now does both.

Would you recommend it? Yes. "An MBA gives you three letters at the end of your business card," he explains. "But the real value is the relationships you build and the perspectives you gain."

May Griffith

48, Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, University of Ottawa, and senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute. MBA 1997, University of Ottawa

Why an MBA? Working on a post-doctoral fellowship in the mid-1990s, Dr. Griffith, a leading researcher in the field of regenerative medicine, underwent radical surgery for aggressive cancer, which left her unable to walk. She worried she might never be up to the rigours of the laboratory. An Executive MBA was the means to a possible career change, a safety net she didn't need once she recovered her mobility.

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Why the University of Ottawa? She wanted to continue to work as a researcher in Ottawa and the only EMBA option in the city was a "pretty obvious choice." Nevertheless she was happy with the program. "It taught me a lot."

Was it challenging? "It was tough," she says, "You're trying to do two things at the same time."

How was it useful? "It allowed me to understand the way businesses work," Dr. Griffith says, something helpful for scientists. "You see the real world a lot more than being in the lab." She also learned to manage multi-national projects and grants, to deal with people and to motivate a team.

A career builder? The MBA shifted her to more industrially focused work and research contracts in areas such fixing and replacing damaged organs, such as the cornea. She has led an international team of scientists developing the world's first functional human cornea, which is now at the clinical trial stage.

Would she recommend it? Yes, indeed several students in her lab, at her urging, have ended up in law schools, MBAs and Masters of Health Administration, giving them important career options down the road, she says. "It opens up a whole new world."

Tom Mawhinney

42, Managing Director of Marketing the Mousetrap in Calgary. MBA 2001, Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary

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Why an MBA? He was looking to move from jobs in companies such as IBM and Digital Equipment Corporation to developing his own consultancy. The Executive MBA program gave Mr. Mawhinney the confidence and the concepts he needed to become an entrepreneur. An MBA is also helpful for a résumé, he says. "In a world of consultants … they expect you to have practical experience and the theory to back it up."

Why Haskayne? It helps to do your MBA where you're based, he says, and alongside peers at senior levels in varied disciplines, which Haskayne attracts.

Was it challenging? "It puts a lot of stress on your work-life balance," he says, though he saw his wife a good deal because he studied at home. He was "clinical" in taking time off, for example instituting "date-nights."

How was it useful? The MBA's rigours taught Mr. Mawhinney to be "excessively efficient" and succinct, "to do what needs to be done, not more, not less." He also has continued to review, retain and apply the concepts he learned, getting together with his six-person study group about once each quarter.

A career builder? Bringing the MBA to the table has been helpful in his consultancy, especially in working with companies on leadership aspects.

Would he recommend it? Yes, although much depends on motivation. Don't do it for the "résumé designation only," he says, especially if you're in a field where an MBA's not "a differentiator" and it really won't have applicability in the future.

Linda McCurdy

42, President and CEO, K-Bro Linen Systems Inc. MBA 2000, Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario

Why an MBA? With a background as a certified general accountant and having become Chief Financial Officer of K-Bro, Canada's largest provider of laundry and linen services, based in Edmonton, Ms. McCurdy took the Executive MBA to get a broader business education.

Why the Ivey School? The school had a reputation, she says, for having a rigorous course of study and ultimately provided an excellent education.

Was it challenging? "It was probably two of the most difficult years ever," she says. "Almost everything else was put on hold."

How was it useful? "It's less about instantaneous results and more about a way of thinking and how you can apply that to your business on an ongoing basis."

A career builder? The MBA has been valuable as Ms. McCurdy has taken on more responsibilities at K-Bro. In a wider sense, she says, "it adds credibility in the business community and with a board of directors."

Would you recommend it? Yes. "It pushes your limits of learning," she says. When considering the résumé of a potential employee, an MBA "tells you something about their work ethic and who they are, in terms of being able to complete rigorous projects or courses of study."

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