“I went to Penn as an undergraduate, and we weren’t going anywhere else for our MBA. I knew Wharton offered the rigor and alumni network we wanted,” said Dr. Ije Akunyili, WG’20, who attended Wharton’s EMBA program with her husband Aris A. Brou, WG’20.

When Dr. Ije Akunyili, WG’20, applied to Wharton’s EMBA program, she was chair of emergency medicine and medical director of emergency services at her hospital in Connecticut. She wanted an MBA to gain more analytical and finance skills, as well as challenge herself in a rigorous intellectual environment.

Her husband, Aris A. Brou, WG’20, also wanted an MBA. Born in the Ivory Coast, Aris attended boarding school and engineering school in France. He had come to MIT to complete his engineering training with a Master’s program in Operations Research. Later, he went to Johns Hopkins for his PhD in Applied Statistics. “I’ve worked in the technical areas of finance – mostly on commodity derivatives trading teams my entire career, and I wanted to broaden my understanding of the operational management aspect of businesses.”

He added, “I had also bought a 750-acre sustainable polyculture farm in the Ivory Coast and planted around 200,000 rubber trees to make the natural rubber input for tire manufacturers. That quickly grew into a large business with a lot of investment and employees, and it sparked my interest in going back to school to get more business management knowledge.”

The couple already knew what life would be like with both of them in school and raising kids. When Ije started medical school, Aris was getting his PhD and they had a newborn. “We have fond memories of those times and knew that disciplined prioritization was key,” said Ije, noting that their kids are now 15 and 13.

Ije and Aris with their children in India.

Of course, they knew it wouldn’t be easy to juggle everything. To make it more manageable, they decided it would be better to go back to school together and graduate in two years, rather than one of them going first and the other going two years later.

They decided to apply to Wharton’s EMBA program. Ije explained, “I went to Penn as an undergraduate and we weren’t going anywhere else for our MBA. I knew Wharton offered the rigor and alumni network we wanted. My first day back on campus felt like a homecoming.”

Lining up an AuPair to help with their teenagers when they were at Wharton, Aris and Ije also brought their kids to campus several times. “They called those their ‘Wharton Weekends’ and loved exploring the campus while we were in class. It’s a powerful driver to have exposure to colleges when you are that age,” said Ije.

The family also made a point to do homework together at their dining room table. Aris said, “It was a good opportunity to teach by example and show them how hard we worked to handle the demands from our jobs and school.”

Ije with their kids in Nigeria.

Experiencing a Diverse and Collaborative Environment

During the program, Ije and Aris were pleasantly surprised by several aspects of the EMBA program.

Professional Backgrounds: “I thought everybody would have a finance or consulting background, and that I would stand out as a doctor. But that couldn’t be further from the truth because everyone is from so many different backgrounds. There were several other physicians in the program, and we created a buddy network to check on each other during the pandemic. And I’ve gotten a lot of strength from women at Wharton. We celebrate each other’s achievements and share perspectives,” said Ije, who previously worked as a junior professional associate at the World Bank Group.

Aris noted, “This program is more diverse both in terms of classmates and elective classes than I expected. When I came here, I was interested in agribusiness in Africa, but I didn’t think that I would find a business partner or electives in that area. However, I met a student from China with a background in impact investing in the developing world and we are now working on a venture to design and manufacture adapted implements and tractors to help speed up the mechanization of farming in Africa. I also had the opportunity to take a Global Modular Course (GMC) in Ethiopia, where I was exposed to one of the biggest industrial manufacturing parks in East Africa.” 

Ije and Aris with their classmates in Argentina during a Global Modular Course.

Diversity: “There is a lot of diversity in terms of personal backgrounds and geographies. Even among the Black and other minority students, there was diversity in terms of where we all came from,” said Aris. Ije agreed. “There is a lot of diversity at Wharton, not just in terms of country of origin, but also diversity of opinions, political views, and gender. There is an intellectual curiosity about other people and their experiences.”

Workload: “I had to be disciplined about time management due to my demanding full-time job on a fast-paced commodity trading team, my two teenagers, and Ije as a classmate. This was especially the case during the first term when I had to take core subjects like accounting in which I had less experience. Fortunately, we had great study teams. Everyone had different strengths and backgrounds, and we helped each other,” said Aris.

Ije added, “The intensity of the first term was coupled with managing a very busy emergency department, a clinical schedule, and raising our teenagers. But it was nice to share the pain with Aris, and I found the foundational economics, leadership, management, and operations courses to be especially pertinent to my goal of advancing health-care delivery models and policy.”

Celebrating winning the marketing simulation prize in San Francisco during the joint week with East and West Coast classes. Left to right: Gene Bain, Aris Brou, David Paschal, Tamir Yewdaev, and Anthony Kwan.

Advancing their Careers

Both Ije and Aris saw career impact from the program – even before graduation.

Aris explained, “Early on, I was offered a position as a director at one of the largest hedge funds in the world. Wharton helped because it gave me a breadth of competencies outside of my areas of deep expertise.”

Toward the end of the program, he decided to transition to a job at a major trading firm to use artificial intelligence for energy trading. “This position requires leading a collaborative team and understanding how to tackle big data and the fundamental drivers of the energy market,” he said.

During the program, Aris also joined the board of directors of Dekel Agri-Vision Plc, a publicly- listed West African-focused sustainable palm oil, natural rubber, and cashew nuts development company, with $50 million expected annual revenue in 2021 and two processing mills, including a 70,000-ton-per-year crude palm oil mill. “Wharton prepared me to be part of the team of very talented founders and executives working to grow the company into the leading tropical agro-industrial company in West Africa,” he said.

Ije noted that “everything” changed in her career during the EMBA program. She was promoted from chair of her department to regional medical director of more than 10 hospitals and over 200 doctors on the East Coast. “It was a 10X leap for me, which wouldn’t have been possible without Wharton,” she said, noting that she gained “concrete operational skills and leadership skills” in school. “For example, I took a class on leading in turbulent environments in Argentina and a health care and development class in Ethiopia, which were invaluable.”  

In addition to her leadership role, she continues to practice emergency medicine on the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Wharton showed me what it takes to be a good leader during crises. You need to lead with authenticity and inspire confidence, even when there is no light at the end of the tunnel. And as an ER doctor, this is what I trained for. This is a defining moment for us because we don’t walk away from danger. Helping patients and colleagues during this time is a privilege.”

Ije is on the front lines of treating COVID-19 patients at Waterbury Hospital in Waterbury, Connecticut.
Ije and her coworkers spread an important message about COVID-19.

— By Meghan Laska

Posted: April 29, 2020

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