In her application to UNC-Chapel Hill four years ago, Gabriela Silva (BSBA ’23) made a promise.
“I want to show the immigrant community as a whole that we will persevere,” she wrote. “And we will do so by furthering ourselves first and foremost.”
She kept her promise, graduating with honors from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s Undergraduate Business Program (UBP).
“To all of those who dream of stepping foot on a college campus but face obstacles and self-doubt … you have the power to shatter ceilings, break barriers and achieve what was once only a distant dream,” Silva wrote in a LinkedIn post. “My classes taught me how to rock a business suit, and also how to bet on myself time and time again.”
Silva was among the thousands of UBP, Full-Time MBA and PhD graduates who participated in the University’s commencement on May 14. Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, gave the keynote address.
“Stay hopeful graduates,” said Stevenson. “Your hope is your superpower. Believe things you haven’t seen. Believe you can do things that haven’t been done before.”
The UBP honored 495 members of the Class of 2023, including 389 business majors, 97 business minors and eight real estate minors. That afternoon, UBP graduates participated in a ceremony at the Dean E. Smith Center with Ukonwa Ojo (BSBA ’97) giving the keynote.
Ojo has served as the global president of Covergirl, the chief marketing officer for Coty and MAC Cosmetics and as the global CMO for Amazon Prime Video and Studios. In September 2022, she founded branding specialist Zaia Ventures, which focuses on businesses serving underrepresented communities.
“The truth is that you’ll never be the best in the world at something you hate,” said Ojo. “So be fearless in pivoting if and when the occasion arises. Find something you love enough to put in the work it requires, and you’ll be surprised at how easily your gift is recognized.”
The Business School’s 296 Full-Time MBA and 264 MBA@UNC graduates were honored on May 20 with Jason Liberty (MBA ’15), Royal Caribbean Group’s president and CEO, addressing graduates and their families.
“The best brands, best assets and best people win,” said Liberty. “And I think that very much signifies the really strong and differentiated team we have here at Kenan-Flagler, the students who come in and who the students become.
“We all navigated through choppy waters during these past few years, and you’re probably some of the most resilient graduates in recent history. That’s really one of the best tenants of good leadership. It’s easy, very easy, to lead when things are good. Great leadership is proven during times of adversity.”
This year’s PhD graduates have accepted teaching positions at schools such as Boston College and the University of Texas at Dallas. Andre Martin (PhD ’23) is headed to the University of Notre Dame after earning his PhD with a concentration in marketing. On LinkedIn, Martin celebrated winning the M. Wayne DeLozier Student Fellowship Award and the UNC Kenan-Flagler Core Values Award for Innovation.
More graduation ceremonies are to come. On June 24, the School will graduate 61 Master of Accounting (MAC) students. Brandon Sink (BSBA ’99, MAC ’00), executive vice president and chief financial officer of Lowe’s, will give the commencement address.
Professor Shimul Melwani, UBP associate dean, reminded graduates of the totality of their hard work and their determination, especially while coping with a global pandemic. “You are the Class of 2023, and you are amazing,” she said.
That determination is woven through all of the Class of 2023. Ben Voelkel (MBA ’23) was diagnosed with kidney failure almost four years ago. When there was so much he couldn’t control — his energy level, his diet, time dedicated to medical treatment — he searched for something he could.
“I wanted something to do of my own choice. I decided to apply to grad school to pursue an MBA,” Voelkel shared on LinkedIn. “Months of dialysis, a kidney transplant, a new job, a campaign for elected office — through it all I worked toward that goal. Today, after all of that, I graduated.”
It’s that exceptional grit and energy that inspired Professor Jennifer Conrad, who oversaw her first UBP graduation ceremony as interim dean. She has stayed in the classroom as a teacher because it gives her the chance to interact with students like those in the Class of 2023.
“Like you, I am taking it all in,” said Conrad. “I can see the pride on the faces of the friends and family in the audience. I can see the mixed emotions on your faces: “Joy. Excitement. Relief. A hint of sadness. One thing I am sure of is that you leave here equipped with the skills and the mindset to succeed in whatever you choose to do.”
That message resonates with the Class of 2023.
Calling her time at Carolina “nothing short of incredible,” Jasmine Kaur (BSBA ’23) is headed to Atlanta as an associate consultant for Bain & Company. As a GLOBE program student, she spent two semesters at the Copenhagen Business School and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. In a LinkedIn post, she thanked Melwani and Sherri Carmichael, assistant director of the GLOBE program and summer study abroad programs.
“Thank you for being my UNC support system,” Kaur wrote. “Your guidance and mentorship were invaluable in my academic and personal growth. And to my friends and batchmates, we did it! I’ll cherish these memories forever.”
Cole Vahey, a double major in business and computer science, is moving to Seattle to work as a software development engineer at Amazon. “I have thoroughly enjoyed my last four years in Chapel Hill with some of my best friends and mentors that will last me a lifetime,” he wrote on LinkedIn. “Today and always, it’s a great day to be a Tar Heel.”
Jalen McCoy (BSBA ’23) was honored with the Hampton Shuping Prize, awarded to a graduate who excels in academics, leadership and integrity. It’s the UBP’s highest honor.
McCoy, a Morehead-Cain Scholar, recalled waking up as a first-year student at 7:55 a.m. to stumble up to the Business School for his 8 a.m. class. The cold wind against his face produced tears and he had to make it look like he wasn’t crying.
“It’s interesting how moments like these come full circle,” said McCoy. “Because earlier today, after we left Kenan-Flagler for the last time as undergrads, I wouldn’t have minded shedding a tear.”
He urged his fellow graduates to not just be successful. UNC Kenan-Flagler gave them the tools to make that happen, he said. What he wants for the Class of 2023 is happiness.
“As I look across this room, I see smart, capable and fired-up individuals,” he said. “Between us all, I know we’ll accomplish any and everything.”
For the Full-Time and MBA@UNC Classes of 2023, the past two years were a balancing act, buoyed by resilience and unceasing support.
Sean Bragg (MBA ’23) thanked his professors, co-workers and friends in a LinkedIn post, and singled out his wife and family for helping him through the rigorous academic program while running his full-time business, Paratus Service Group.
When Anna Rombaoa, who is from the Philippines, applied to MBA@UNC in 2020, she was a first-time mom with a child who had just turned 1. While earning her MBA through the online program despite the 12-hour time difference for live classes, she worked full time and traveled to three countries for exchange studies and Summits.
She just started a job as a sales and marketing manager for Kapronasia in Singapore.
“This first-generation student and a woman of color from a developing country finally celebrates one of the best decisions of her professional and academic pursuit: an earned MBA from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School,” she wrote on LinkedIn.
And Juan Carlos Pacheco had two big reasons to celebrate, earning both an MBA and a JD from the UNC School of Law.
“The past four years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were filled with incredible opportunities, successes, failures and most importantly, growth,” Pacheco wrote on LinkedIn. “My family, friends, mentors, professors and every person who I met along the way provided me with an invaluable perspective and a lesson to be learned. Words cannot express my gratitude and love that I have for each one of you.
“I’m so excited to continue painting the mural of my life. This was just the beginning.”