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Photography by Webb Chappell

HBS students are already exceptionally skilled and accomplished people when they arrive at Soldiers Field. But perhaps their education here truly begins when they first understand — and are humbled by — what a remarkable community they have joined. Every classmate is a talented and highly capable individual, invariably with a memorable personal story and important life lessons to share, as the following profiles attest. Photographed while enjoying favorite places or activities both on- and off-campus, these seven members of the Class of 2004 embody an essential part of the HBS experience: students, by the example of their own lives, informing and learning from each other.

Mamongae Mahlare

Some trailblazers smash down barricades; others, like Mamongae Mahlare, seem to glide over them effortlessly. The second of five children, growing up under apartheid in rural South Africa, she credits her parents with stressing the importance of education and for making her politically aware and proud of her Sotho heritage. With this strong upbringing, she was ready for an early challenge: Leaving behind her small village, she went to Johannesburg to live with a white family while spending a postgraduate high school year at an otherwise all-boys, mostly white private school. Formal apartheid had been recently abolished, but nonetheless, Mahlare says with a smile, “the experience provided quite a different cultural and political perspective.”

Next she was admitted to the prestigious University of the Witwatersrand where, in 1996, she became the first black woman to graduate from the school of chemical engineering; she now sits on the university’s board. After graduating, Mahlare worked at Unifoods South Africa and as a Bain consultant. She is still actively involved with a Johannesburg home for abused children as a member of its management committee.

At HBS, as copresident of the Africa Business Club, Mahlare has become interested in how countries and businesses attract the foreign direct investment that drives economic advancement and development. It’s a process she’d eventually like to go home and be part of: “I believe,” she says, “in South Africa and its future.” —GE

Rob Sundy

Rob Sundy describes himself at age 12 as lucky and spoiled: “I was the only child of two loving parents, both of whom had grown up in the inner city. They sent me to private school and sheltered me from the crime of Detroit.”

But then, one month after being diagnosed with cancer, Sundy’s father died. Young Rob was soon in public school, with his mother working two jobs. “Coping with the loss of my father taught me perseverance, independence, and hard work,” he observes. “It prepared me for later challenges.”

After a charismatic West Point recruiter visited his high school, Sundy applied for and received an appointment to the United States Military Academy, where he excelled as a cadet leader and track standout. Upon graduation, he attended the elite Ranger School and served with the 82nd Airborne as a platoon leader on a seven-month peacekeeping assignment in Kosovo. Then he returned to West Point to work as a diversity admissions officer. “It was a way to give back and expose minority youngsters to the same opportunities I had,” he explains.

At HBS, Sundy has served his classmates as cochair of the Leadership and Values Initiative. “I believe in empowering people by involving them,” he says. “That means listening to them, understanding what drives them, and then delegating authority to them.”

Currently a marketing manager at General Mills, Sundy has a long-term goal: He’d like to become a member of the U.S. Senate, “to influence public policy and make a real contribution to society.” — GE

Martín Curiel

The first sixteen years of Martín Curiel’s life followed the cycles of the harvest. As migrant farmworkers, his parents moved Curiel and his two sisters from Mexico to the United States, where they followed the cherries, olives, peaches, and plums along the West Coast from June to November.

“It was ingrained in me early on that working harder and smarter meant more money,” says Curiel, who was paid $1.50 for every 30- pound bucket of cherries. “That’s as true at a company like GE as it is in an orchard.”

Curiel managed to attend school in Mexico and California, graduating from Live Oak High School in 1993. Despite the dangerous, backbreaking nature of migrant life, Curiel values the work ethic he developed and the long periods of time spent with his family, naming his father — killed with four other migrant workers in a 1993 automobile accident — as a primary source of inspiration.

Curiel, 18, walked away from that same deadly crash with minor injuries. He sees some symbolism in the fact that his father was making the trip from Oregon to California to take him to freshman orientation at Cal Poly. The first in his family to attend college, Curiel says he has attempted to turn the tragedy into something meaningful and worthy of his father’s example.

“My dad made no excuses and did so much with what he had,” Curiel says. “Leadership is the ability to influence others to accomplish things that they would otherwise not be able to accomplish. If it weren’t for my father, I wouldn’t be at HBS today.” —JH

Dan Gertsacov

Many people view the relationship between business and social good as a trade-off. Dan Gertsacov does not. “I believe that society will eventually judge companies not only on their financial returns, but also on their social and environmental leadership,” says the down-to-earth Rhode Island native. Prior to HBS, Gertsacov, a former Fulbright scholar in Chile, founded a nonprofit business association in Brazil that promotes corporate social responsibility in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Gertsacov is particularly intrigued by the power of the media and its impact on the developing world. He spent last summer developing Grita (Speak Up), an on-air campaign for MTV Networks Latin America that aims to give young people a voice, encourage safe sex, and discourage discrimination. “I want to reach the minds and hearts of youth, as well as their wallets,” he says.

At HBS, Gertsacov has been surprised by the depth of the friendships he’s made. “I expected HBS to be ultracompetitive. It has been the exact opposite. Everyone makes an effort to help each other out.” Gertsacov has clearly taken full advantage of his time here. A star HBS rugby and ice hockey player, he’s a gourmet chef whose Thai cooking lessons earned his section $1,600 in its charity auction. He also launched a monthly networking event for Boston-area graduate students interested in social enterprise and was an active member of the Entertainment and Media and Social Enterprise clubs. “HBS is a great learning lab,” he says. “You can immediately apply what you learn to the rest of your life — and that’s exactly what I intend to do.” — SY

Audrey Choi

After graduating from Harvard College in 1988, Audrey Choi went to West Germany on a Fulbright scholarship to study literature. But with the Soviet empire tottering, she found herself drawn to the sea changes taking place around her and the willingness of people, particularly the East Germans, to risk everything to try to escape to freedom. “That experience,” she recalls, “made me passionate about the effects political and economic policy decisions have on individuals’ rights and opportunities.”

Choi worked as a Wall Street Journal correspondent in a reunified Germany from 1991 to 1995, including two years as Bonn bureau chief. Seeking a better understanding of policymaking, she applied to the White House Fellows program in 1996 and was chosen to be special assistant to the FCC chairman. Choi subsequently served as domestic policy adviser to Vice President Gore, and as chief of staff for the Council of Economic Advisers in the White House.

In Washington, Choi observed that while many policy goals were successfully realized through public- and private-sector partnerships, the absence of self-sustaining funding often jeopardized those initiatives’ ability to thrive over the long term. That conclusion turned her toward business school to research “how to build a sustainable business with a ‘double bottom line’ — a firm that is profitable and benefits society.”

Choi aims to lead a company that will provide low-income individuals with productivity tools to improve the quality of their lives and empower them as entrepreneurs. “Fulfilling that dream,” she says, “will make the most of my HBS experience.” —JEA

Trent Staats

A Lone Star State resident and unofficial Southwest cultural ambassador to Calvinist New England, 30-something Trent Staats has already compiled a Texas-sized résumé. But he’d rather talk about his HBS classmates than himself. Declares Staats, “Every day, I’m amazed by the phenomenal people and interactions to be found here.”

Staats, who is a 1997 Ph.D. graduate in electrical engineering from the University of Texas, grew up in Austin. As a UT undergraduate, he was Southwest Conference 200-yard breaststroke champion and placed third at the World University Games in 1991.

Once out of the water, it was safe for Staats to play full-time with electricity. In 1999, he founded Austin-based Posita Technologies. The firm’s core product, a small device that Staats had invented and patented, could remotely monitor high-voltage power transmission and generation. This breakthrough enabled electricity traders to get the real-time supply and distribution information unavailable in deregulated markets.

“It was a great ride,” says Staats, who sold Posita in 2003. “But I realized I still had a lot to learn about business.” So he followed his younger brother, Bradley (MBA ’02), to HBS. Comparing MBA studies with Ph.D. work, Staats notes, “Few experiences here have felt ‘academic.’ That’s probably due to the real-world nature of the case method: How can you maintain an 80-minute discussion if it doesn’t resonate with people’s experiences?”

From deep in the heart of Massachusetts, Staats says, “I’d like to work in technology and stay in Boston.” Smiling, he adds, “It’s not time to go back to Texas just yet.” —GE

Christy Jones

Serial entrepreneur Christy Jones is interested in the balance between innocence and experience. With two start-ups under her belt and a third on the way, Jones is familiar with both sides of the equation. “It’s important to take advantage of other people’s knowhow and not reinvent the wheel,” says Jones, poised and congenial. “But I’ve seen the power and raw energy that comes with a fresh perspective.”

In 1989, the summer after her sophomore year at Stanford, Jones and three fellow students parlayed their fresh ideas into what became Trilogy Software, now a $150 million firm based in Austin, Texas. While Jones claims that initially she offered “zero value added” at Trilogy, she says her ability to work hard made up for her lack of experience. By the time she founded Trilogy spin-off pcOrder and took it public, her leadership skills were apparent. After the collapse of the tech stock market, Trilogy bought pcOrder back as a subsidiary, and Jones led the acquisition integration team.

Now 34 and single, Jones’s next start-up may hit home with many in her demographic group. In the spring, she launched Extend Fertility, a company that is developing medical options to prolong women’s fertility, primarily by freezing viable eggs and storing them for later use. While some may feel uncomfortable with the idea, Jones sees her work as a way to provide more options for career women: “After so much bad news about women’s fertility, we’re offering something positive.” —SY

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