In a Class by Themselves

Ivan Salas Orono and Gilles Mepossi Noutcha with Professor Larry Culp

After graduating from the Harvard Business School, Ivan Salas Orono (left) will be joining Warner Brothers Entertainment in Los Angeles as part of their corporate strategy team. Gilles Mepossi Noutcha (right) will be looking to move back to Africa to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities. Their professor, Larry Culp, will continue to serve as a senior lecturer at HBS, while serving on the boards of Washington College and Wake Forest University.

How Two Harvard Business School Students Discovered Their MC Roots

As a first-year senior lecturer at Harvard Business School last spring, Larry Culp perused the 61 candidates in his Field Immersion Experiences for Leadership Development (FIELD) Global Immersion course and dis-covered he had two Montgomery College graduates—Gilles Mepossi Noutcha ’07 and Ivan Salas Orono ’08—on his class roster.

“It was jaw dropping,” says Culp, who grew up in Rockville and whose friend, Steve McAuliffe, sits on the Montgomery College Foundation Board of Directors. “I had no idea this kind of talent was at our local community college.”

Mepossi Noutcha and Salas Orono earned admission to the prestigious MBA program in 2015, which accepted just 12 percent of the more than 9,300 candidates from around the country—and around the world. Culp, thinking they might recognize one another, sat the MC graduates together the first day of class. What he did not realize is Montgomery College, much like Harvard Business School, attracts students from more than 160 countries. Mepossi Noutcha and Salas Orono, from Cameroon and Argentina, respectively, enrolled at the College and overcame obstacles. Now, more than 10 years later, each man recounted how transformative their Montgomery College experience was.

Mepossi Noutcha came to the United States two weeks before the fall 2004 semester started. His limited English skills forced him to enroll in American English Language Program classes, but after two semesters, he took on the rigors of the engineering curriculum. He also immersed himself in student life opportunities, participating in the Men of Purpose program, earning a spot in the Phi Theta Kappa honor society, and at 6′ 8″, playing on the men’s basketball team. He transferred to the Georgia Institute of Technology as a mechanical engineering major. “Coming to the United States was a difficult adjustment at first,” he says. “But I am so grateful to everyone at MC for encouraging me to dream big.”

Big dreams were the last thing on Ivan Salas Orono’s mind when he arrived in the United States in 2005. A self-proclaimed “terrible high school student,” he begrudgingly enrolled at the College because his older brother was a student. He worked full time the first year, taking classes at night. When he heard about the Macklin Business Institute (MBI), it piqued his interest. He applied—and earned a spot in the honors business program.

“This [MBI] was the first time I was given real-life responsibilities,” he says, “and I gained a lot of self-confidence.” Salas Orono built on that experience, earning a bachelor’s degree from the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.

After earning their bachelor’s degrees, both men embarked on successful careers. Mepossi Noutcha landed a job with Eaton, a global leader in power management. He was plucked for a leadership development program for employees with high potential, traversing the United States to learn all aspects of the business. Orono landed his “dream job” with Morgan Stanley in New York City, then moved to Miami to work for Starwood Hotels. In three years, Salas Orono signed more than 25 deals to develop new hotels in Latin America.

Although they were on upward trajectories career-wise, both men sensed something was missing in their lives. Mepossi Noutcha described it as a lack of fulfillment: “After five years of working in the field, I started wondering, what am I here to do?” Salas Orono characterized it as: “I felt like there could be something more for me out there.”

Coincidentally, their HBS professor, Larry Culp, began his new venture the same time the two MC graduates embarked on theirs. After stepping down from a 14-year tenure as CEO of Danaher Corporation, having increased revenues nearly five-fold to $20 billion while increasing shareholder returns to five times that of the S&P Index, he found himself writing the next chapter of his personal and professional life. When he announced his transition plan, Culp received a congratulatory call from Dr. Nitin Nohria, HBS dean, who inquired about Culp’s interest in teaching. “I was very honored to get this offer,” says Culp, who found his way back to HBS 25 years after he graduated.

Culp developed a close relationship with the two students throughout the semester. Part of the course required Culp, the two MC graduates, and the rest of the FIELD class to fly to Shanghai, China, for a 10-day project working with local companies to create new business models using design thinking—a method of meeting people’s needs and desires in a technologically feasible and strategically viable way. Both students described him as affable and approachable. “Larry has a way of explaining complicated concepts in a way that is simple, to the point, and engaging,” says Salas Orono. “He was able to motivate us HBS students who can be pretty jaded and cynical at times.”

Confidentiality issues precluded Culp from divulging how the two men fared in his class, but he did extol their virtues. “These are two outstanding young men. I know they will parlay their opportunity at Harvard Business School into two excellent careers.”

Mepossi Noutcha is looking to move back to Africa to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities. “I had this wish I made on my 30th birthday,” he says, “to be one of the top-40 businessmen in Africa by the time I reached the age of 40. This [Harvard Business School] has been amazing—there’s a ‘me’ before and after this experience. I have such belief in my capabilities now. And most importantly, I want to use these capabilities to impact as many lives as possible in Africa.”

Salas Orono, who recently accepted a position with Warner Brothers Entertainment in Los Angeles as part of their corporate strategy team, says, “Someday I hope to start my own company in the entertainment industry, … tell great stories, make it grow, hire people, and leave something behind that continues to generate jobs and entertain people beyond my lifetime.”

—Jill Fitzgerald

Photography by Susan Young

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