Tochi Lazarevic, a World Executive MBA candidate at George Washington University, drops off her children, Ilija, 2 1/2, and Vojin, 1, at the day care provider in her apartment building in Arlington before heading to work. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

Neil Cohen looks upon the two dozen students in his Saturday morning financial management class at George Washington University and poses a personal question: “Some of you have your own business here ... Why don’t you use equity financing for your business?”

It is the kind of conversation starter that would only spark debate in a classroom of executive MBA students, many of whom have several years of work experience in management roles. They’ve likely encountered that question before — on the job.

That’s the nature of executive MBA programs. The students are often looking to hone their professional skills — not establish them — and add formal academic credentials to often-extensive resumes.

Let us introduce you to three executive MBA students at GW. Their stories offer a snapshot of the individuals enrolled in these programs — and their efforts to balance career aspirations with the real-time demands of work, life and school.

Amy Trout Hughes, an executive MBA candidate at George Washington University, at a Starbucks on the GWU campus. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

Lazarevic tries to avoid ‘domino effect’

The clock read 8:30 a.m. as the students in George Washington University’s World Executive MBA program filed into their Saturday morning lecture on financial management. For Tochi Lazarevic, it felt like 2:30 in the afternoon.

The international development consultant and mother of two toddlers had stepped off an airplane just hours before from Kigali, Rwanda, where she had spent the past week helping to orchestrate a conference on education in sub-Saharan Africa.

“One of the challenges is juggling family and career,” Lazarevic said. “It demands a lot of your time. If anything falls off track, then obviously it has a domino effect.”

It’s a sentiment that Lazarevic shares with many of her classmates. Executive MBA programs tend to attract older students with several years of work experience already on their resume.

But in the years when they were establishing those professional credentials, their personal lives never stood still. Many students have spouses and homes, children and pets, and all the other aspects of life that don’t stop just because classes begin.

A graduate of George Mason University, Lazarevic has focused her career on international development and humanitarian work. That’s taken her to a mix of for-profit and nonprofit employers, including the Millennium Challenge Corp., which helps Congress distribute foreign aid, and Africare, a charity that addresses sanitation, food security and other humanitarian issues in Africa.

Adrian Riddell, a candidate in George Washington University’s World Executive MBA program, at work at Human Genome Sciences in Rockville, where he is in charge of an engineering unit. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

She now serves as a senior consultant with Morgan Borszcz Consulting, a minority, woman-owned small business that provides management and information technology assistance to the government and companies. She primarily works with the U.S. Agency for International Development.

But as she works toward the completion of her degree in December, Lazarevic said the marriage of a formal business education with her roots in humanitarian work could present new opportunities.

“It really helps you build the foundational skills you need to start your own business, which is ultimately what I would like to do,” she said.

Hughes hopes MBA will be a ‘silver bullet’

Amy Trout Hughes’s career path could easily be described as “very Washington.”

In the early 1990s, Hughes left her undergraduate studies at Penn State University and helped coordinate college volunteers for former President Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign.

Then came the acronyms. The information technology boom in the 1990s took her to EDS, where she worked as a technical writer and business analyst. She later moved to CACI International, an IT contractor.

“As I moved around in the world of contracting and different roles there, I gained a lot of skills but I didn’t gain a lot of viability in terms of leadership,” Hughes said. “I could see what was happening that wasn’t working, but I wasn’t in a position where I could make decisions to change it.”

That desire for professional growth brought her to George Washington University’s executive MBA program in 2010. Hughes had finished her undergraduate degree in business management years earlier at the University of Phoenix, and a full-time graduate degree program was untenable given her current lifestyle.

“I can’t go back to living on a student loans budget,” she said. “I like shoes. And I like my car. And I like being able to make mortgage payments.”

The vast majority of executive MBA students maintain a full-time job while enrolled in their program. Hughes, for example, currently works as a federal consultant at Deloitte Consulting.

That’s part of the reason many executive MBA programs meet every other weekend, or less frequently than that, and integrate on-the-job experience as part of the curriculum.

The overall time commitment, however, equates to adding a part-time job on top of your ordinary schedule, Hughes said. But as she approaches graduation in May, the sacrifice of less time with her husband and two dogs has been worth it.

“My concern was and to a certain extent still is that I want [this degree] to be a silver bullet,” Hughes said. “I want it to change my life and I want it so I can change my world.”

What does that mean for her career long term? Hughes isn’t quite sure. But earning an MBA has come with unexpected personal growth that leaves her open to new opportunities, she said.

“I always thought I was risk averse. This program has taught me I’m not as risk averse as I thought,” Hughes said.

“I’m afraid of being unemployed. I don’t want to ever be unemployed. But I realize my skills are more than what color my badge is for my government client. And I want to be able to use those skills.”

Riddell is looking for a change in direction

Adrian Riddell was nearing completion of his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Penn State when he met a recruiter from Human Genome Sciences at a job fair. That was more than 10 years ago.

Today he works as an engineering supervisor at the Rockville-based company, which in his decade on the job has morphed from a research-driven enterprise into a bonafide drugmaker with its first commercial product on the market.

Riddell has in many ways had a first-hand view of the company’s trajectory. He helped HGS to scale up its production of Benlysta, a drug to treat systemic lupus, in advance of the Food and Drug Administration’s approval last year.

But the engineering and science guy now finds himself immersed in the nuts and bolts of what makes a business viable. As a student in George Washington University’s World Executive MBA program, he’s taking courses in financial management, business law and operations strategy.

“That’s a link that’s sometimes hard to make,” he said. “So often [biotechnology companies] fail because trying to transition from that state of really focusing in on the science ... into a successful business is a challenge.”

Executive MBA programs are designed specifically for students with several years of experience in the workforce. Many hold managerial roles or serve on a company’s executive board.

But the similarity in backgrounds often stops there. Riddell’s cohort at GW contains federal contractors, biopharmaceutical executives, public school officials and military veterans.

The nexus of business and science has long been an area of interest, Riddell said. Before enrolling in GW’s program, he completed a part-time master’s degree in biotechnology enterprise at Johns Hopkins University.

“I’ve always in the back of my head had this longer-term horizon, starting with the technical and science foundation that I enjoy and ultimately moving in a direction where I can apply that to more strategic decision-making,” Riddell said.

But a change in direction doesn’t necessarily have to mean a change in employer, especially as HGS continues to reach more patients with its treatment for systemic lupus.

Riddell chose an executive MBA program “in order to set myself up most ideally to fill a role in a more managerial position … as the company grows and those opportunities open.”