Everyone who chooses Tuck is deeply focused on being present in the MBA community. People are committed to the education, the activities, and to building an environment where meaningful connection happens.
By Adam Sylvain
Urban air-mobility startup Wisk Aero plans to fulfill the longtime fantasy of every frustrated commuter—the ability to soar above and beyond highway gridlocks and congested city streets.
With the potential to become the world’s first self-flying air taxi service, Chief Financial Officer Caryn Nightengale T’02 says the company is poised to become a game-changing disruptor in the aerospace industry.
“We have the opportunity to eliminate urban traffic congestion and change the way we think about transportation,” explains Nightengale. “With a growing number of car companies investing in this space, as well as Boeing and Airbus, everyone understands this is the direction the industry is headed.”
Wisk’s solution is an autonomous, battery-powered air taxi named Cora. Low noise and environmentally friendly, Cora utilizes eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) technology to take off vertically like a helicopter and fly like an airplane. This capability eliminates the need for a runway and allows passengers to land precisely where they need to be.
Nightengale’s quest to secure the future of accessible, everyday flight is the latest milestone in a career that has evolved from investment banking to corporate development to helping build companies that disrupt the status quo.
After earning her undergraduate degree from Penn’s Wharton School of Business, Nightengale worked as a financial analyst at the Federal Reserve Board before pursuing her MBA. Initially, she applied only to dual JD/MBA programs, but at the urging of her brother, Michael Greene D’95, Nightengale applied to Tuck and eventually attended Admitted Students Weekend.
During her visit, Nightengale met a student who was completing his JD at Cornell Law School while pursuing his MBA at Tuck. She realized how committed Tuck was to supporting students and helping them pursue their career goals.
“I was sold on Tuck, but I scrapped the JD idea,” says Nightengale. “I had to ask myself, ‘What do you really want?’ I knew I wanted to get my MBA.”
It was Tuck’s welcoming and inclusive environment, and a seemingly universal commitment to the MBA experience, that ultimately won her over.
“Everyone who chooses Tuck is deeply focused on being present in the MBA community,” she says. “People are committed to the education, the activities, and to building an environment where meaningful connection happens.”
For Nightengale, these connections were forged within and beyond the classroom. She fondly remembers watching classmates compete in the annual wing eating contest at former Hanover hangout, 5 Olde Nugget Alley.
“It was essentially a mini version of Joey Chestnut gorging himself at the Coney Island hot dog eating contest,” jokes Nightengale. “It’s an incredible memory that I make sure to remind them of to this day.”
Some of the most salient advice she received came from the late Tuck Professor of Finance Kent Womack, who urged Nightengale and her classmates to be deliberate about staying in touch.
“He suggested creating a calendar and making a point to call people on the phone and remember their kids’ names,” says Nightengale. “It sounds simple, but when life gets in the way, many of us don’t do it.”
Once she graduated from Tuck, Nightengale resumed her career in finance as an investment banker at BMO Capital Markets in Chicago. Her work there focused on building growth strategies and executing M&A deals for middle market companies, mostly in the consumer space.
After several years, she joined Boeing as Director of Corporate Development. The position was Nightengale’s first exposure to the aerospace and defense industry. She worked closely with Boeing’s senior leadership on inorganic growth strategies through acquisitions, divestitures, and joint ventures. When Boeing was launching its venture capital arm, HorizonX, Nightengale also helped make the fund’s initial investments.
At BMO Capital Markets and Boeing, Nightengale functioned as an advisor with second-nature comfort diagnosing and planning solutions to problems. Eventually, she felt a growing desire to pursue a more operational role that would bring her closer to the work of implementing those solutions.
“You don’t always appreciate how hard it is to actually fix the problems once they’re identified,” explains Nightengale. “That’s what I wanted to do. I wanted the opportunity to execute on the advice I was giving other people.”
She next became CFO at Liquid Robotics, a Silicon Valley company that manufactures an autonomous marine robot. Powered by wave and solar energy, the robot canvasses ocean waters and collects information useful for a variety of applications—from monitoring fish populations to detecting submarine activity across enemy lines.
Recognizing the synergy between the two companies, namely their shared focus on autonomy, sustainability, and disruptive technology, Nightengale joined Wisk as their CFO in July of 2019, just eight months before California began its pandemic lockdown.
“People say in Silicon Valley time that number is doubled, but it’s fair to say I was in a fairly new position,” Nightengale says. “Business continuity planning has a whole new meaning for me now.”
In her CFO role, Nightengale has broad responsibility for not only finance and accounting functions, but also IT, facilities, and environmental health and safety. When the lockdown began, this included taking steps to prioritize the mental health and safety of nearly 300 employees, ensuring everyone had the tools and support to be effective in a remote work environment.
Fortunately, even before the pandemic began, Wisk had a culture where video conferencing and remote work streams were not uncommon. Most employees were working at the company’s Bay Area headquarters, but some were remote and others worked at offices in New Zealand and Atlanta. For the most part, Nightengale says the lockdown reinforced what Wisk employees had already proven: that they can be as productive or even more productive working at home.
With the vaccine rollout underway throughout the country, Nightengale is now focused on what the post-pandemic work environment will look like at Wisk.
“People like being able to spend more time with family and escape to different geographies. I’m an example of that,” says Nightengale, who lives in Scottsdale, Arizona. “My job is to figure out how we can merge the best of the pre- and post-pandemic world into the workplace of the future.”
Now a member of Tuck’s MBA Council, Nightengale leverages the breadth of her experience—in advisory, corporate development, and operational roles for established companies and disruptive startups—to strengthen and grow the Tuck brand. She hopes the experience will also help prepare her for public board service one day.
“I want to be intentional about giving back and teaching the life lessons and real-world experiences that have shaped me,” she says. “I’m standing on the shoulders of so many and I’m preparing for others to stand on mine.”
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