A keen mind and a discerning eye made Irene Cook EMBA ’05 management material. Just one key ingredient was missing for her rise to the top at Panera Bread.

Cook, who lives in Easton, MA, has always been a stickler for details, demanding of herself and others. But she is also known by colleagues as a people person, a team builder, and a hugger. For years, colleagues had been telling her she was destined for upper management. But Cook wasn’t so sure. Despite her innate abilities, the one thing she lacked was confidence.

The idea of becoming a CEO “scared the bejesus out of me,” she recalls. And what troubled her even more was that she saw no realistic way to improve herself. “How do I get into graduate school without a bachelor’s degree?” she says. “I just figured it was not possible.”

In 2003, much to her surprise, Cook was admitted to the Suffolk University’s Executive MBA program. The 18-month program typically requires that students have both a bachelor’s degree and a minimum of seven years of leadership experience. Michael L. Barretti, the program’s academic director, says school officials make occasional allowances when they find an applicant who offset a lack of education with real-world business experience. Right away, Barretti says, they knew Cook was going to be one of those exceptions.

“We saw a very poised, very confident leader,” he recalls. “Irene was an individual who demonstrated—clearly demonstrated in our minds—the ability to lead an organization at a higher level. And I’ve got to tell you, she’s proven it so far.”

Before earning her Executive MBA degree in 2005, Cook joined Panera Bread, a growing chain with some 1,100 bakery-cafes nationwide. In her short time at Panera, she had developed new training programs, including an online curriculum that she believed would interest young employees more than the bound books they typically read. Now the company asked her to become one of four vice presidents of retail operations, overseeing 120 stores on the east coast.

This time, when faced with the possibility of a promotion, Cook said yes. She’s been in the restaurant business for more than three decades, but with her Suffolk degree behind her, you get the feeling that Cook is just getting started.

“I believe I can run a business now,” she says proudly.

The full version of this article ran in the Spring 2007 issue of Suffolk Alumni Magazine.