It’s not every MBA student who can list “combat” and “counterterrorism” along with “leveraged finance” and “investment banking” under the skills and knowledge sections of his LinkedIn profile.
Derek Rey, it should be said, is more experienced at warfare than he is at investment banking. For now.
During seven years in the Marine Corps, with deployments in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and southeast Asia, Rey built up a substantial skill set in high-stakes environments. He left the Marines in 2013, took aim at a career in financial services, and enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Virginia Darden School.
Like many U.S. military veterans, Rey has discovered that abilities forged in fields of fire have tremendous value in the business world. “You never quite know what the situation is you’re getting into,” he says. “Let’s say you’re doing a security patrol and you have an idea of where the enemy is located. You’ve received your intelligence reports. You know generally were they are but you don’t have any idea of what their exact position is, you don’t know how they’re arrayed. Are they ready for you or not? Or maybe there’s nothing there at all and it’s some kind of humanitarian crisis that you weren’t really prepared for.
INSUFFICIENT INFORMATION IS PAR FOR THE COURSE
“Once you get out on the ground you have to adjust on the fly and do the best that you can with the information that you have, and just get the mission done. That’s kind of a great skill to have.”
Across the U.S., military veterans make up nearly 13% of the graduate student population in business schools, according to the Military Times, a news outlet run by Gannett. Darden vigorously recruits veterans – they make up seven to nine per cent of each incoming class – in part because having students from diverse backgrounds facilitates learning under the case method, says assistant professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne. “That external perspective we really seek and build on,” says Grushka-Cockayne, who served as a lieutenant in an ordinance division of the Israel Defense Forces about 20 years ago. Additionally, veterans in the classroom model behaviors that are valued in business, Grushka-Cockayne says. “They are leaders, and so they are comfortable stepping out, they know what it is . . . to be decisive, and handle ambiguity. Those are good traits to demonstrate to some of the other students who aren’t as comfortable taking those roles.”
While veterans come into Darden with a range of abilities, they tend to share the ability to make hard choices, a key skill in business, Grushka-Cockayne says. However, she adds, students coming out of the insular world of the military “might struggle at the beginning in terms of the language and using the right terms and understanding the objectives when you’re making a decision.”
Although the ambiguity of combat operations strengthened Rey’s capacity to act effectively in uncertain situations, he did his best to minimize the unknowns before starting at Darden. For the former Marine captain, there were a lot of those unknowns, and he discovered that other veterans going to business school shared his mix of military expertise and business ignorance.
HARD CHARGING, BUT FEW HARD SKILLS
“What we really lacked going into the business world was those hard business skills – accounting, finance, operations, marketing,” Rey says.
Rey knew that at Darden, most of his peers would have much stronger familiarity with those fundamental skills, and even if he excelled at soft skills such as strategy, leadership, and communication, he’d enter school at a disadvantage.
“In order to operate in the business world and in business school you need to be able to speak the language,” he says. Though he was living in a remote area of Virginia before starting at Darden, he took online classes in financial accounting and business calculus from the UCLA extension program, “to just sort of sharpen my pencils before going into class.”
CATALYZED BY RESPONSE TO 9/11
Rey had been born and raised in Vallejo, California, a half-hour’s drive east of San Francisco. “I’d always kind of been drawn to the military,” he says. But until the fall of his senior year, he’d made no moves toward service. Then the planes hit the Twin Towers. “That was kind of one of the catalysts in my life. It’s hard to explain, it was very moving. I remember that being the turning point.”