My Story: From Arab Spring To Wharton

Alexander Emmert, Wharton Class of 2020, atop Mount Kilimanjaro. Courtesy photo

Alec Emmert has been around danger practically his whole life. He grew up in Colombia, Belgium, and Brazil, where his father was a foreign service diplomat; the family had to flee Colombia when a cartel put a bounty on their heads. He attended the Naval Academy and became an officer on a nuclear submarine, deploying four times to the Middle East; in 2011, he was a watch officer in Bahrain when the Arab Spring erupted, and amid the chaos and daily escalating street violence he was tasked with ensuring the safety of American and foreign personnel.

After all that and more — much more — a little thing like business school wasn’t about to intimidate Emmert. He’ll start his MBA journey in the fall after having been admitted to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania as a member of its Class of 2020.

“Most officers consider business school immediately after leaving the military,” says Emmert, a native of Washington, D.C. who currently serves as a management consultant for Booz Allen Hamilton in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. “I took a different path in that I chose to work in the private sector for several years before attending business school. About two years ago, I decided that I wanted to pursue an MBA, and have spent the time since trying to get into my first-choice school, Wharton. My acceptance is a dream come true.”


Alec Emmert. Courtesy photo

At 35, Emmert expects to be among the oldest members of his Wharton class, if not the oldest — a full eight years older than the average age in Wharton’s last several cohorts. But what an eight years it has been. He’s gone from a military career that took him not only to the Mideast but also to Italy, Ukraine, and dozens of other countries (he’s been to 45 “and counting”), on to an internship at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, where he and about 20 others were given backstage roles in a veterans immersion program, then back to the Navy on a recall from the Reserves, where he mobilized to the Middle East in 2014-2015 and planned maritime support for special operations missions. There, in his second stint in the Armed Forces, he assisted in the evacuation of the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, Yemen.

Leaving the Navy again, Emmert moved on to a lucrative (and adventuresome) consulting gig that has taken him to Saudi Arabia, where he is currently assisting clients with organizational transformation. Meanwhile, he somehow found time to learn basic Arabic (in just six months!), climb Mount Kilimanjaro, and earn a Master of Finance degree from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. For the last two years he has been planning his application to an elite MBA program, studying for the GMAT (he “had a very good day” and scored well enough to “be in the conversation at the top schools”) and revising (“and revising and revising”) his resume and B-school application — all while developing a long-term plan that involves impact investment in developing nations.

“My experiences overseas have shown me that economic development is key to security and national stability,” Emmert tells Poets&Quants. “After my experiences in the military and private sector, I am ready to take a step back and leverage them in an academic setting. Having traveled the world both in the military and as a private citizen, I have seen the direct link between poverty, crime, and terrorism.

“After researching business schools, I saw Wharton as the perfect fit for me due to its active Social Impact Initiative. I plan on using my time there to study ways to use private enterprise to drive social change and economic development.”


Emmert has seen the crushing effects of poverty in many countries, beginning with the favelas of Brazil, where he spent part of his childhood while his father served in the foreign service. When Emmert was stationed at Naval Forces Central Command Headquarters in Manama, Bahrain, he saw firsthand how poverty sparked the protests of the Arab Spring, an uprising that gave hope to millions before ending in violence, government crackdowns, and for most, a return to the status quo.

Witnessing the response to repression and a return to disenfranchisement for the majority, Emmert began to mull other possibilities for change. He decided that business — investment and support for entrepreneurship, education, and the development of commercial infrastructure — could make a more lasting positive impact. That’s where he sees himself post-MBA.

“Many of the big banks have sustainable investment funds, where they look at opportunities to generate long-term competitive financial returns and positive societal impact,” he says. “These funds measure ROI more by social impact rather than financial returns. I plan on exploring these opportunities while I am pursuing my MBA, especially through Wharton’s Impact Investing Partners. I have some insight into the challenges developing nations are facing, and I’d be interested in learning about the projects and businesses that are being launched to combat them.

“The next step would be to launch a socially conscious startup, which is something I’d like to do at some point in my life. I have seen a few inspirational examples recently. I watched a report on a new company that utilizes drones to deliver blood and medical supplies to remote areas in Africa. The drones cut delivery time from several days to a couple of hours, thus saving lives. I also see Jake Harriman, a fellow veteran and Naval Academy alum, as a role model. He founded a company called Nuru International that is currently working to eradicate extreme poverty by teaching sustainability to impoverished communities.”

(See the following page for Poets&Quants‘ interview with Alec Emmert. It has been edited for length and readability.)