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My Story: From The CIA To An MBA

Christopher Schildt and members his Oxford cohort visited Google on their Silicon Valley trek earlier this year. Courtesy photo

There’s a lot Christopher Schildt can’t talk about. He worked for the CIA for 15 years — and not just in one or two departments: Schildt’s expertise led him to work “across the whole agency,” first as an economic analyst and eventually as assistant to two agency directors. His LinkedIn profile is a cornucopia of leadership, communications, product management, and, especially, tech know-how — a profile in public-sector versatility. But it was, after all, the CIA — which means the baby-faced 38-year-old has secrets that he will take to his grave.

His unusual path to an MBA is not one of them. Talking — sometimes in specifics, often in broad strokes — with Poets&Quants recently, Schildt discusses the crossroads he reached in his “fantastic” career, the ongoing tech revolution that inspired and uprooted him, and his journey to Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and what it’s been like going through that UK school’s one-year MBA program, from which he’ll graduate in September.

“I started with the CIA right after graduating from Yale in 2002, so it was right after 9/11,” says Schildt, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and international studies from Yale. “That was my motivation for joining. I started out as economic analyst and then moved into technical operations, so I planned and conducted high-risk technical operations around the world. I also managed a multimillion-dollar covert action program where we built technical capabilities for agency-wide use. My last year was serving for two directors of the CIA: John Brennan and Mike Pompeo for three months after the inauguration. 

“I loved it — it was a fantastic career. More of a career than most have, because I worked across the whole agency. But it was either ‘in for 20 more years’ or ‘leave now and go do something else.’ And being a technical operations officer, I kept seeing these amazing things the private sector was doing tech-wise and wanted to be a part of that.”

‘I WANTED A VERY INTERNATIONAL PROGRAM’

Christopher Schildt

For most of the 15 years he spent with the CIA, Chris Schildt couldn’t talk about any aspect of his work. That has changed, somewhat: He now can discuss the basics of what he did. More than that, however, he wants to talk about how his role evolved, how his experiences sparked his departure for the private sector, and what the future holds.

“Having spent 15 years in government, it was hard to transition — especially when for most of those 15 years I couldn’t talk openly about what I did,” Schildt says. “It’s very weird being able to actually publicly talk about my CIA affiliation. My network was pretty robust within Washington and the intelligence community, but I didn’t have a network in the business community, and didn’t really know the business lingo.”

Schildt’s work as chief of technology development and integration for the CIA involved the development of new web and mobile technologies and the creation of a cyber capability to successfully conduct operations worldwide. He wanted to take those skills — along with his considerable leadership skills in managing a multimillion-dollar budget and multidisciplinary team of analysts, engineers, designers, and operators — to work in an innovative, exciting private-sector role. He wanted to do it in a European program, since he’d always wanted to live in Europe. And at 38, he didn’t want to waste too much time.

Enter Oxford’s one-year program, which checked all the boxes. “I knew I wanted a one-year program, and I would spend that year really dedicating myself to learning more about business and making that transition as smoothly as possible,” he says. “I only considered overseas programs. I was a Yale undergrad and I also have a master’s in public affairs from Princeton, so I have a pretty solid U.S. education, and I wanted that global experience. I wanted a very international program.”

FROM THE CIA, ‘A HUGE AMOUNT OF TRANSFERABLE SKILLS’

Oxford’s Class of 2018 is 334 strong. Only around 90 of those students hail, like Schildt, from North America, while just 40 come from a public sector/nonprofit background. In both his age and work experience — both of which are 10 full years greater than the class average — Schildt is something of an outlier in his cohort. And that’s saying nothing about his actual work experience. Not too many former CIA operatives go to business school.

Which is too bad from at least one perspective. “The MBA has helped me realize that my time at the CIA gave me a huge amount of transferable skills,” Schildt says. But he lacked some crucial knowledge. “It was the language of business that I needed to learn,” he adds, “and I saw the Oxford MBA as providing a perfect runway to what I want to do next.”

Schildt views his Oxford experience as a springboard to a tech career, specifically the transport innovation sector. Post-MBA, he hopes to stay in Europe, perhaps working for a German startup called Lilium Aviation, definitely working in technological innovation to travel and transportation. He has positioned himself “to be at the intersection of technology, business, and policy,” he says. “I’m really interested in the future of transportation.” To that end, he’ll attend the Uber Elevate Summit this month, building on the network he started forming this spring when he organized a student trek to Silicon Valley and Seattle with 14 of his Oxford classmates. Their itinerary included visits to Tesla, Airbnb, LinkedIn, Facebook, Cisco, and Amazon, as well as some smaller companies.

“The trip went really well,” Schildt says. “We just got a really honest and candid assessment of what it’s like working for those companies, what roles we should be looking at as newly minted MBAs. It was just a really good experience.”