10 Military Veterans To Watch From The MBA Class Of 2020

Many MBA candidates learn leadership from workshops, mentors, or stretch assignments. Martin Palmer absorbed it from practicing it every day, often under fire in the worst scenarios imaginable.

That would include war-ravaged Syria, where Martin’s detachment of 12 Green Berets were supporting fighters against ISIS. After four months of fighting, the Syrians were within a few hundred yards of re-taking a key stronghold. However, a surprise assault cost several casualties on the Syrian side – and Martin’s counterpart was ready to order a retreat. That’s when Martin’s leadership training – honed in the remote villages of Afghanistan – kicked in. Years earlier, he had coaxed village elders to help him build a police force that would eventually rid the area of the Taliban. Now, he turned his persuasive might towards re-assuring a commander to bury his loss and push forward.


In the end, it was leadership, as much as strategy and firepower, that solidified the victory. “This success in our campaign against ISIS was only possible because I and my team had spent the previous four months establishing trust, credibility, and dependability with our Syrian partners,” Martin explains. “While this event unfolded over the course of only a few hours, to me it signified the success of my tireless efforts to establish this trust and credibility. I was proud of the influence, adaptability, and problem solving I exhibited during the mission and knew that we were well positioned to continue our success for the rest of the deployment.”

Palmer’s story reinforces a key point: business schools aren’t always pulling their best talent from Cambridge, Palo Alto, or South Bend. Instead, some of the most impressive applications boast names like West Point, Annapolis, or Colorado Springs. These candidates’ titles are as likely to be platoon leader or supply officer as associate consultant or financial analyst. Chances are, they didn’t learn leadership in seminars or stretch assignments. Instead, they absorbed and exuded it with grace and grit at Fort Benning or Mosul.

Each year, P&Q profiles incoming students from over 40 top MBA programs. As part of that, we also honor some of the top military veterans who represent the next generation of leaders. Not just leaders of their schools and communities, but likely leaders in the world’s largest and most dynamic and influential companies someday. In their military careers, these 10 MBA students have flown with President Trump, run guided missile cruisers, and broken the speed barrier in jets. In other words, they have shouldered an array of critical jobs at young ages. That makes them all the more valuable in the classroom and the workforce alike.

Here are 10 veterans whose experience, know-how, and values are likely to shape leading companies in the coming years.

(Editor’s Note: These MBA candidates are not ranked in any order.)

Ben Crom, Georgia Tech (Scheller): Ben Crom has breathed some rarified air. A graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Crom spent over a decade in the military, culminating with his service as the Flag Aide to the Director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. Here, he sat in meetings with the Secretaries of Defense and State, prepared his boss for Senate testimony, and even traveled with President Trump. While an honor, these experiences also exposed him to a larger world – one that he would need an MBA to understand.

“When I was working at the Pentagon, I would observe decisions being made that had major impacts to organizations, nations, and people,” he recalls.  “Some of these decisions were counter-intuitive from the third-party outsider; I wanted to know what metrics upon which these decisions were based. I also knew that if I wanted to continue an upward career progression, a graduate degree would be paramount.”

That took a leap of fate – not hard for man who braved three Atlantic categories in Cat-3 and Cat-5 planes. Even more, growing up as an “army brat” sparked an “interpersonal curiosity” in Crom, one that ultimately led him to Georgia Tech’s Scheller College of Business.

“Moving every three years to new places forced me to become adaptable; it forced me to foster a curiosity about people and cultures,” Crom explains. “This curiosity continues today and is a major reason why I chose Scheller: a program that highlights the international perspective and endeavors to recruit as diverse a student body as any school I have researched.”

Despite the flurry and fury of business school, Crom hasn’t forgotten his military roots. “I’m already getting involved in the MBA Veterans Club at Scheller,” he adds. “Among many other efforts, we support deployed units by sending them care packages. I’m hoping to pay it forward to the folks downrange the same way I was supported from the home-front when I was deployed.”

Tanja Duester, INSEAD: “I can fly helicopters and put a 250 lbs person on my shoulders…in heels.”

That’s the kind of no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners mindset you’ll find with Tanja Duester, a West Point grad and Deputy Director of Aviation Options in the U.S. Army. She calls it being “bombastic with tact” – the perfect temperament for her biggest achievement:

“Leading, managing, and guiding over 150 Soldiers for 18 months in the garrison – which in my experience is more challenging than combat because of all the distractions.”

Eventually, Duester – a new mother – needed a change from her beloved Army. That led her to look into business school – a place renowned for helping veterans channel their natural leadership skills into new career paths. “I’m following in the footsteps of veterans who made the transition before me,” she says. The ones that took on the MBA had a smoother transition into civilian life and found their footing in a new career quicker. In my opinion, having that structure is priceless. After that, it was just a question of where to apply.”

That “where” became INSEAD, also known as the “Business School for the World.” Home to MBA candidates from 94 countries, INSEAD the perfect place for a career changer like Duester looking to remain overseas. “The diversity and backgrounds of my classmates at INSEAD have exceeded all expectations,” she notes. “Being around this group of people is truly improving me and expanding my world view: Not a day passes without learning about a classmate’s culture and how they see things differently.”

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.