Meet Cornell Johnson’s MBA Class Of 2021

Michael Callender 

Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management, Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, Cornell University

 “A veteran who is passionate about using business innovation to develop a more sustainable future.”

Hometown: Concord, MA

Fun Fact About Yourself: I was assigned to lead the Army’s ceremonial horse unit, without ever having ridden a horse.

Undergraduate School and Major: Tulane University — Finance

Most Recent Employer and Job Title: U.S. Army, Caisson Platoon Leader (The Old Guard)

Describe your biggest accomplishment in your career so far: As a military leader, I measured the influence and contributions that I made to an organization by how well the organization was functioning after I left. A manager can always solve problems and make decisions for the short term, but true leaders develop and trust their teams to operate autonomously in complex environments for the long term. Realizing that my prior organizations maintained the systems, processes, and traditions that I helped implement while on active duty provides a far greater sense of accomplishment than any award or accolade.

What quality best describes the MBA classmates you’ve met so far and why? Dynamic. Like Odysseus himself, Cornellians arrive at Ithaca having faced incredible challenges and find success in places far and near. Every classmate brings a unique perspective and skillset, and the number of nontraditional career paths is impressive. The only universal traits that I have witnessed are inclusiveness, collaboration, and an eagerness to learn.

Aside from your classmates, what was the key factor that led you to choose this program for your full-time MBA and why was it so important to you? The key factor for me is the school’s full commitment to supporting veterans and creating better educational opportunities for military service members. Johnson offers several military-specific scholarships and consistently enrolls a higher percentage of veterans than peer MBA programs. I have found that Johnson’s Association of Veterans is the most active veterans club among competitors and even fundraises to supplement scholarships for military applicants. I knew Johnson was the right choice when the administration, having learned about the disconnect between active-duty soldiers and top-tier educational opportunities, organized information sessions on actual military bases. This unprecedented action led to several of my peers enrolling in Johnson’s Executive MBA programs while pursuing careers as active-duty soldiers. Johnson’s commitment to veterans is unparalleled, and I seized the opportunity to join and help provide a positive impact to this special community.

What club or activity are you looking most forward to in business school? The immersion semester in Sustainable Global Enterprise. It is a truly comprehensive curriculum in sustainability and gives students the opportunity to help real companies solve current issues.

What was the most challenging question you were asked during the admissions process? I struggled early on to describe my military experiences in the essays. I was inundated with advice from successful veteran MBA applicants, and a common theme was to write about experiences that highlight “quantifiable” accomplishments that translate well to business situations. I managed budgets and plenty of resources — but was I excited to talk about that? Is that what developed me most? Absolutely not, and that lack of enthusiasm was apparent in my writing of those first essay drafts. It took a while to realize that the techniques that worked for others wouldn’t necessarily work for me. I discussed the topic with admissions teams and other veterans. Both groups encouraged me to be myself and trust in my experiences. Military experiences may be unique, but leadership challenges are universal. The essays quickly became an enjoyable form of self-reflection, rather than a stressful equation.

What led you to pursue an MBA at this point in your career? Changing industries is a compelling reason to pursue an MBA — and there is no starker change than leaving the military for the private sector. Five years in the army made me comfortable leading teams and pushing myself. I believe that pursuing an MBA is the best path to improving my professional skills and reaching my career goals.

What other MBA programs did you apply to? Darden, MIT Sloan, Yale School of Management  

How did you determine your fit at various schools? I prioritized schools based on curriculum, career opportunities, and culture. I was looking for a strong core curriculum in a school with ample access to the renewable energy sector. Johnson’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise (CSGE) immersion track guarantees that I will have adequate industry experience and a thriving network of alumni.

When researching a school’s culture, I started by reaching out to the various veteran clubs and learning about members’ experiences. I would ask veterans to connect me with other students pursuing similar career interests to my own. The next step was getting on campus or attending regional events. I sought out professors and engaged with alumni whenever possible. Lastly, I evaluated my peers during information sessions, interviews, and admitted student functions.

What was your defining moment and how did it shape who you are? The extensive leadership development I received in the military has shaped who I am. Training scenarios strip you of the most basic comforts and force you to collaborate as a team in harsh environments. I learned a lot about myself when food and sleep were scarce, and even more about organizational behavior. I think my defining moment was at Ranger School when I made a simple but grave mistake on the last night of the evaluation. The instructor had every reason to put me back at the beginning of the course but gave me a second chance because he admired the vigor with which I had supported my team for the previous nine days. As a result, I worked harder to develop my peers and myself. We graduated the course together without losing another member. That moment taught me that failure is never absolute, especially when you have the support of your team.

Where do you see yourself in ten years? Developing energy solutions on a global scale.

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