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Attitude Is Altitude: An Aviator’s Path To Stanford GSB

Syed Faraz, an Air Force veteran, Harvard Kennedy MPA, and Stanford GSB MBA candidate in the Class of 2023

It’s easy to see this photo and think, If this is the kind of guy who gets into GSB, I’ll never make it.

It’s easy to become enamored by the image and, as Faraz himself said, “not see past the spacesuit to the human element.”

I know because not only am I a proponent of higher education as a path to find and bring meaning to one’s life, but I am also an aviation fanatic and mighty supporter of our service men and women. So when Syed Faraz first made contact with Poets&Quants and offered to share information with us about scholarships for Mexican and/or military applicants — read more here — I immediately got lost in his accomplishments as an Air Force aviator. I placed him on a 70,000 foot pedestal — the ceiling of the U-2 in which he sat for this one-of-a-kind selfie op — and thought, of course he got into Stanford!

That said, take him out of his flight suit and this Tillman Scholar and admit to Stanford’s MBA Class of 2023 is more like you than you know.

GSB Via Working Class Roots, State University, & The USAF

Faraz in the spacesuit required the withstand the high altitudes of the U-2.

Like many immigrants to the United States, Faraz watched his parents work blue-collar jobs to afford the new lives in store for their family of six. In his words, had they not “won the U.S. Immigration lottery” the three men of the family would likely be laboring in the Middle East somewhere. Instead, they took up life in Texas where Faraz later attended the University of Texas at Arlington and graduated with a 3.8 in Economics & Political Science before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force.

It wasn’t a straight shot from undergrad to the military and on to grad school. Faraz had overcome many hurdles. He was laid off from his first banking job after college, denied entry to the Air Force on his initial application, was briefly unemployed, and spent nearly a year working on the warehouse floor of a cell phone factory while waiting to start in the Air Force.

It’s Not A Question Of If You’ll Help, It’s A Question Of How

P&Q: In talking with you, you almost exude a sense of duty to pay forward the freedoms your family was endowed as a result of moving to America as a teenager. Was this on your mind as an undergrad or did that come after you joined the Air Force?

FARAZ: Both my grandfathers were in education. They were serving their communities by teaching. My mom was also in education. The way we were raised, it was never about just you or your family, it was about community. For example, my father, although he was close to finishing his bachelor’s degree, dropped out of school to go work as a laborer to ensure that all of his other siblings went to college, which he paid for. He also helped other people in the community, not just his family. So that’s the sort of environment that I was raised in. Growing up, it was never a question of IF you will help your community, it was a question of HOW you will help your community.

All my family has this innate desire to serve the community. To me, the military wasn’t a giant shift from that thinking. It was more like a thread that connects the ability to serve and it’s a thread that connects everything from clinical work, to working on environmental issues, all the way to national security.

Weaving Threads Into Bridges 

P&Q: Your career in the military ultimately set you up for a life of incredible meaning and impact. You’ve participated in a number of national security projects, including serving as the CTO for the USAF U-2 unit, raising over $100 million for various grassroots innovations, inspiring the Department of Defense to launch a $64 million Squadron Innovation Fund, and launching case studies with Harvard Business School–all before your MBA. I can only imagine what is in store for you. What are you most passionate about now as you head to GSB in the Fall? What pay-it-forward projects do you have in mind?

FARAZ: So, there’s a couple of things that I’m working on. The first, at the Harvard Kennedy School, is called the Led By Foundation, which connects underprivileged  college-going women in India to Ivy league resources in terms of education, leadership, and mentoring. The goal is to build a cadre of leadership for this community who can then help raise the community and extend even more opportunities and access. I pinged the CEO and offered to help in any way and she asked me to join the board.

One thing I’m really excited about at Stanford is getting plugged into the rapidly growing Bay Area national security ecosystem. Everything from Hacking For Defense, which builds bridges between student innovators with public service and national security, to cutting-edge defense AI startups like Rhombus.

Another initiative that I’m working on is developing a holistic leadership development program for veterans who come to Stanford. Stanford has an unfair reputation of being unfriendly to veterans. I think that is inaccurate. The GSB has one of the highest matching Yellow Ribbon Programs with the VA. In short, between the two, they cover tuition for eligible veterans with the GI Bill.

Wait, You’re Getting An MBA From Stanford For Free?

P&Q: OK, before we go into the leadership development idea, let me make sure I heard this correctly. Your MBA at Stanford is fully covered between the GI Bill, Stanford, and the Yellow Ribbon Program?

FARAZ: Yes. If you’re a veteran with the GI Bill, the VA pays about $25K, and you have to pay the rest. But Stanford is generous with their Yellow Ribbon program, so with that and the VA match, all tuition and fees are covered. I think a lot of prospective students don’t know that.

P&Q: That’s fantastic. We’ll make sure that they do! OK, tell us about the leadership program.

FARAZ: So, I’m putting this out there as a statement of vision and to garner Stanford alumni support. Essentially, we’d like to build a leadership development program where GSB takes the 20-25 veterans in a class (once we hit 5% like peer schools) and takes them through two years of leadership development in a co-curricular program. Student veterans in the program would interface with industry and government leaders to help them transition from military life to civilian life, whether they want to join the private sector or stay in public service or a combination of both. In time, the program would expand to other underserved communities like BIPOC students, LGBTQ students, and others.

First, we have to get the word out about Stanford’s friendliness to veterans and get their percentage of veterans in class up to at least 5% (to match peer schools). Kirsten and the GSB Vets Club have worked hard to reach that target. A couple of years ago it was only 2%.

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