Why They Served: Profiles Of M7 MBA Veterans

In honor of Veterans Day, Poets&Quants solicited profiles from a cross-section of military veterans at several top business schools. Their backgrounds and perspectives show the depth of diversity in veteran MBA candidates. Please take the time to read through them in the following pages.

Syed Faraz, Stanford GBS MBA ’23

Military service: Captain, U.S. Air Force, 8 years

Why did you join the military? For a Muslim immigrant of Indian heritage to join the U.S. armed forces is a relatively rare thing. But my family instilled a foundational sense of service in all of us. In college, that took form in my environmental/political activism (for which I was called a “short-haired hippie”). My first brush with the military was I was doing an internship in DC, and met one of my friends’ father, Colonel Powers, a retired Air Force officer. He took us to all the bases around DC and I fell in love with the sense of purpose/mission, the camaraderie, the service of something larger than yourself.

I also felt a strong pull to give back to this country which has given so much to my family and to support its values. While not perfect, this Grand Experiment is unique in history for being founded upon values (as opposed to religion, ethnicity, family, etc.). It is up to each generation to keep perfecting this union.

After earning my Air Force commission, I went to flight school as a Navigator. Eventually, I flew over 630 combat hours on spy planes tasked with strategic missions. Some highlights include playing a role in the Obama-directed rescue of 40,000 refugees, and leading a campaign to deliver aid to 1,600 earthquake survivors. My last three years wearing a flight suit, I was deeply engaged in national security innovation as the CTO for the U-2 community. With my team, we raised over $100 million for grassroots innovation initiatives and founded the DoD’s first unit-level Federal Lab. We inspired the Air Force to launch a $64 million innovation fund. Prof. Francesca Gino and her team at HBS wrote an insightful case study exploring how we innovated in a large bureaucracy.

Why an MBA? For a few personal reasons, I couldn’t fly any longer which meant my Air Force time was coming to an end. As I was exploring my options, grad school had always been a goal of mine (especially coming from a family of educators). The dream was to do a dual MPA/MBA at the two best schools in the world in their fields—public leadership at HKS and business leadership at GSB. Specifically, the MBA is the Swiss Army Knife of grad school—such an adaptable degree which gives students tons of soft and hard tools to apply in the real world.

By the way, that dream of GSB+HKS would have remained a dream! I wasn’t going to apply to either school as I didn’t think my application was strong. Thankfully, my wife basically forced me to apply! Lesson—never self-select out.

Why Stanford? One word—people. Stanford has the best people, whether students or professors or staff or alums. We’re super fortunate that Stanford’s people have built an institution with so much warmth and focus on the human element combined with a culture of innovation and risk-taking. That’s really what changes world, and that’s what has put GSB at the forefront of all b-schools, and Stanford at the forefront of all universities.

Two smaller but important factors: (1) Stanford has simply incredible support for families. In fact, there’s an entire housing area only for students with children, complete with playgrounds, sandpits, tons of toys, and a built-in community of families. (2) We’re huge outdoor people, so the ability to hit the beach/mountains/forests year-round was a huge draw.

Why do you believe veteran representation matters in MBA cohorts? MBA programs are the training grounds for future leaders in business and government. As our world becomes increasingly diverse and interconnected, it’s not just a nicety but a necessity that b-schools reflect wider society. So, they must invest in creating sustainable pipelines to recruit diverse populations, be they those from underprivileged socioeconomic backgrounds, international, veteran, students of color, etc.

Organizations like the Pat Tillman Foundation and the LunaCap Foundation are doing amazing work to show vets that elite schools can be an option.

From a 70,000 ft perspective (as those of us in the U-2 squadron say), across the world, we see the bonds of community and democracy fraying. A large part of this is due to the wealth inequality and sense of social/economic immobility a large and growing number experience every day. My bet is veterans—due to their diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds, and experience working with people from all sectors—can play a vital role in building back better.

What kind of veteran support/financial aid/programs did your school offer? I won’t bury the lede—ALL your tuition/fees are covered at GSB if the veteran is in Yellow Ribbon! You didn’t read that wrong—100% of school cost is covered. This is due to the thoughtfulness/generosity of Stanford donors and of US taxpayers (btw, the GI Bill proves how effective government programs can be). In fact, I believe out of all the top b-schools, Stanford has the most generous financial aid for vets.

The GSB Vets Club is also wonderfully tightknit. I’ll share a personal example—on the move from Boston to Cali, our movers showed up to Palo Alto two weeks before we did and basically held our entire shipment hostage. One text blast to the Vets Club, and a fellow aviator (shout-out to Casey Sheldon!) skipped class to go rescue our stuff!

What’s next for you? My wife, Katie, and I summited Kilimanjaro for our honeymoon [all her idea btw!]. Now we’re climbing another mountain—raising two wonderful children, Ahva and Zorayz. I’m also exploring all the Bay Area has to offer in terms of professional pursuits. Eventually, a dream is to continue serving people from an elected position.

Julia McKusick, MBA ’22

Julia McKusick, Stanford GBS MBA ’22

Military service: Captain, U.S. Army, 8 years

Why did you join the military? I was the first person in my family to join the military and, honestly, was not quite sure what I was signing up for when I said yes to the military at age 18. I was recruited to play soccer at West Point and jumped at the opportunity despite not quite knowing what I was getting into. I’m thankful for that opportunity because without being recruited for soccer at West Point, I would not have served in the military and I would not be where I am today.

I spent eight years as an active duty aviation officer in the US Army. I was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot during that time and had various roles supporting helicopter operations throughout the world including in Afghanistan and South Korea. I deployed to Afghanistan in 2015 where I spent 9 months as both a platoon leader and an executive officer. We conducted diverse missions during our deployment including support to quick reaction forces and medical evacuation flights.

I also spent three years in South Korea where I was a company commander of a Blackhawk helicopter company. We worked closely with the South Korean Army, building relationships and capabilities together, and we were responsible for various missions including flights along the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Why an MBA? I felt a desire to pursue goals outside of the military and decided I could make an impact through business. Pursuing an MBA has given me the chance to explore opportunities in business and find out where my passions align with my skills. My experience at the GSB has also pushed me out of my comfort zone and challenged me to think outside the box.

Why Stanford? I love how Stanford focuses on the whole person and is invested in helping every student find their passions and pursue those passions, however that might look. I had a lot of uncertainty coming out of the military and the GSB provides a supportive environment for students to explore their passions and experiment with opportunities. Also, the year-round good weather certainly doesn’t hurt 

Why do you believe veteran representation matters in MBA cohorts? Veterans truly bring a unique perspective to their business school cohorts through their diverse background and experiences. Having veteran representation in b-school is important for these unique perspectives but also to pave the path for other veterans who are seeking to pursue the same path. The transition out of the military can be an intimidating and overwhelming experience so seeing other veterans succeed in b-school and make the transition from military to business can empower other veterans to make the jump.

Why do veterans make good business students? As veterans, we have a non-standard background which means that we often face a steep learning curve at b-school. However, through our experiences in the military, we are used to being put in ambiguous situations and having to figure out how to succeed. Additionally, teamwork is such an integral part of our military experience and we bring this mindset into b-school. Veterans see reaching out to classmates for help and offering help to others as an essential part of the entire b-school experience and a crucial aspect for everyone to succeed.

What’s next? I am still figuring out what is next for me. The GSB has opened my eyes to so many new opportunities that I would have never imaged possible otherwise so I am really enjoying my time exploring all of these opportunities right now. The next step is still unknown for me but it is a very exciting time right now as I continue to explore.

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