Service Over Self: A Veteran’s Path To A Stanford MBA

James Brown, third from left, during a fire exercise with his Marine Corps unit in the Middle East. Courtesy photo

From an early age, James Brown was taught to prioritize service over self.

Brown earned a mechanical and robotics degree from University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2014, the first in his family to graduate college, and quickly joined the Marine Corps. He became an infantry officer shortly after and was deployed on the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit to the Middle East, where he worked for nearly five years.

Upon his return to the U.S., he became an information operations officer in the Marine Information Group, supporting operations in the Indo-Pacific for two and a half years. That’s when his path changed.

“I started to think critically about what my next adventure would be, and how I could retain some sense of impact into my civilian life,” Brown shares with Poets&Quants. He decided that the next adventure was an MBA.

‘IT’S EASY TO COUNT YOURSELF OUT EVEN BEFORE YOU BEGIN’

James Brown

Brown dreamed of going to Stanford, but he doubted he’d get in. Turns out, not only was he accepted and offered a scholarship, he became a Botha Chan Innovation Fellow, pursuing a startup with $75,000 in funding help from the Air Force. “I didn’t think in my wildest dreams that I’d be sitting at the GSB today, having the opportunities that I have now,” he says.

Brown felt that an MBA would be a bridge that would help him transition out of the military and into the civilian world. Plus, he wanted to capture all of the hard work that he’d put into the military and explore options for his future. “If you want to be an entrepreneur or break into the venture capital space, then Stanford is the place to be,” he says.

He knew that Stanford was incredibly selective — and for good reason. But he was determined to at least try. When he was accepted into the MBA program, he was in disbelief. “If you don’t see enough examples in your life of individuals doing and achieving these things, then you can put limiting beliefs on yourself,” he shares.

“It’s easy to count yourself out even before you begin,” continues Brown. “You won’t know unless you try, and the process in and of itself is worthwhile because it will get you to understand the goals you want to accomplish in life.”

A STRONG ENTREPRENEURIAL DRIVE

At the GSB, incoming MBAs who identify as part of the Military accounted for 3% of cohorts between 2017 and 2021. While this number experienced a slight decline to 2% in 2020, it’s seen a steady rise over the last two years, climbing to 4% in the new class of 2022 and up to 5% for 2023.

With a strong entrepreneurial drive, Brown received the Botha Chan Innovation Fellowship this past summer to work on his own business, a computer vision-based startup that’s meant for training applications. “I’m going to try and take that as far as I possibly can,” he says.

Plus, he wants to pursue national defense technology and defense venture capital following graduation to help provide impact in his civilian career. He’s also applying for the Symbolic Systems program, which will give him another year at Stanford, and is currently doing research in the Virtual Human Interaction Lab.

THE VETERANS CLUB: SUPPORTING PROSPECTIVE AND CURRENT STUDENTS

Brown doesn’t think he’d be where he is now if it hadn’t been for the school’s resources — namely, the Veterans Club.

Not only does the club provide a supportive community for current students, it’s active in connecting with prospective applicants —- like Brown — as they navigate the admissions process; when first evaluating Stanford GSB as an option, the Veterans Club was Brown’s first point of contact. “It was awesome to be able to call up a few current students and ask them everything about the culture, community, and available resources,” he says. “They shared so many things that I had no idea even existed beforehand.”

Now that he’s a GSB student, he’s part of the Veterans Club and connects with prospective students as a way of “paying it forward.” He sets up calls with them to figure out where they are in the application process, how they view themselves and their odds, and then try and position themselves to have a successful application – either at the GSB or elsewhere.