2023 Best & Brightest MBA: Jeff Yao, University of Chicago (Booth)

Jeff Yao

University of Chicago, Booth School of Business

“Loving husband and father, dedicated to serving his community and his country.”

Hometown: Plano, TX

Fun fact about yourself: My wife and I got married on March 14, 2015, at 9:26 (the first eight digits of pi) over a slice of strawberry rhubarb pie.

Undergraduate School and Degree: B.S. in Economics, United States Military Academy at West Point

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? U.S. Army, Company Commander at 19th Expeditionary Sustainment Command in Daegu, South Korea.

Where did you intern during the summer of 2022? I had the opportunity to intern with the Army Enterprise Marketing Office in Chicago, an outstandingly knowledgeable team responsible for the Army’s national marketing campaigns. There, I got to apply techniques I learned at Booth to analyze the impact of four recent campaigns and develop a statistical model for creative wear-out. I also had the fortune to be a teaching assistant to Professor Min Sok Lee as he taught experimental economics during the UChicago Summer Session. Prof. Lee graciously allowed me to teach a few lectures – discussing selection bias and reverse causality with bright young high schoolers was one of the most rewarding experiences of my MBA journey.

Where will you be working after graduation? I will have the honor of teaching Economics and Game Theory at my alma mater, West Point!

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: I am a co-chair of Parents Of Little Ones (POLO), a club dedicated to providing support for and improving the lives of Boothies with kids. I also have the privilege of serving as an elected representative of my cohort in the Graduate Business Council (GBC), where I am a member of the Random Walk (trek) and Technology committees. I am also a shameless nerd, having made the Dean’s Honor List each quarter thus far.

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? This is the first academic year that POLO is an official club, and our efforts as a community have resulted in substantial improvements in the lives of families at Booth. In particular, I’ll always remember the adorable smiles and squeals of delight from the mini-Boothies who attended our Halloween Trick-or-Treat. Students, staff, and faculty with kids visited spooky staff offices in the Harper Center to grab candy, then enjoyed pumpkin decorating, balloon animals, and a story-time corner where student volunteers read Halloween stories. I’m so thankful for the excellent teamwork of our co-chairs and the outstanding support from our GBC that allowed us to serve over 200 attendees.   

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? In my first months in company command, a female soldier came to 1SG Brandon Elam, my senior enlisted advisor (akin to a personnel supervisor or foreman), and confided that she slept with a chair wedged behind her door out of fear for her safety. We knew we were faced with the daunting task of changing culture, so we instituted sweeping barracks reforms paired with a messaging campaign designed to dispel myths and challenge beliefs about sexual harassment and assault. In spite of soldiers complaining about the inconvenience of moving, and cultural inertia towards gender integration, our gender-segregated barracks were the only ones in the area with zero instances of sexual misconduct this year. Most importantly, our soldiers reported feeling safer.

Why did you choose this business school? There are many reasons to go to Booth – the rigorous curriculum, the exceptional density of Nobel laureates on the faculty, and the soulful city of Chicago are but a few. In full transparency, the rankings (in particular, the P&Q rankings) were a significant factor for me during my search, but I consider myself unbelievably lucky to find myself at the home of The Chicago Approach. This data-driven, cross-disciplinary, and deeply scientific way of thinking is eminently compatible with my analytical perspective, and this cultural fit, which feels like perfectly matched puzzle pieces, was something that I seriously undervalued during my application.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? With a faculty like Booth’s, it’s impossible to choose just one favorite! Emir Kamenica, Sendhil Mullainathan, Nick Epley, and Erik Hurst are all phenomenal instructors who pour so much of themselves into their students. If I had to pick one, my current favorite would be John Paul Rollert, professor of Ethics of Business. In such a critical topic, he was able to strike a fine balance between giving us liberty of expression, while providing wisdom from great thinkers like Smith, Franklin, and Carnegie. He expertly cultivated an environment where collegial challenging of mental models was the norm, and I left his classroom deep in thought (or discussion) every week.

What was your favorite course as an MBA? Again, it’s truly an intractable dilemma to choose just one, but if forced to choose, my current favorite is Behavioral Economics with Devin Pope. Each week, we read a seminal paper that influenced this burgeoning field, and Professor Pope’s application of the lens of behavioral anomalies to everyday problems really challenges you to think about life differently.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? My favorite tradition would have to be Liquidity Preference Functions (LPFs) – weekly social events where Boothies, partners, and faculty mingle while enjoying free food and frosty beverages. The punny title embodies Booth’s duality – we simultaneously cherish our proud heritage making history in finance and economics, while also embracing tongue-in-cheek levity that hints at our tradition of challenging the status quo. This year, our LPFs (wonderfully organized by my friend Morgan Tuff) spotlighted communities like OUTreach, POLO, Hispanic American Business Students Association (HABSA), and many more!

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? If I had one regret, it would be that I didn’t seize the opportunity to attend courses in other graduate programs at University of Chicago. Booth’s flexible curriculum affords us the freedom to take courses at the Harris School of Public Policy, the UChicago Law School, the Master’s Program in Computer Science, and other world-class programs. The thing is, there are so many amazing courses at Booth that I just couldn’t find the room to take any non-Booth courses!

What did you love most about your business school’s town? What’s not to love about Chicago? Okay, perhaps there are one or two things that may give some pause, but for the most part, Chi-town has been a blast! I remember my first day driving into the city, confused by all the flags with four stars. Having grown up in the Lone Star State, I wondered, “Is that a state flag or something?” Nowhere else have I seen a city flag flown with such pride. And that’s not to mention the mouth-watering food! Italian beef dipped, Harold’s chicken fried hard with mild sauce, and the religious observance of Chicago dogs (ketchup is heresy, celery salt is life) are the better-known ones. However, my son and I have a cherished weekly ritual of picking up carnitas and menudo from neighborhood fixture Carnitas Uruapan on our way home from toddler gymnastics. The gorgeously diverse architecture, the picturesque lakefront, and the friendly Midwestern vibe are all honorable mentions.

What surprised you the most about business school? Honestly, I was most taken aback by the caliber of students that I found myself surrounded by. Though I intellectually understood coming in that Booth is highly selective, it was another thing altogether to experience the challenging debates, hear the impressive stories, and see the brilliant ideas that other students had. But these day-to-day surprises pale in comparison to the remarkable accomplishments of student leaders like Elika Mazhar organizing our Winter Formal at Chicago’s historic Union Station, Hyebin Park launching a Cohort Cup inspired by the Hogwarts House Cup, or Forrest Petterson wrangling the hydra-headed GBC budget. Their Herculean dedication is reflected in the richness of the student experience at Booth.

What is one thing you did during the application process that gave you an edge at the school you chose? I largely owe any measure of success I had during application to our Armed Forces Group (AFG). This tight-knit community of veterans was immensely helpful from initial application, to resume refinement, all the way through interview preparation. Their commitment is evident in Booth’s strong representation of veterans – 8% of the class of 2024 served in the military. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Donna Swinford, Associate Dean for Student Recruitment and Admissions, for her kind support that helped me get admitted off the waitlist!

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? Many MBA candidates invest buckets of blood, sweat, and tears for a chance to secure placement at one of the Big Three consulting firms. My dear friend Scott McKeon, a former U.S. Army Special Forces medic, interned with one of these firms over the summer, and his stellar performance earned him a lucrative full-time offer. To my utter disbelief, he declined the offer due to what he observed as a deficit in their mission and positive impact on the world. Instead of forming rationalizations and performing mental gymnastics, Scott put his money where his mouth was and devoted himself to re-recruiting in his second year. His decision was a testament to his exceptional character and his resolute integrity, and I have no doubt that Scott will be an invaluable asset to any organization with the fortune of having him.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? Ever since I learned supply and demand from Major Jason Galui in 2010, it has been an aspiration of mine to return to teach at the alma mater of great leaders like Ulysses S. Grant, George S. Patton, and Dwight D. Eisenhower (the West Point Department of History’s slogan is, “Much of the history we teach was made by the people we taught”). It’s literally a dream come true that I’ll be going there this summer to teach the next generation of Army leaders. My second professional goal is to earn the privilege of commanding a battalion. This selective assignment provides unparalleled leadership experience while still being close enough to the frontline troops to know them by face and name.

What made Jeff such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2023?

“Chicago Booth is somewhat like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, a tightly-knit Midwest community where everyone’s above average. Still, some students stand out and remind you with each class why you’re lucky to be a teacher.

Jeff Yao is one such student. He was part of the fall 2022 cohort of Ethics of Business, a class I have taught for more than a decade at Booth. The class tells the story of the moral development of capitalism, and it takes students on a journey from the intellectual origins of capitalism through The Industrial Revolution and on to the challenges of the present day. Along the way, it asks students to draw on their own experiences to illustrate the ideas we discuss by contributing to class blogs and engaging in a quarter-length debate.

Ethics of Business is something of a strange class at Booth, so I look for students who are eager to jump into discussion and lead the way for their peers. Thankfully, this past fall, Jeff was one of these student leaders. From the first week of class, he displayed the qualities I have come to admire in him: honesty, intellectual curiosity, and a knack for personal introspection. More than winning the argument, he has a passion for coming to the right conclusion, which means he listens more than he talks, and when he talks, people listen.

Because of his weekly posts to the blog and his in-class contributions, I got a chance to know the many facets of Jeff’s identity: military service member, devoted father, man of faith, pillar of the Booth community, and enthusiast of The Chicago School of economics. What unites all these qualities, I believe, is key not only to business ethics but to leading, in the fullest sense, a successful life: a strong sense of personal integrity. Jeff understands that doing what is right doesn’t involve overpromising and cutting corners. It involves working hard, pitching in, and keeping one’s word.

In short, Jeff Yao is a man of remarkable character, and even at the Lake Wobegon that is Chicago Booth, he is exceptional. This fall, he will be teaching his own students at West Point, and I have no doubt that they will have the same impression of him that many of his peers (and at least one former professor) already share: He’s a leader that anyone would be lucky to follow into battle.”

John Paul Rollert
Adjunct Associate Professor of Behavior Science
Booth School of Business


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