2024 Best & Brightest MBA: Luke O’Banion, University of Tennessee (Haslam)

Luke O’Banion

University of Tennessee, Haslam College of Business

“Veteran, father with 15+ years of leadership experience, specializing in business analytics, and team management.”

Hometown: Oak Ridge, Tennessee

Fun fact about yourself: I spent 12 years in the United States Air Force working as a Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) Specialist in the special warfare environment.

Undergraduate School and Degree: American Military University, Magna Cum Laude, Charles Town, WV Bachelor of Arts, Political Science

Where was the last place you worked before enrolling in business school? Professionals Incorporated (501-C), Nonprofit Project Coordinator, Maneadero, Mexico

Where did you intern during the summer of 2023?

Leidos, Strategic Sourcing Intern, Oak Ridge, TN

Catto Group, Consultant, Knoxville, TN                                                                                                      

Where will you be working after graduation? Protection Strategies Incorporated, Business Analytics Manager

Community Work and Leadership Roles in Business School: James R. Williams MBA Dean’s Award for Full-Time MBA class of 2023; Chairman of the UTK Association of Graduate Business Veterans; Volunteer at the Humane Society of the Tennessee Valley; posthumously named unofficial UTK MBA class of 2023 “Dad.”

Which academic or extracurricular achievement are you most proud of during business school? I’m deeply humbled to be the recipient of the Jan R. Williams – MBA Dean’s Award for graduating class of 2023. This prestigious accolade is the highest honor given to an MBA graduate and is voted on by their fellow graduates. The relationships I forged within my MBA cohort are incredibly dear to me, and receiving my classmate’s recognition is the most fulfilling part of this honor.

What achievement are you most proud of in your professional career? I cherish two milestones in my career, each marking a profound sense of achievement and pride. The first, while significant, precedes the second in importance. In July 2019, I was honored with the Non-Commissioned Officer Academy Levitow Leadership Award, a distinction mirroring the gravity of the UTK MBA Dean’s Award, where the collective voice of over 400 classmates and more than a dozen instructors plays a pivotal role in the selection process. This recognition was not only a testament to my leadership but also a humbling reminder of the trust and esteem held by my peers and mentors.

The highlight of my career was not a formal award, but a personal moment when a former troop asked me for career advice over a year after he had changed assignments. This might seem small, but to me, it was the ultimate proof of my effectiveness as a leader. It showed that I had earned the trust and respect of those I led to the point where they valued my guidance even after our professional paths diverged. This experience reinforced my belief that true leadership success isn’t about collecting awards; it’s about the respect and trust you build with your team. To me, that’s what matters.

Why did you choose this business school? For 15 years, I served with the United States Air Force and worked with Professionals Incorporated, living in places like Japan, Korea, the Philippines, India, Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq, and Mexico. After my years of service and facing the challenges brought by COVID-19, my wife and I chose to return to Tennessee to be near our family and stay in one place for a while. This decision highlighted the importance of family for us. Choosing this school was a personal choice, driven by its positive impact on the Appalachian Community and its location close to our family, allowing us to support and care for them as we start to set roots in this town and settle down.

Who was your favorite MBA professor? At the University of Tennessee, I was fortunate to learn from many outstanding professors, each offering a rich reservoir of knowledge and a deep dedication to education. Among these distinguished educators, Dr. David Maslar stood out for his exceptional teaching style, characterized by his enthusiasm and conviction. His passion for finance and unwavering commitment to student success were evident in every lecture and interaction. Dr. Maslar was always approachable, ready to assist a student at any moment, often extending his support beyond the classroom through additional tutoring and guidance. His remarkable blend of professionalism and personal investment in our learning journey — along with impeccable sweater vests — made him not just an educator but a genuine role model and an inspirational figure. Dr. Maslar embodies the epitome of what it means to be both an incredible person and a professional, leaving a lasting impact on all who have the privilege to learn from him.

What was your favorite course as an MBA? My most cherished experience as an MBA student was the winter mini-term courses, which blended several subjects and culminated in an international trip to Uruguay and Argentina. Initially, the prospect of being away from my wife and three children for an extended period filled me with reluctance. However, the experience proved to be incredibly rewarding. Until that trip, my interactions with classmates were limited, and this journey allowed us to bond beyond the confines of a classroom. It was during this time that I deeply appreciated the chance to connect with my peers on a more personal level, sharing experiences and learning from one another. The trip not only enhanced my educational journey, but also led to me being affectionately dubbed “Class Dad” – a title that symbolized the unique bond and camaraderie developed with my classmates. This experience remains a highlight of my MBA journey, illustrating the unexpected joys and profound connections that can arise from stepping out of one’s comfort zone.

What was your favorite MBA event or tradition at your business school? The case study competitions were among the highlights of my academic experience. They provided me with a unique and enriching opportunity to engage with actual business challenges faced by companies. This hands-on approach to learning helped me to better understand the concepts we had been learning and honed my problem-solving skills in a practical setting.

Looking back over your MBA experience, what is the one thing you’d do differently and why? While in the program, I took on a house that required a lot of remodeling and consumed most of my weekends. Looking back, I wish I had postponed it to focus more on my studies and spend time with my family. Additionally, postponing the project would have allowed me to participate in more extracurricular school activities like clubs or competitions. This experience taught me valuable lessons about balancing personal interests with academic responsibilities and family commitments.

What is the biggest myth about your school? The most common myth about my school is the strong presence of the Volunteer spirit, something I was initially unsure about. However, being on campus made it clear how real this spirit is, with visible pride, enthusiasm, and willingness to help at the school and in the surrounding city. Growing up in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, I’ve come to appreciate this even more. I’m proud to say I am now and always will be a Vol.

What did you love most about your business school’s town? What I appreciated most about my business school’s town was its location near Oak Ridge, TN, where I grew up. Being close to family and friends after 12 years away serving in the military was great. Also, I love the natural beauty of the East Tennessee countryside around the school. It’s where I feel most at home.

What surprised you the most about business school?
What surprised me the most about business school was the intensity and diversity of the teamwork involved. Coming from a background where individual achievement was often emphasized, the shift to a collaborative environment where success hinged on the ability to work effectively with a diverse group of peers was a significant change. This experience broadened my understanding of different perspectives and honed my leadership and communication skills, preparing me for the complexities of the business world in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

Which MBA classmate do you most admire? The classmate I admire most is my friend Jahad Hoq, who tackled this demanding course in English, his second language. Watching him excel at learning complex business ideas and engaging with the material in a second language, always with a smile, was truly impressive. Jahad’s constant positivity and eagerness to assist others were refreshing and uplifting throughout the program. Along with his studies, he also was very involved in extracurricular activities and was well-known and loved throughout the campus. His dedication and resilience stand out as qualities I greatly respect and are a testament to his character.

What are the top two items on your professional bucket list? My professional goals are two-fold. I want to rise to the position of Chief Technology Officer in a leading company, where I can drive technological innovation and strategy. I also want to launch a small consulting firm dedicated to helping businesses excel in the digital era. These ambitions come from my desire to lead at the forefront of technology while making a tangible impact on the business landscape.

What made Luke such an invaluable addition to the Class of 2024?

“Having had Luke in three classes during his time in the MBA program, I can confidently state that he is precisely the type of graduate you seek to acknowledge by creating this select list.

What sets Luke apart is his exceptional work ethic and leadership ability. As a decorated Air Force veteran, he brought invaluable leadership experience, discipline, and integrity to every project and team he was a part of during his time in the MBA program. His ability to motivate and inspire others is constantly evident. Luke consistently goes above and beyond to support his colleagues and peers, regularly sharing his knowledge and expertise, offering guidance and assistance whenever needed. It is for these reasons that Luke was the recipient of one of the highest honors for a graduating MBA student, the Jan R. Williams MBA Dean’s Award.

Beyond his professional accomplishments, Luke also possesses a genuine intellectual curiosity and a strong drive for continuous improvement. He asks insightful questions that challenge the status quo – questions that not only benefit him but also others around him. I am confident that with his leadership ability and intellectual curiosity, he will be an exemplary leader in this time of change.”

David Maslar, Ph.D.


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