“Adversity is a great catalyst for personal growth,” says Jeff Butler. And Butler knows adversity.
He knows even more about overcoming it.
A member of the U.S. Paralympic Rugby Team since 2015, with plans to compete in the Tokyo Games in August, Butler recently gained admission to the most selective business school in the world: Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Though he comes from a non-traditional business background, Butler hopes to combine his entrepreneurial skills with his expertise in mobility and transportation issues to create a more inclusive market for the disability community.
“There is a ton of opportunity for people who don’t have a traditional background to reap the benefits of an MBA program,” he tells Poets&Quants.
AT 15, SETTING HIS SIGHTS HIGH
At age 13, Butler had to learn everything from scratch after his neck was broken in a car accident, leaving him paralyzed.
“At the time, it couldn’t move anything. I couldn’t move my arms, and I had to learn how to feed myself, learn how to dress, learn how to be independent,” he remembers.
Butler’s disability has not been other than a motivation to reach for excellence and innovate for his community. At only 15 years old, Butler set the bar high, vowing to be part of the U.S. wheelchair rugby team in the Paralympics — a goal he accomplished in 2015 at the Paralympics Track And Field World Championships in Rio de Janeiro.
“I was super lucky to represent Team USA in Rio,” he says. The U.S team won silver that year; in all Butler has competed and medaled in over 15 international tournaments on five continents.
But he never neglected his studies — or his career. Soon after graduating from the University of Texas McCombs School of Business with an undergraduate degree in management information systems, Butler began to explore an entrepreneurial path, launching tele-health company VIPatient, a web and mobile app to help healthcare providers deliver patient care. It operated from 2015 to 2018.
“It was to bridge the gap for rural and under-served communities who don’t have access to specialist care,” he says.
BETWEEN TOKYO & STANFORD
Butler’s motivation to keep competing will delay his start at Stanford. The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics were moved in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic and will be held this year, beginning in August. While he is excited about arriving at Palo Alto, Butler is determined to try again for a gold medal.
“I want another swing at this, this gold medal, so I decided that I was going to come back for the Paralympics in 2020,” he says.
He hopes not to miss much of his first semester at Stanford.
“Tokyo in August, then come home and kind of sprint to California to get there in time for classes,” he says of his plan.
The excitement of beginning a new life at Stanford is heightened by Butler’s mission to create a more inclusive market, and the prospect of building meaningful connections.
“Stanford is the place for entrepreneurship where I can scale up and learn about how to solve some of these really, really hard challenges for the disability community,” he says.
He defines his career path as a “generalist.” While he recognizes that his current and previous professional experiences had paved the way for innovation, he sees Stanford as an opportunity to enhance his management skills.
“A lot of those lessons that I learned as an athlete, I think, are applicable to a lot of professional areas, team building leadership.”
Meanwhile, he will continue to work for Teiko.bio, where he started in a part-time capacity after he delayed his start at Stanford. The company leverages immune system data to provide information for therapy development.
“It’s been a great opportunity for me to learn immunology and learn a lot of the skills and learn from a seasoned entrepreneur,” says Butler.
STANFORD WAS THE ONLY SCHOOL HE APPLIED TO
Butler is no stranger to entrepreneurship, having already started one company. But he recognizes that Stanford will be a springboard to greater things.
“I learned a lot of very quickly, valuable lessons in starting a company [and] like the right reasons to start a company, the wrong reasons to start a company,” he says.
As an ability coach, Butler argues that the transportation market is not currently meeting the needs of the disability community. Not only in terms of product but also law and regulations for ridesharing and technology companies.
“While there is an abundance of opportunity, there are a ton of challenges,” he says. “From a regulatory perspective, from a third party payment perspective, these goods and these services that are going to be delivered to the disability market will truly change lives.”
Those problems served as an incentive to apply to Stanford, the only MBA program he applied to.
“The new business models that have come to light recently like autonomous vehicles ride sharing should, like all of these cutting edge technologies, really help the disability population,” Butler says.