Thomas is a first-year MBA at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
As I write this, and observe my first Veteran’s day as a bona-fide combat veteran, it’s not lost on me that Soldiers from the organization I most recently came from at Fort Bliss, Texas are dirty and tired as they are three weeks into a month-long deployment certification exercise in the California desert. I have no doubt they are frustrated by long days and cold nights, and deserve recognition as those that continue to hustle in the name of service to our country.
Can you tell us a bit about your career background?
I spent seven years as an Army combat engineer. Leaving ROTC from Syracuse University, I had an awesome chance to find truth to every military recruiter’s pitch to “see the world.” I spent three years traveling Europe while stationed in Vilseck, Germany as a Platoon Leader and Company Executive Officer. During that time, I completed a year-long deployment to Zabul, Afghanistan. After some additional schooling I found myself in El Paso, Texas where I finished my service as a Company Commander.
What made you decide to shift from serving your country to the business world?
I would like to say a profound sense of patriotism was my motivation to serve. Although a component, the chance to be a positive leader for others (especially young Soldiers often using the Army as an opportunity to improve themselves) is what really got me out of bed each day. I got to a point in my military career where the ability to realize that primary motivation was limited. Done with direct leadership roles, my immediate future would have been defined by staff and support functions. Although I did not take the decision lightly, after two years of weighing options I decided it was time to see where else I could have an impact. For a long time I considered entering a PhD program and landing as a teacher, but quickly realized I needed to round out leadership and communication skills provided by the military with real world business acumen before I would ever feel comfortable teaching someone “how it’s done.”
Were you out as you went through the business school application process?
I was, and for the first time in my life. I will admit I’m still in the process of realizing how transformative being a genuine, authentic self can be to unlocking individual potential. I’m grateful for the opportunity and totally supportive environment at Chicago Booth.
Tell us a bit about being a member of the LGBTQ community while serving your country. Did DADT impact your experience?
I was on a plane from Afghanistan to Kazakhstan when the repeal of DADT took effect. We got off the plane and the Commander briefed us immediately on the flight line on how the new policies impacted us. I remember looking around and seeing that what was momentous to me was insignificant to those simply happy to be headed home from theatre. I don’t believe, however, that policy creates culture. I was certainly thankful that DADT policies no longer discriminated against my service, but no regulation could solve the internal turmoil I had to be comfortable as a gay leader.
The comment has been made that as the US Armed Forces go [in terms of policy], so goes the rest of the nation. With the repeal of DADT, how do you think the culture of the Armed Forces has changed? How do you think the culture of the country has changed?
The military rightfully asks itself this same question quite often. I don’t know if I’m qualified to comment on the organizational transitions of the Army and larger society, but I can say I think my experience has highlighted trust as a critical component of culture. I left the Army still in the closet not because I thought the culture would discriminate against who I am, but because I’m not sure I trusted that I could count on the support and impartiality of all those around me. I think the larger society and LGBTQ+ rights movement similarly has large gaps where social change may not be adequately paired with trust across populations and individuals. I personally think building trust across groups at a pace that matches progress will continue to be vital for any reforms to matter in the long term.
What did/does your veteran status bring to your MBA experience?
More than anything, I appreciate the challenge. Veterans of course bring a menu of experience and perspective, but really so does every other student. What I take home every day is the motivation to improve from the incredible community of peers and faculty that a MBA provides access to. Performing well in the Army was difficult, but I enjoy being challenged across entirely different dimensions as a veteran returning to a top academic program.
What advice would you give to someone currently serving their country who is considering pursuing a MBA?
First, talk to folks! You have a huge network at almost any program and in any field. Don’t decide a MBA is right for you because it has proven to work for so many others. There are great opportunities and reasons to pursue options across an entire spectrum, and weighing them each fully ensures you feel secure moving forward while making such a big transition. Second, Service doesn’t end! Certainly, no profession will fulfill the same sense of meaning and responsibility as leading Soldiers. Finding a way to serve your community, though, can go a long way to maintaining purpose. Third, take the GMAT now! Don’t wait to start studying, you’ll never find a good time to make it happen.