I drove nuclear submarines in the waning days of the cold war in the early 1990s. The war was technically over, but the former Soviet Union and the US navy were still playing cat and mouse. We had a collision with a Russian submarine in the Barents Sea, as we had got a little too close to each other. By the laws of the sea, we made sure the other submarine was safe and not sinking, and they did the same for us, and then we made the long trip home.
That is the military I grew up in. After my first tour on the submarine, they sent me to the Naval Postgraduate School to do a degree in IT management. This was the mid-1990s, when the technology boom was in its infancy.
From there, I was posted to Iceland and spent a few years running the navy’s long-range military communications over the North Pole. Then I went to work at the Pentagon (I was there on September 11 2001). I was in the Gulf for “shock and awe” (the March 2003 invasion of Iraq), on board the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln when George W Bush gave his infamous “mission accomplished” speech that May, and in East Asia in 2004 when the tsunami hit Indonesia, so I got to see a little bit of history along the way.
I was involved in all kinds of difficult situations in the military, but the only time I remember being intimidated was when I was preparing to retire and wasn’t sure whether my skills would translate to the commercial sector. In hindsight, it turns out I was prepared.
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My technical consulting company, Uncomn, which I founded in 2010, was the fastest-growing private business in St Louis, Missouri, for a few years, so we had the kernel of something good. But I had a passion to help develop entrepreneurship in St Louis and attract capital to the region, so scaling the business was a necessity — and that is where the decision to go to business school came from.
I chose to do my executive MBA at Washington University’s Olin Business School, in St Louis, for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to go to a local school because I was running a business and needed it to be convenient. Olin has a great reputation — it is a top-tier school. It also closed the gap between my “GI Bill”, the educational benefit for veterans, and the full fee of the MBA, so it was affordable.
The EMBA ran over 20 months and was structured around four residencies, each about a week long. We had a kick-off week in Washington DC with the Brookings Institution, a think-tank, looking at issues of business and government together. We also had a leadership residency and a 10-day trip to Beijing and Shanghai, which took place when, unbeknownst to us, Covid was breaking out in China.
The rest of the programme comprised day-long sessions between Thursday and Saturday, once a month. There were 16 of us — eight women and eight men — and four of us were formerly in the military.
I had spent 20 years as a navy officer and didn’t know for sure what a business school had to offer from a leadership perspective, but I found it really enlightening. The strategy courses helped me think not just about tactics and operations and the hiring and firing, but positioning the business for long-term growth.
On the leadership course we looked at our strengths and weaknesses and I learnt I would need to shore up by surrounding myself with a diverse leadership group. I later hired from outside the organisation a chief financial officer who was very different from me personality-wise and came from a larger business, so that we would not be limited by my experience and that of my two partners at the time.
I have very much been in touch not only with my own cohort but with the people in the years in front of and behind me. Washington University has a very strong network of leaders that I have tapped into at various times over the past three years.
The business was in the $10m-$15m a year range when I started the programme, and we will make something closer to $40m in 2021, so we are definitely scaling. We have also surpassed the standard for a small business in the defence contracting industry, so we will need to compete with the biggest companies in the world. That is our challenge over the next three years or so. I also have five children and am shortly to become to be a grandfather for the first time.