Poets & Quants wrote a great article about Derek Rey (MBA ’15) and his experience at Darden as a military veteran. The original article, by Ethan Baron, can be found here, and is also copied below.
It’s not every MBA student who can list “combat” and “counterterrorism” along with “leveraged finance” and “investment banking” under the skills and knowledge sections of his LinkedIn profile.
Derek Rey, it should be said, is more experienced at warfare than he is at investment banking. For now.
During seven years in the Marine Corps, with deployments in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and southeast Asia, Rey built up a substantial skill set in high-stakes environments. He left the Marines in 2013, took aim at a career in financial services, and enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Virginia Darden School.
Like many U.S. military veterans, Rey has discovered that abilities forged in fields of fire have tremendous value in the business world. “You never quite know what the situation is you’re getting into,” he says. “Let’s say you’re doing a security patrol and you have an idea of where the enemy is located. You’ve received your intelligence reports. You know generally were they are but you don’t have any idea of what their exact position is, you don’t know how they’re arrayed. Are they ready for you or not? Or maybe there’s nothing there at all and it’s some kind of humanitarian crisis that you weren’t really prepared for.
INSUFFICIENT INFORMATION IS PAR FOR THE COURSE
“Once you get out on the ground you have to adjust on the fly and do the best that you can with the information that you have, and just get the mission done. That’s kind of a great skill to have.”
Across the U.S., military veterans make up nearly 13% of the graduate student population in business schools, according to the Military Times, a news outlet run by Gannett. Darden vigorously recruits veterans – they make up seven to nine per cent of each incoming class – in part because having students from diverse backgrounds facilitates learning under the case method, says assistant professor Yael Grushka-Cockayne. “That external perspective we really seek and build on,” says Grushka-Cockayne, who served as a lieutenant in an ordinance division of the Israel Defense Forces about 20 years ago. Additionally, veterans in the classroom model behaviors that are valued in business, Grushka-Cockayne says. “They are leaders, and so they are comfortable stepping out, they know what it is . . . to be decisive, and handle ambiguity. Those are good traits to demonstrate to some of the other students who aren’t as comfortable taking those roles.”
While veterans come into Darden with a range of abilities, they tend to share the ability to make hard choices, a key skill in business, Grushka-Cockayne says. However, she adds, students coming out of the insular world of the military “might struggle at the beginning in terms of the language and using the right terms and understanding the objectives when you’re making a decision.”
Although the ambiguity of combat operations strengthened Rey’s capacity to act effectively in uncertain situations, he did his best to minimize the unknowns before starting at Darden. For the former Marine captain, there were a lot of those unknowns, and he discovered that other veterans going to business school shared his mix of military expertise and business ignorance.
HARD CHARGING, BUT FEW HARD SKILLS
“What we really lacked going into the business world was those hard business skills – accounting, finance, operations, marketing,” Rey says.
Rey knew that at Darden, most of his peers would have much stronger familiarity with those fundamental skills, and even if he excelled at soft skills such as strategy, leadership, and communication, he’d enter school at a disadvantage.
“In order to operate in the business world and in business school you need to be able to speak the language,” he says. Though he was living in a remote area of Virginia before starting at Darden, he took online classes in financial accounting and business calculus from the UCLA extension program, “to just sort of sharpen my pencils before going into class.”
CATALYZED BY RESPONSE TO 9/11
Rey had been born and raised in Vallejo, California, a half-hour’s drive east of San Francisco. “I’d always kind of been drawn to the military,” he says. But until the fall of his senior year, he’d made no moves toward service. Then the planes hit the Twin Towers. “That was kind of one of the catalysts in my life. It’s hard to explain, it was very moving. I remember that being the turning point.”
It wasn’t so much the attacks themselves that motivated Rey to choose military service – it was the nation’s response to the attack. “The images we were seeing on TV, everyone was kind of pitching in to help. I wanted to do kind of anything to be able to help, and if that meant helping prevent something like this from happening again, as a member of the armed forces, that would be a good cause.”
He enrolled at the University of Southern California, and joined the ROTC. Next stop was the Marine Corps. In his seven years as a Marine, he developed skills in areas including leading teams, communicating, and managing resources. As a captain in Iraq, he led a platoon of 40 soldiers. “These are your guys and it’s your job using the men that you have and the resources at your disposal to get the job done,” he says. “You’re managing from the ground right from the start. You learn the managing skills by managing. You learn communication by communicating with the men you’re with.”
As his service was ending, he was thinking about his strategy for reintegrating with non-military life – how to leverage the abilities he’d developed as a Marine. “Where does this kind of translate to in the civilian world?” he wondered.
HOW A MARINE VETERAN ENDED UP AT DARDEN
Rey started reaching out to officers and former officers who were in business school. He researched business education, schools, and business in general. “I took kind of a full dive into it,” he says, and came to a conclusion about B-school: “OK, this is absolutely what I want to do.”
Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business attracted a lot of veterans, as did Darden. Rey and his wife were expecting a baby. He liked both schools’ tight communities, and Darden’s small-town feel, he says. Darden’s focus on the case method tipped him toward the Virginia school.
“What I found really awesome about the case method was it was a daily engagement activity,” Rey says. “You’re breaking down the case in so many different ways that you wouldn’t have done if it was just one professor lecturing.”
Rey found that the case method also offered something else: an education into various industries he was not knowledgeable about previously. “Every case is from a different industry,” he says.
And he’s discovered that his experience with ambiguity gives him an edge in B-school work. “You never really have all the details that you would like, but you have to go with it,” he says.
MAKING MONEY, NOT WAR
In his personal life, Rey had managed his own investments and retirement funds, and found the work interesting. More conversations with veterans led Rey to focus on a career in investment banking, a field that appealed to him not only because he enjoyed working with numbers, but because it also involved skills he’d refined during his military career: communicating, analyzing and interpreting data, managing processes, paying attention to detail, and carrying projects through from start to finish. At Darden, finance courses firmed up his knowledge base, along with core accounting classes. The Financial Institutions and Markets course was particularly helpful for providing specialized knowledge about how financial institutions operate, he says. And he especially benefited from strategy classes, he says. “It’s good to know finance, it’s good to know marketing, it’s good to know accounting. Strategy drives pretty much everything.”
He received an internship last summer as an investment banking associate with Barclays, in the Technology, Media & Telecoms group. This school year, his second in the program, he was a portfolio manager in Darden Capital Management, a student group that manages money for the Darden School Foundation board.
In business school, he’s built relationships as close as those he developed as a Marine. “There was a lot of camaraderie in the military,” he says. “There’s just as strong or not stronger camaraderie with the people you’ve gone to business school with.”
After his graduation from Darden this month, Rey will return to Barclays in a full-time investment banking position in the firm’s Atlanta office.
Grushka-Cockayne describes Rey as “very clever” and believes his attitude toward learning has been a prime factor behind his success as a student and budding investment banker. Never afraid to ask for help, he takes a positive attitude into problem solving, she says. “Maybe it’s his (military) experience that puts it into perspective,” she says. “Maybe it’s having a new family.”