Military veterans often face a big question at the end of their service: what’s next?
Wes Wood, MBA’17, began considering that question as he wrapped up his last five years in the Army.
Having served as a sergeant and sniper section leader in the 101st Airborne Division serving in Afghanistan, Wood wanted to combine the leadership skills he’d gained during the military with his bachelor’s degree in finance.
“My undergraduate degree gave me a basic level of knowledge in a lot of business concepts, but I didn’t feel very prepared for real-world application,” he says. “I decided an MBA would allow me to dive deeper into business and really wrap my head around all of the concepts.”
Wood had been researching MBA programs when several people recommended the Kelley School of Business Evening MBA Program at IUPUI. He’d not spent any time in Indianapolis, but the idea of a part-time program appealed to him.
“I chose a part-time evening program so I could work full time and graduate with real-world professional experience outside of the military,” says Wood. “The Kelley Evening MBA Program allowed me to do both during that two-year period.”
Shortly after beginning the program, Wood got a job at Conexus Indiana as a workforce development manager, collaborating with business leaders around the state on key challenges they face in finding quality employees. As he worked through case studies in his Evening MBA courses and interacted with experienced Kelley faculty, Wood says he quickly gained a greater presence and comfort level when interacting with business leaders.
“I loved working with the faculty and my peers in the Evening MBA Program. One of the most impressive things about the program is how Kelley creates student teams,” said Wood. “I didn’t know a single person when I enrolled, but once the program divided us into project teams, I was placed with two people perfectly suited for me. Even in classes where we didn’t have to work as a team, we did anyway. It made the whole process a lot easier and more enjoyable.”
Wood says one of the advantages of the Evening MBA Program is how often real-world situations are incorporated into the curriculum. Specifically, the venture capital and private equity class made an impression on him because professionals within these fields attended class to discuss actual scenarios and how they resolved them in the workplace.
“The lessons were relevant, practical, and applicable,” says Wood. “It was so easy to see how you could plug these lessons into a future career.”
As he connected with manufacturing employers around the state, he kept hearing the same concern: They couldn’t find good employees. The technical skill set wasn’t a limiting factor—Wood says the employers had excellent education incentive programs to train employees on the technical skills—but companies simply needed good, solid individuals who’d be worth their investments.
“In each of these conversations, I kept thinking about people I knew who’d left the military the same time I did but still hadn’t found a solid career. They all seemed like a good fit for these career paths,” says Wood. “I’d ask these companies what they’d done to connect with people getting out of the military, and while they’d often have success when they had a veteran candidate, they just didn’t know how to find enough veteran candidates.”
Wood discovered it was not only challenging for companies to locate veteran employees, but also costly to spend time figuring out how to find them. He saw an opportunity for Conexus to step into that void.
Wood floated the idea and received interest from the Indiana Automotive Council at Conexus.
Eventually, he was connected with five companies willing to invest $250,000 over two years for his new project called INvets. That led to meetings with the State of Indiana’s Department of Workforce Development and an agreement to match the private investment.
Wood says he employed skills from his Kelley MBA throughout this process—especially after the fundraising was complete, when he began working with other statewide organizations to create the wraparound services for INvets.
“I took a negotiations course in my last year of the program and definitely used that skill set throughout these meetings,” says Wood. “I’ve also used the project management component of my MBA. I’m running INvets myself, so I’m constantly trying to start a lot of different fires at the same time: marketing, talent engagement, corporate engagement, sales, web design. I use technical skills from my operations and management courses to manage all of this and keep everything running on track.”
Perhaps the greatest tool he gained from the Kelley Evening MBA is credibility. With five years of experience in the military, Wood can speak to the capabilities and availabilities of veterans. His Kelley MBA helps him translate those for business leaders.
“I talk to a lot of veterans who would love to be in my shoes right now—running a program like this to help other vets and working to improve the state economy at the same time—but they don’t have the business experience,” says Wood. “And there are a lot of people running these programs who have the education, but they aren’t veterans. The Kelley MBA gives me a trump card because few people have both an MBA and a veteran’s real-world experience.”
Wood says the Kelley Evening MBA is particularly suited to veterans who may be interested in entrepreneurship.
While taking a digital marketing class, Wood was also developing a structure for an algorithm that translates a veteran’s experience into comparable, employment soft skills. He asked Kim Saxton, clinical professor of marketing and Wood’s digital marketing professor, if they could discuss his project after class. Through Kim’s connections, and those of Todd Saxton, associate professor of entrepreneurship, Wood gained access to a network of entrepreneurs who could help him make his project a reality.
“The military truly engrains in people the desire to solve problems. You don’t just sit back and ignore a problem when you can be solving it,” he says. “That skill set lends itself well to entrepreneurship. Veterans just need the technical skills to get there, and they can excel. That’s where an MBA is really useful to round out your skills.”
Wood says the military also prepared him for graduate school while working full time. When he was discharged, he was accustomed to 12-hour days, not to mention countless, around-the-clock training exercises and a deployment to Afghanistan. Wood used that momentum to carry him right into the rigorous Evening MBA Program and a full-time career—something he suggests veterans not delay.
“I approached the Kelley MBA like Ranger School: If you want to get promoted past a certain point, you have to have Ranger School,” he says. “You might as well knock it out as early in your career as possible.”
Each year, upwards of 300,000 people leave the military, and one third of them aren’t tied to living in any one place in the United States. These are the people who Wood hopes to entice to live and work in Indiana.
As INvets continues to grow and begins collaborating with the Lieutenant Governor’s office toward full wraparound services, Wood is grateful for the experience he has, and he hopes other veterans see the value in transitioning from enlistment to an MBA, particularly if they can learn and gain work experience at the same time.
“Looking back on it, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I believe education is valuable, but education mixed with real-world experience and hands-on application is far more valuable to veterans coming out of the military than simply education alone.”