Alumni Vets Weigh in on Their Service, Leadership, and Stanford Experience

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Alumni Vets Weigh in on Their Service, Leadership, and Stanford Experience

A few alumni discuss the big lessons they’ve taken from work, school, and the military.
November 8, 2019
Stanford GSB alumni Eric Hanft in military uniform, leading a rehearsal before of a large military funeral in Arlington National Cemetery. Credit: Courtesy of Eric Hanft
Eric Hanft, MS '17, rear left, leading a rehearsal with key leaders ahead of a large military funeral in Arlington National Cemetery. | Courtesy of Eric Hanft

Veterans join Stanford GSB from every branch of the military, from leading hundreds of soldiers in foreign countries to providing medical care in the field. After earning their degrees, some return to military service, others launch businesses or enter the corporate world. In honor of Veterans Day, we caught up with a few veteran alumni to ask about their experience as leaders throughout their service, their schooling, and the workplace.

Desiree Strozier, MBA ’14: “Have Grit, and Stay Brave”

Desiree Strozier, MBA ’14, captain, U.S. Army.
Desiree Strozier, MBA ’14, captain, U.S. Army.

What’s your military experience?

Captain, U.S. Army.

What’s your current role?

Today I’m the vice president of sales operations and account development at Samsara, a leading information, technology, and services company focused on increasing the efficiency, safety, and sustainability of the operations that power our economy.

What was your favorite class at Stanford GSB?

Investment Management and Entrepreneurial Finance with the late Professor Jack McDonald — learning from Professor McDonald, the guest speakers, and my classmates taught me a completely new way of thinking about how business leaders think, build their teams, and make decisions.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Relax more, explore new things more, and sleep in often.

What do veterans bring to the table, in classes, in clubs, on campus?

The Army taught me how to see things from other perspectives and build trust — sometimes in highly stressful situations. All this helped me when I was at Stanford GSB. Working in small teams to accomplish a class project or put on the GSB Show may not have the same pressures as a mission in Iraq, but the common threads of trust, perspective, and shared goals remain.

How does being a veteran influence how you navigate the workplace?

Most people are surprised when they find out I’m a veteran because I don’t look like the stereotype of a military person. Because of that, no one has expectations that I’ll behave or act a certain way, and I’m free to prove myself through my work. My military experiences taught me how to work hard, have grit, and stay brave in uncertain conditions — all useful skills when working at an early-stage company.

How is military leadership similar or different from business leadership?

I’ve learned that leadership, whether in the military or business, means the same thing — it’s about taking care of people, building teams, and helping everyone do their very best work. Whether it’s defending your unit from hostile fire, providing security to a vulnerable population, or building a successful business, the same principles apply: Accomplish the mission and take care of your people.

Dave Prakash, MS ’19: “Normal Reactions Are Sometimes Viewed as Heroic Acts in the Private Sector”

Dave Prakash, MS ’19, at airfield.
Dave Prakash, MS ’19, test pilot and flight surgeon, U.S. Air Force.

What’s your military experience?

Flight surgeon, operational test pilot, U.S. Air Force.

What’s your current role?

I recently joined Anthem AI as staff vice president of clinical AI. My job is to develop and test technologies for medical and business value, design strategies for deploying these technologies, and navigate the ethical, regulatory, and legal issues of AI in healthcare. It’s a wonderful job because my boss wants to leverage every facet of my experience from the military and at Stanford.

What was your favorite class at Stanford GSB?

It’s a toss-up between Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Paths to Power, which helped make sense of the professional challenges in my past and prepared me to navigate my future, and J.D. Schramm’s Strategic Communication, which taught me how to communicate ideas. The best ideas are worthless if no one else understands them.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Classes are so much more fun at this stage in life than when you are younger. But don’t let classes get in the way of your education.

What surprised you about business school?

Even at age 42, I believe my time at Stanford GSB was the single greatest period of personal growth since being a teenager. It helped me integrate all of my life experiences. I felt fulfilled when I took care of patients, and I am proud to have served my country flying a combat aircraft, but those are things that I do, not who I am. Stanford helped me steer my career in line with who I am.

How is military leadership similar or different from business leadership?

Working in small teams to accomplish a class project or put on the GSB Show may not have the same pressures as a mission in Iraq, but the common threads of trust, perspective, and shared goals remain.
Desiree Strozier, MBA ’14

In the private sector, there is a clear boundary between professional life and personal life. In the military, that boundary is fluid. During deployments or tragedies, good leaders go to great lengths to take care of their people. In my current job, I respect that boundary. But I also broke that boundary recently to take care of a teammate. And it made all the difference. Normal reactions are sometimes viewed as heroic acts in the private sector.

I think a philosophy that holds true in the military and in the private sector is the following: Leadership is not about making people do what you tell them to do. Leadership is about making people want to do what you tell them to do.

How does being a veteran influence how you are perceived at work?

Being a veteran in the corporate world means I don’t have years of industry-specific knowledge to rely upon. I find myself saying “I don’t know” and having to ask for help more often than I would like. But I think the lack of corporate knowledge gives me confidence to wander into problems that no one else wants to touch. It can be hard to go outside of your wheelhouse, but it’s easier when you don’t have a wheelhouse to begin with.

What advice would you give other veterans thinking about business school?

The best career advice was from Virginia Mak at the Career Management Center. She said, “Dave, you’re not going to find a job that you can apply for. You need to find someone who will create a job for you.” Too often, I was told to focus my resume for the job. Instead, I found a boss who didn’t question my eclectic collection of skills.

Eric Hanft, MS ’17: “At All Levels, the Interpersonal Connection Matters”

Eric Hanft, MS ’17, Infantry Officer, US Army
Eric Hanft, MS ’17, Chief of Staff, 3rd US Infantry Regiment Infantry Officer, US Army

What’s your military experience?

Infantry officer, U.S. Army.

What’s your current role?

Today I am the battalion executive officer for 1st Battalion, 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, The Old Guard. We conduct military funerals in Arlington National Cemetery to honor our nation's fallen, major Army ceremonies, and serve as a 24/7 contingency force for crisis response in the National Capital Region. In my role, I serve as the second-in-command of a 900-Soldier Infantry Battalion, and have direct oversight of human resources, intelligence, logistics, sustainment, medical, and IT departments.

What was your favorite class at Stanford GSB?

Fiscal Policy with Keith Hennessey; Keith’s background is impressive enough, but he’s also an outstanding lecturer. The randomized cold calling in class kept everyone on their toes, leading to a really effective learning experience. He also taught me to love reading Congressional Budget Office reports, which I still do today.

What surprised you about business school?

When I was admitted to the GSB, I remember feeling a sense of imposter syndrome, wondering if anything in my background would be of relevance in the classroom. Turns out a lot of it was, and I’ve also been able to reframe my military work under business concepts, such as the concept that time and efficiency are also quantifiable.

How is military leadership similar to or different from business leadership?

Military leadership is very similar to business leadership, though it can be easy to assume otherwise given the popular dramatizations out there. We owe younger soldiers, or lower level employees, direct, prescriptive leadership to ensure they understand what’s being asked of them. At higher levels, soldiers and employees want autonomy. A greater focus on building trusted relationships both up and down forms the bedrock of that environment. At all levels, the interpersonal connection matters, and the GSB helped me grow in that regard.

Sean Michael Gahagan, MBA ’16: “Round Down!”

Sean Gahagan, MBA ’16, officer, U.S. Army.
Sean Gahagan, MBA ’16, officer, U.S. Army.

What’s your military experience?

Officer, U.S. Army.

What’s your current role?

I’m working at the intersection of product strategy and product development as a product marketing manager supporting our ads machine learning and responsible AI efforts within the Facebook Ads & Business Platforms team.

What was your favorite class at Stanford GSB?

Either Optimization, Simulations & Modeling or Interpersonal Dynamics (also known as “Touchy-Feely”). I loved building powerful predictive models in the former, and loved the intense learning experience of Touchy-Feely’s T-groups (though it wasn’t always enjoyable in the moment!).

What advice would you give your former self to help ease the transition into being a student?

“Round down!” If there’s an elective, recruiting event, or social event that you’re not excited about, don’t do it. Save that white space on your calendar. You might want it later for something you’re more excited about, or for rest and reflection. There’s a lot of pressure to do everything with FOMO (the fear of missing out), but there’s also JOMO (the joy of missing out).

— Jenny Luna

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