Phil Gioia, MBA ’79: What Matters to Me Now and Why
“The risk-reward ratio on the battlefield balances lives; in business, it balances dollars.”
Four days after leaving the Army following two tours in Vietnam, Phil Gioia was at Stanford. | Illustration by Kim Salt
I grew up in an Army family during the Cold War of the ’50s and early ’60s; in a unique culture with its own myths, legends, and traditions. Before I went to high school we lived in Japan, in Italy, at West Point, and in the South prior to the civil rights movement. We had no phone or television in Italy; I listened on our Grundig shortwave to Radio Budapest during the 1956 Hungarian uprising as its desperate calls for help were brutally suppressed by the Soviet Union.
In World War II, my father served as an officer in the clandestine OSS, a precursor of the CIA and the Army’s Special Forces. Commissioned as an infantry officer myself, before I was 23 I had led American soldiers in action in two deployments in Vietnam. During the 1968 Tet Offensive, my 82nd Airborne paratroopers unearthed one of the first of the mass graves outside the Imperial City of Hué, where men, women, and children had been murdered by the Vietcong.
In 1977, I closed my GSB application essay with the audacious statement that “if admitted, both I and the GSB will benefit.” Four days after resigning my Army commission, I was at Stanford. My classmates’ backgrounds were hugely impressive, as would be their later accomplishments. The GSB faculty was terrific, the pace unrelenting.
I was fortunate to count friends like GSB Dean Arjay Miller. There were memorable moments: Admiral James Bond Stockdale of the Hoover Institution, a former prisoner of war and great philosopher, took me to Milton Friedman’s birthday party at the Faculty Club, introducing me to Dr. Edward Teller and others.
After Stanford, business at Morgan Stanley was challenging and fascinating. The late ’70s marked a powerful symbiosis between the Street and venture capital: IPOs of Microsoft, Apple, and a host of other pioneering companies catalyzed how we lived and did business. I itched to get into the entrepreneurial space, later co-founding companies in biometric identification and secure wireless communication. After 9/11, I co-founded a partnership that scouted Silicon Valley for adaptable technologies for the U.S. intelligence community.
In my business career, I’ve found high value placed on the same qualities critical in the Army: leadership, teamwork, good communication, focus on the objective, concern for your charges. I learned that reliance on verbal commitment in business can be vastly different from the same assurance given in combat. The risk-reward ratio on the battlefield balances lives; in business, it balances dollars. Both fields deal with success and failure; both require immense concentration and dedication.
I have never lessened my desire to help the men and women who dedicate their lives to safeguarding us, and to mentor young MBA aspirants. Several young tigers I’ve introduced to the GSB have received their MBAs. I’ve made many friends in my business career, yet still feel much in common with the then-19-year olds I was privileged to fight beside, long ago and far away.
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