Casey Sheldon faced three important decisions toward the end of his career as a U.S. Marine. “The first was deciding to leave the Marine Corps,” says Sheldon, who flew the Corps’ KC-130 aircraft and trained other pilots. “The second was to attend business school. And the third was to decide, ‘OK, then what are you going to do?’”
During his military career, Sheldon become fascinated by the logistics of moving people and cargo around the world. He arrived at Stanford GSB — along with his wife and two young children — with the goal of using emerging technologies to improve the efficiency of transportation systems.
Sheldon has a distinguished career already behind him. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he captained the debate team at Annapolis (and eventually married a debate team competitor) and led large military units. By the time he left the Marine Corps as a Major, he’d been posted in Japan, Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. Along the way, he was awarded four Air Medals, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medals, two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals, and a Humanitarian Service Medal.
During his time at Stanford, Sheldon took on the co-president role with the Future of Mobility Club and, with several classmates, was a finalist for the 2021 MIT Clean Energy Prize for his work on a proposed battery-powered regional cargo aircraft. He’s also an award-winning home brewer (his Belgian Saison recipe won Best in Show at the regional Brewer’s Cup a few years ago) and an avid backpacker.
Now he’s taken his love of transportation to Cruise, an autonomous vehicle company based in San Francisco. “The GSB helped me transition from running an aircraft maintenance team in the Marine Corps to designing service operations for the world’s most advanced vehicles,” he says. “We’re breaking new ground daily, which is both challenging and rewarding.”
You’ve said the difficult birth of your first child reshaped your values. How so?
Before fatherhood, I was focused on achieving lofty individual pursuits. The transformation to becoming a father was a demonstration that it’s not really about me, and that reframed things in terms of the impact I have on others, and how I should be spending my time. It’s important to use the limited time we have to be as impactful as possible on the people who matter to us most.
You had a military career in full swing, and a family. So why did you decide to pursue an MBA at Stanford?
If you work really hard in the military, you have people who help you make decisions along the way and guide you towards a good path. Leaving that environment, I knew I was going to struggle with determining what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wasn’t sure if I’d fit in within an organization, or whether I wanted to start my own company. I needed a little time to reflect. The military is good at a lot of things, but introspection is not one of them. So, the MBA was an opportunity to take two years to acquire some skills and think really hard about what legacy I wanted to leave and where I wanted to have the most impact.
What was your transition like from the military to business school?
My first major challenge was the idea of uncertainty. You’re leaving a secure job with a clear track for promotion and expectations for a wide-open aperture of possibilities. And 95% of my peers leave Marine Corps KC-130 pilot careers and go into aviation as commercial airline pilots. I was taking the route less traveled. There wasn’t somebody I could look to and say, “This guy or this woman came before me and went to business school, and they were very successful.” I felt like I was treading a new path. Plus, there was the uncertainty of putting my family at risk by walking away from a secure job.
But you brought a background that most of your Stanford peers don’t bring. What contribution do you and other vets provide to the GSB?
I think a lot of vets undervalue their military background. We come into a program like Stanford GSB and are overwhelmed by the credentials of others and think there’s really nothing we can add to this mix. But I had a history of leading people from disparate backgrounds to do some amazing things. Those experiences provided strong lessons in how to interact within the confines of an organization to create change and how to motivate individuals to work together on a common problem. Veterans have been put into leadership positions early and often, so we learn how to develop a new set of skills very quickly, how to make decisions with incomplete information, and how to act confidently in a way that positively impacts group dynamics of the GSB.
Did you always want to focus on transportation and mobility?
Because of my background as a pilot, I was drawn to moving people and things, and the constant transformation of that process. As new technologies emerge, one of the first sectors in which we integrate these innovations is in transportation. It touches so many people and impacts their life regardless of wealth or status, and it’s a great application of technology for something that’s tangible.
What’s missing from the transportation industry now that you think you can improve?
The way we commute to work is remarkably inefficient. We have a personally owned vehicle that sits in a garage 90% of the time. We have seven times as many parking spaces as vehicles on the road. And we spend a lot of time in traffic. These are all problems that are totally solvable if we start using resources more efficiently by turning our ownership model of vehicles on its head and making new strides in technology.
How did your family integrate into and find support in the Stanford community?
When we reflected on our business school options, Stanford stood out as by far the most family-friendly. We live in Escondido Village and it is remarkably community-oriented. If you need a cup of sugar or help with computer issues, you can jump on WhatsApp and get help from someone in the courtyard or the next building over. I love pushing my son on the swings and talking to someone who is getting their doctorate in nuclear physics. And Stanford GSB is good about integrating significant others into the community. The majority of activities that are open to MBA students are open to significant others or partners.
How does the Veterans Club at the GSB help navigate all the changes you and your family are going through?
The club is very important to vets at the GSB. There’s a common language that veterans speak, and while we’re all there to learn a new language of business, it’s nice to have a home base of common experience and shared stories. And you can count on your fellow veterans to understand how isolating our situation can be.
In one of your admissions essays, you wrote about the importance of parenting “by influence rather than dominance.” Does that generally apply to leadership as well?
There’s a common assumption that people from the military are about barking orders and everybody falling into line out of fear. That’s really not what it’s about. It’s about understanding different perspectives and the different ways people are motivated. That’s something I’ve been able to bring to small group projects — understanding what each individual can add, what motivates them, and what leads individuals to do their best work. That applies to parenting. If you’re trying to drive home exactly what you want at all costs, you’re not going to get the result you’re looking for. You have to align incentives and do a lot more coaxing and motivating instead of demanding and barking orders.
Any specific professors, classes, or experiences at Stanford that stand out?
The most impactful class I took in my first year was Stanford Climate Ventures. It’s an entrepreneurship-focused class run through the School of Earth Sciences, but the majority of people in it are MBAs. It’s an opportunity to test out business plans that are focused on sustainability objectives.
That’s where you developed the idea for a battery-powered regional aircraft.
I paired with five other MBA students and four engineers, and we built an electric-powered cargo craft. One of my interests is the electrification of aviation. We used our Stanford network to interview more than 70 aviation professionals. That’s an opportunity I don’t see matched in many other places — where CEOs are willing to talk with you for an hour about what keeps them up at night and their challenges going forward, solely based on where you are getting your MBA. It was a chance to try on entrepreneurship, and we made it to the finals round where we pitched our idea to venture capitalists and got feedback from actual investors about the business plan. One of the life lessons from that course was that unless you are willing to dedicate the next seven to 10 years of your life to this project, you may want to look elsewhere. It’s probably not for me right now and having someone spelling it out in such succinct terms provided much-needed clarity.
We can’t let you go without asking a beer question. Are you still brewing your own, and what are your favorites?
There are not many brewing styles I haven’t brewed, but my favorites are Belgian Farmhouse Ales. I’m happy to announce that since graduating, I’m brewing again and will have three German styles on tap for an Oktoberfest event this fall.
Photos by Kiefer Hickman