October 15, 2012 12:12 am

High flyers

Wendy Swart©Pascal Perich

Decision maker: Wendy Swart has swapped the C-130s of the US Air Force for Delta Air Lines – and now an EMBA

Wendy Swart spent nearly a decade in the US Air Force flying C-130 transport planes on missions all over the Middle East, Africa and Afghanistan. She commanded a troop of 40 pilots, and even flew Nancy Pelosi, former speaker of the US house of representatives, to Iraq during the war.

But after leaving the military in 2007 to fly with Delta Air Lines she would occasionally miss her previous role. “I got to make important decisions in the military. I was in charge of people. I got used to it,” she says.

Mindful she would not be considered for a management job at Delta without a business degree, she decided to study for an executive MBA. “I was aware of the ‘GI Bill’ [the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008] and wanted to explore other opportunities,” says Swart, who is set to graduate from New York University’s Stern School of Business in January.

Swart is one of a small but growing number of women with military backgrounds who have enrolled for an executive MBA either as a way to segue from the armed services into the private sector or to continue to climb the ranks.

“The military in general wants more female progression in its leadership ranks, and an executive MBA is helpful in developing managerial skills,” says John Fernandes, president and chief executive officer of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. “If a woman is transitioning out of service, the executive MBA is a very good academic credential that differentiates her.”

Business schools in the US are attracting increasing interest from former military personnel. Of those with military experience who sat the Graduate Management Admission Test last year, 43 per cent were US citizens.

Only 4 per cent of these military test takers, or fewer than 200 people, plan to enter an EMBA programme. But those numbers could rise with the generous federal benefits in the GI Bill. For veterans who have served at least three years on active duty since September 11 2001, or were disabled, the programme pays for full tuition at public two- and four-year institutions. It also provides a housing and books allowance.

The Yellow Ribbon programme, a provision in the GI Bill, has made it more affordable for eligible veterans to attend expensive private colleges. Some business schools offer special fellowships available only to veterans. Stern, for instance, offers a $10,000 tuition break per year to eligible Yellow Ribbon programme students (matched by the Department of Veterans Affairs). Fees for an executive MBA at Stern for two years are $157,000.

Paula Steisel Goldfarb, Stern’s executive director of MBA and executive MBA admissions, says the school is “actively recruiting people from the military”. She says military officers tend to be disciplined leaders with strong teamwork skills. “They are used to working with people of different backgrounds and different vantage points. They are used to bringing groups together to succeed on a mission.”

Military officers may need extra help, however, to break into the civilian job market. “My whole career has been in the military, so the first step was just learning about all the other careers out there,” says Kimberly Williamson, a deputy director in the US Navy stationed in Washington DC, who is due to graduate in May from Columbia Business School with an executive MBA.

With the help of the school’s career services, Williamson, who hopes to leave the military within the next 18 months, has sharpened her CV and learnt how to present herself to prospective employers.

“In the military, you wear a uniform, so you wear your experience on your chest. But in the private sector you wear a suit, so it’s very different.”

Lynn Fox, a Signal Corps officer for six years, was drawn to do an executive MBA to “round out” her experience. “In my first year in the military, I led a platoon on a year-long deployment in Bosnia,” says Fox, a student at Villanova School of Business in Pennsylvania. “I came to the corporate world with an advantage because of that experience.”

Fox, who now works at Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer, wants to move from a tactical role at the company to a strategic one. Boeing hired more than 1,800 veterans in 2011, and about 16 per cent of its employees are veterans.

Some female officers juggling work and family obligations are drawn to the executive MBA because of the shorter time commitment. While full-time MBAs typically last two years and part-time MBAs around three, executive MBAs usually last 20 months, with classes every other weekend.

Kerry Nedic, a former marine who works full time and has children aged seven and 10, is taking an executive MBA at Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Illinois. Classes meet either once a month from Thursday to Sunday or every other week on Friday and Saturday.

Some aspects of an executive MBA are likely to feel familiar to military women, such as being in the minority and working under pressure.

“The Marine Corps is an extremely competitive environment, similar to business school,” says Nedic, director of pricing at EGS Electrical Group, the electrical products maker. “You have to be assertive and know how to navigate.”

After all, the business school experience is not dissimilar to the military. “You are thrown into a high-pressure situation,” she says. “You have to work in a team. You have to quickly assess other people’s character and abilities, and be honest about your own. You have to deploy resources where they are most needed. You are constantly juggling and planning.”

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