Back in 2009 David Ulrey became a West Point graduate – five years later he made the move to Boston and joined the Class of 2016 at HBS.
In the years before coming to business school, David was commissioned as a Financial Management Officer in the U.S. Army and deployed to Afghanistan. We checked in with David to see what it’s been like to make the transition to civilian life, learn more about his HBS experience, and find out how business school fits into his plans for the future.
How did the military prepare you for HBS?
The skill I brought with me from
the military that has proven most impactful during my time at HBS is
self-reflection. Being surrounded by so many incredibly accomplished people at
a place like HBS is a golden ticket to personal growth. I’ve found that my
ability to be honest with myself about where I’m struggling relative to my
peers has helped me attack my weaknesses and squeeze more out of the HBS experience
than I otherwise could have.
What has been the hardest part about the
For me, one of the most difficult
parts of transitioning from the military to HBS was learning to rely on
internal rather than external validation.
When I was in the Army I received
almost constant feedback from a variety of sources and thus found it relatively
easy to understand how I was performing. But at HBS most classes consist of
only two grades – participation and a final exam – so until grades come out at
the end of a semester, it’s difficult to know if you’re doing well. Because of
this, in the midst of a schedule filled to the brim with cases and recruiting,
I found it difficult to effectively balance my priorities.
Midway through first semester I
ended up sitting down to talk it through with one of my professors. She
encouraged me to gauge my success on how much I was learning and if I was
developing into the person I want to be after two years at HBS. It was simple
yet transformative advice. And though I still have to work at it, I have a
feeling that learning to define success for myself is a skill that will pay
dividends in the future.
What plans do you have for the future? How
has your vision of the future changed since coming here?
When I applied to HBS I was
pretty set on building a career in either finance or consulting. Now, while my
road map will still entail a stint sharpening my business skills with a
professional services firm, ultimately I’d like to run a company.
To me, the beauty of the case method is the opportunity to truly put oneself in the shoes of a protagonist and
think through a difficult decision with the protagonist using the same values and
priorities you would use in real life. It’s the chance to form an opinion using
your set of beliefs, talk about those beliefs in class, learn from your peers,
add to your decision making toolkit, and grow.
It is truly a remarkable process through
which I have learned more about business in a single year than I thought there
was knowledge to be learned – but I’ve also learned just as much about myself.
I found that while I really enjoy the quantitative aspect to working through a
case, what really keeps me up at night are the human and leadership challenges our
As a CEO, how do you design an
organization to attract, motivate, and retain talent? How do you make
responsible decisions at the top to ensure each of your employees is excited to
come to work, has the opportunity to build a meaningful career, and feels like
their contributions are being recognized and rewarded? And how do you weave all
that into a corporate culture? As I’ve come to realize over the course of our
first 200 or so cases, those are the questions I’d like to spend my career
What advice do you have for prospective
students from the military who are considering HBS?
I’d encourage prospective
military applicants to recognize two things:
1. Your voice and experience will
be valuable additions to the HBS classroom. Be confident in that fact.
2. There is a network of people
who want to see you succeed. Reach out to us, come visit us, ask us questions, and
ask us for help. We want to be a resource for you.