Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, over 400 Tillman Scholars strive to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, science, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support. This week, we catch up with Class of 2011 Tillman Scholar Danny Cho who is a West Point grad and the first member of his family to join the military. A 2013 Harvard Business School alum, Danny graduated with an MBA and has followed his dream of working in the intelligence community while serving other veterans.
WHAT WAS YOUR MOTIVATION FOR JOINING THE MILITARY?
“To understand my reasons for joining the military, we have to start with my decision to pursue West Point. However, that decision wasn’t as well thought out as I would have hoped it would be. I was a rebellious 16-year-old in high school and quite frankly, West Point was the best college I was accepted to at that moment. I visited various colleges when I was in high school, but I was putting more thought into having fun rather than where I would be attending college. Having visited West Point’s campus twice, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into, but going from high school to West Point was easily the biggest culture shock of my life still to this day.
My reasons for staying, however, were different from joining. In the few short months I spent at West Point, I saw how basic training and a highly regimented lifestyle was rapidly maturing me versus my friends back home who were rushing for fraternities and already missing classes. As a member of the West Point class of 2005, known as the “Class of 9/11,” I also grew a deep sense of patriotism that carries strong to this day.”
AS A FIRST-GENERATION MEMBER OF THE MILITARY, WHAT WAS THAT EXPERIENCE LIKE FOR YOU?
“The Army was the best six years of my life and I’m so grateful to have gone through it. I spent my entire six years overseas, so I was stationed in Germany for three years, Korea for my last two and spent one year deployed to Iraq. After serving six years, I left as a Captain. Being the first member of my family to serve in the armed forces was a tremendous honor.”
THROUGHOUT YOUR TIME IN THE SERVICE AND AT WEST POINT, WHAT DID YOU LEARN ABOUT YOURSELF? AND WHAT SPURRED YOUR DECISION TO LEAVE?
“I went through a very transformative experience in the military where I built up a sense of national pride and patriotism. I really internalized the sense of promoting a greater good to my nation and I wanted to continue that throughout my career. It was actually a very difficult decision for me to leave the Army after six years. Within the military structure, I felt that my impact promoting national security – something I wanted to pursue in or outside of the military – was kind of limited given the very strict career progression that the military presents.
I decided to pursue the private sector and in doing so I felt the best way to translate and augment the skills I had gathered while with the military would be through a graduate program in Business. As a result, I applied for an MBA and got accepted to my top school (Harvard), and then was able to pursue this career passion of mine.
The military and West Point allowed me to really understand my true limits – the discovery of one’s ability to push your limits beyond what you previously had known, physically, mentally, spiritually, everything, is truly a humbling experience. I think that was an incredibly quick way to mature somebody who was 17 years old at the time.
Another piece is resilience. In the military, you learn to deal with a lot of hardships – ones that no other citizen typically will encounter ever, thankfully. You learn to be independent yet you count on your brothers- and sisters-in-arms and learn to make do with what you have at the moment. You make decisions off of incomplete information. The result was knowing exactly who I was, a strong sense of simultaneous teamwork and independence, and maturity beyond what I could have hoped to gain from other paths.”
WHAT MOTIVATED YOU TO PURSUE YOUR MBA AT HARVARD AND FOCUS ON INTELLIGENCE?
“I chose to attend Harvard because of its large class size, which provided me with a huge diversity of classmates. I was also attracted to its excellent education program and its strong brand recognition. That was what I was looking for going into the MBA program, but what I got out of it was that and then some. I gained the confidence to be able to engage with my private sector peers and I made a lot of lifelong friends.
As far as my career field goes, I’m only three years removed from Harvard Business School, so I by no means have figured it out. But I do know that I have stayed true to my path that I set out on upon leaving the military – promoting national security through the private sector. I’ve always stayed within a company that has promoted a sense of national security and a sense of greater good toward the public sector, but I optimized on the company size dimension after graduating. I went to a smaller defense contractor company and then joined a startup in Manhattan that provided a real-time social media intelligence tool for the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. I am currently at a law enforcement software startup company called Mark43, which is the smallest organization I’ve been at yet with 30 people.”
TELL US MORE ABOUT THE MISSION OF MARK43.
“As a startup, we’re very focused on launching product. The whole premise of the company is to disrupt law enforcement software. The first product we launched is a records management system, which is a report writing tool for law enforcement. The founder started the company initially as an analytics tool for law enforcement, but then quickly realized that the data going into this analytics tool was messy and sometimes unusable. They took a step back and realized they should focus on the data entry portion first and found they were hitting a significant pain point for police officers. No police officer wants to spend their shift writing reports; they want to be out in the streets keeping people safe. We feel that with our product, we’re making police officers more efficient at policing.”
AS A SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER AT MARK43, HOW DOES YOUR ROLE CORRELATE TO WHAT YOU WERE DOING IN THE MILITARY?
“We are an early-stage startup operating with the ‘all hands on deck’ mentality. My role is to help build the business side of the company. So I’ve touched everything from pricing strategy, to customer support, to focusing on pre-sales and marketing. Although lessons from business school provided valuable hard skills and knowledge, I think what’s enabled me to be effective is a lot of the intangible lessons learned from my time in the military. As a service-member, I became pretty good at triaging issues. One of my roles here is resource management and assessing what needs attention the most and how we should allocate resources to efficiently solve problems. I help to move the ship in the direction we want it to go.
Another activity I was surprised to learn that I enjoy is mentorship. In the military, I think people tend to mature very quickly. They develop a lot of simultaneous resilience and dependence on others. I grew an appreciation for mentoring others and I think through the idea of mentorship, I learned to be patient and empathetic and help guide people in the right direction. I’ve really gained a lot of satisfaction from mentorship and in my career. There are a lot of junior people in my company. While these individuals are stellar in their craft, I enjoy occasionally providing my thoughts on various aspects of the business.”
AS YOU PURSUE YOUR PASSION, WHAT IS NEXT FOR YOU?
“Career-wise, my goal is to stay on the path of promoting national security. I have been fortunate enough to work for companies that have allowed me to follow this passion in my career. I’ve also been very fortunate to gather discrete skill sets through various roles and I want to continue to build those skill sets. On a personal level? I was recently married eight months ago and we’re expecting in September! I just want to provide predictability, stability, and support for my wife and growing family.”
YOU WERE NAMED A 2011 TILLMAN SCHOLAR. HOW DID YOU LEARN ABOUT THE SCHOLARSHIP AND HOW HAS THE COMMUNITY HELPED YOU ALONG THE WAY?
“I learned about the scholarship through a classmate at West Point, who I also served with in Korea and attended Harvard Business School with. It was a no-brainer to apply, and then being accepted into the Tillman Scholar family has been amazing! Obviously, the financial benefits are amazing. Coupled with the GI Bill, the Tillman Scholarship allowed me to pursue a career path I had my sights set on even before I left the military. I saw firsthand, at Harvard Business School, my classmates pursue careers that prioritized compensation over passion. I feel very fortunate to have had the financial support to pursue a career I’m truly passionate about. Most importantly, the camaraderie in being part of the scholar community was something I missed out of the military.”
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO BE ONE OF 400 TILLMAN SCHOLARS, TASKED WITH CARRYING FORWARD PAT’S LEGACY, BY MAKING AN IMPACT IN THE COMMUNITY?
“It’s an incredible honor and very humbling to be part of this community. Because of all the interaction we have with one another, it’s also great to know we have each other’s backs and we’re just a phone call away from one another for support. As an aside, I was volunteering at a veteran’s homeless shelter and we needed more veteran mentors. Of all the military networks I’m connected to, the Pat Tillman Foundation network in Manhattan was the most responsive. It just goes to show the cohesion within this group.”
HOW ARE YOU ‘PAYING IT FORWARD’ AS A TILLMAN SCHOLAR?
“The reason I try to pay it forward is because I recognize the fact I’ve had an incredible life so far – from getting accepted into great schools, to being able to serve as an Army officer in a time of war, and to having the ability to pursue the career path that I want, in the city I want to live in.
When I think about how fortunate I am and all the things I’ve experienced in life so far, I definitely feel a responsibility to help others. In one dimension, I feel like my job in some sense is to stick to my dream of working to promote national security, something near and dear to my heart. The second dimension is community. In that aspect, I gain fulfillment through volunteering for homeless veterans and also helping service members with their applications to MBA programs.”