Margaux Lohry has a knack for finding the perfect fit. A former Division I rower at Colgate University, Lohry's first job mere days after graduation was as international games manager for US Rowing — a title she would go on to hold at USA Swimming). When her husband's career took the couple to New Hampshire, she joined Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business as senior program delivery coordinator, not knowing that it was about to launch Next Step, a two-week on-campus program designed to hone the business acumen of elite athletes and military veterans alike (the 2019 breakdown was 55 percent veterans, 45 percent athletes). Paul Steinbach asked Lohry, who now serves as Next Step's program director, to walk us through the certificate program that has proven so popular, it turns away as many applicants as it accepts, with a second session added to the academic calendar to meet demand starting this fall.
Whose idea was Next Step?
The idea really came from Tuck's deputy dean, Punam Keller, and at the time she had been speaking with a number of Tuck's MBA students who were veterans, and they explained the challenge of coming into the MBA environment with a significant amount of tactical and practical experience, but lacking some of the business terminology and just kind of basic underlying knowledge that the other students had. That's really where the concept came from — to provide a sort of bridge-style program for veterans. And there was also an interest in bringing in another audience into that group.
Why Olympic athletes?
At one point, I believe, there were conversations with the NFL and other professional sports leagues that didn't exactly pan out, and then we eventually landed with elite athletes. The fit there is much better in terms of the participants themselves and the type of skills and experiences that they bring to it. And then there's also a practical aspect to it, as well. In order to be eligible for G.I. Bill funding, programs like Next Step need to have at least 20 percent non-veteran participants. So, having that group we feel is really important to the objective of the program, but it also achieves that administrative need to preserve our G.I. Bill eligibility, which is really essential for the veterans to afford it.
How much does the program cost?
The price has changed a bit since we started. For the April 2019 session, the fee was $1,500. That's going up for the September program. We're now moving to a two-tiered system based on a participant's adjusted gross income. And we're doing this because the affordability is very different within our cohort. Each cohort has around 65 participants — veterans and athletes — but of course veterans and active-duty service members earn a salary, whereas most of the athletes in our program do not. These are amateur, Olympic-level athletes who are of course top in their sport, but they're not paid in the same way as professional athletes. Our objective is to be more financially sustainable while also keeping access to the program based on true affordability for each participant. The fee includes tuition, lodging, most meals and all materials. So the only thing the participants are responsible for beyond that is their travel to and from Hanover.
Can you describe what the two weeks look like for participants?
It's a very intense and engaged experience while they're on campus. The program is designed to deliver a really broad business foundation, and that requires a significant amount of time in the classroom. For the April program, there were 86 hours of professor-led instruction, which is a lot. That comes out to roughly 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day in the classroom. In addition, we have time outside the classroom spent on workshops and networking activities, guest speakers and other events. The expression "drinking from a fire hose" is tossed around a lot, but they are very saturated by the end. It's very intense and it's meant to be that way. We designed the program to be transformative, so while you're here, everyone's head is down on this journey, engaged with our transition process. There's no going back to your room and doing work for your job at home. You're all in.
What is it about these two populations that allows them to coexist in the classroom?
We've seen that it's been a natural fit. Perhaps they have an idea that it would be cool to meet an Olympian or to sit next to a Green Beret in the classroom, but we've actually seen that the connection and sense of understanding is very deep and strong from the get-go, and I think this comes from the fact that these are two groups of people who have a high-performance mentality. Of course, they're executing on that in two very different circumstances. We don't want to downplay the incredible personal physical sacrifice that many veterans and service members make for our country, but the daily training that's involved in being at the top of your game, whether it's in a military pursuit or as an athlete, and the skills you develop, are very similar. The military is a team in the same way that sports teams are. And I think that the experience of representing your country is very special and that pride of serving a set of ideals that are higher than you and that really define everything you're doing, that's apparent. I think these two groups really respect that in each other.
What is it about business that these two populations find appealing?
The business industry covers a lot of different things, but it's an opportunity to continue performing at a high level in an environment that prizes that. Being competitive and working toward a common goal with a group of like-minded individuals is something they're very good at, and it's a setting where the skills needed to be successful in that endeavor are things that are prized and they have them. I think it's kind of an environment that's appealing because they're set up for success in that way. We see a lot of interest in entrepreneurship, as well, and that's something that's a big part of our curriculum in the Next Step program and at Tuck in our MBA program. I think that's exciting to athletes and veterans because you can really take your fate into your own hands and pursue something in an individual way, which might be new depending on your sport.
It's quintessentially American, too.
It sure is.
Have any Next Step alumni gone on to start their own business?
Absolutely. There are a number of successful entrepreneurs now who are alumni of the program and others who have taken jobs at places like Amazon, Facebook, Visa, JPMorgan Chase. Actually, one of our alumni now leads military recruitment for Chewy.com. Our alumni are consistently reporting success. I don't have the stats for April, but for the March 2018 program, more than 76 percent of jobseekers had at least one offer within six months of completing the program.
Have alumni ever returned to speak to a new Next Step session?
Yes, in fact we have career day during the program that is designed to give the participants exposure to different industries and job functions. It gives them a sense of the business landscape today and what are some outcomes that might be a good fit for them and how might they get there. And as we have more alumni from the program, it's really fun to be able to bring them back and have them participate in the panel discussions and showcase their outcomes and how they were able to achieve that on the back of a Next Step experience.
What Olympic sports are represented in your cohort?
We had 17 sports represented in our last cohort. One of the reasons we shifted the program timing from March into April was to better line up with the conclusion of the winter sport competitive season. March is high season for winter sports — skiing, biathlon, skeleton, things like that — so having the program in March made it inaccessible to winter athletes, so we had a really great turnout from winter sports in this past cohort. We had four biathletes — two of them actually were Dartmouth alumni, which was really exciting, as well. Other sports, we had alpine skiing, bobsled, cross country skiing, cycling, figure skating, freestyle skiing, ice hockey, mountain biking, rowing, rhythmic gymnastics, sailing, skeleton, soccer, speed skating, swimming, water polo.
Have any marquee names come through the program?
In this most recent cohort, the most recognizable name is Kikkan Randall — a five-time Olympian who won the gold medal in cross-country skiing at the most recent Games in Pyeongchang. She's very well known. The US Ski and Snowboard Association just put out a really nice article that features some of her input about the program and her experience.
Do you get much feedback?
Yes, actually we collect a lot of feedback for our own information to help improve the program as we go along, and of course to use in our website and marketing materials, and the program is consistently very highly rated. We receive excellent feedback. Actually, on the last day we conduct a session. The very last classroom session is really more about reflection, and the students are asked to identify three specific things that they've learned or changes that they want to make in their life right away, and it turns quickly from very practical — "I learned a lot about salary negotiations and at my upcoming job interview, I'm going to use X, Y, Z tactics" — it goes from that very quickly into very emotional stories about how personal the impact is and that it truly is life-changing.
This article originally appeared in the July | August 2019 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Business program unites Olympians, veterans." Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.