A former Special Forces Green Beret in the US Army, Booth student Chris Payne pays it forward by helping other veterans make successful transitions after military life.
- By November 11, 2020
On September 11, 2001, Chris Payne was a ninth-grade student. Although his father was a pilot in the US Army and Payne had lived on a military base at Fort Knox, Kentucky, during his childhood, he had never envisioned following in his father’s footsteps.
“I always thought I was too hard-headed for the military,” said Payne, now a second-year MBA student at Chicago Booth. “When I was a kid in middle school, that was how felt.” But as a high-schooler, as he and a good friend watched on TV as the World Trade Center towers fell on 9/11, Payne’s perspective changed. “We were both rocked to the core,” he said. “That really motivated me to serve. I didn’t know how I wanted to do it yet, but I knew I wanted to.”
That momentous decision led Payne to a 10-year career in the US Army, where he ultimately became a Special Forces Green Beret officer and deployed five times. “That decision has radically impacted every aspect of my life today,” Payne said. Now, as he works on his MBA at Booth and prepares for his transition to the private sector, Payne is also putting his energy toward helping other veterans and active-duty military service members better understand the options available to them in their career paths.
He’s a member of Booth’s Armed Forces Group, which provides MBA application mentorship and various resources to veterans of all countries who are interested in applying to Booth’s MBA programs. He’s also just launched a podcast, “Pivot Points with Chris Payne,” in which he will interview veterans about the critical decisions that brought them to where they are today. The podcast is now available on platforms such as Apple Podcasts and Spotify, and coming soon to Google Podcasts. Payne hopes his subject’s stories, and their candor, will equip other members of the military—and any listeners facing difficult choices about their future—with guidance, inspiration, and insight.
"I want to dive into those individual decisions and look at moments when there was ambiguity or uncertainty, and then discuss how each individual made the big decisions that directed the course of their life."
“I’m fascinated by people’s decision-making processes,” said Payne, who is headed for a job as a management consultant with Boston Consulting Group after he graduates from Booth next June. “You typically hear a narrative from people about how they currently are on their path toward success. It all seems so smooth, because humans understand stories and we remember what makes sense.” But through his experience in the military, Payne knows decision-making is rarely so neat or clear-cut. “I want to dive into those individual decisions and look at moments when there was ambiguity or uncertainty, and then discuss how each individual made the big decisions that directed the course of their life.”
In one episode of his forthcoming podcast, Payne interviews St. Louis–based private equity professional Kevin Kerr, a fellow Army veteran who Payne served with in the Seventh Special Forces Group. “At that time, Kevin was getting ready to transition out of the military, so we talked about his decision to serve, his decision to go to West Point, some decisions he made as a platoon leader in combat in Afghanistan, and of course his decision to leave the military,” Payne said. “At each of those points, he references the frameworks that he used and the lessons he learned along the way. I think you can apply that to your own decision-making processes.”
For Payne, the critical decision to serve initially directed him to ROTC while at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, where he earned his degree in economics in 2009. “I ended up choosing the Army, because I felt like specifically, I wanted to join the Infantry, where it’s a people business,” Payne said. “You are a leader in the pure sense of the word.” He led over 150 combat patrols in Afghanistan for a team of 48 soldiers. He also earned a Ranger Tab, a distinction achieved by less than 1 percent of Army service members. “For a 23-year-old thrust into that level of leadership, you’re leaning on all of your teammates. Your non-commissioned officers, who have much more experience than you, are super capable and are mentoring you as you learn how to lead,” Payne said. “I made tons of mistakes. As a result, humility and a sense of humor were necessary attributes and something I think veterans all share. Because of the mentorship of those around me, I think I grew as a leader more from 22 to 25 than I have at any other period of my life.”
After two years of Special Forces training, Payne became a Special Forces detachment commander in 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne), leading a team of Green Berets and working with US Embassy officials in Central and South America to advise the premier counter-terrorism forces in multiple countries. He next deployed to Kuwait and Syria in 2017 where he coordinated operations to uproot and destroy ISIS forces and liberate populations from ISIS rule. He joined the Full-Time MBA program at Booth in September 2019 and spent his summer internship as a consultant with Boston Consulting Group, in its Dallas office.
In making the decision to pursue an MBA and ultimately to come to Booth, Payne leaned on the resources provided by Service to School, a nonprofit that focuses on introducing veterans to colleges or graduate schools. “Through that program, I was connected with Booth when I was applying to my MBA, and my Booth mentor was instrumental in guiding me through the process. They helped me understand how to structure my resume and how to communicate my experience through the application process,” Payne said. Payne also found support from Booth resources, such as the Armed Forces Group he later joined.
“The Armed Forces Group at Booth was great, even before I showed up on campus, explaining what the different pre-MBA opportunities were and getting me in the right head space to make decisions once I got on campus,” Payne said.
"There is a strong emphasis on collaboration and pushing decisions down to the place that has the most situational understanding in order to empower your supporters to lead and make decisions within your scope of responsibility."
Now at Booth, Payne is very active in the Armed Forces Group (AFG), and he pays it forward by providing the kind of help he received to other veterans. “I think most vets are driven by a sense of community and a desire to give back. I know I’m certainly driven by both of those things,” he said. “It’s not just me. Our AFG has six co-chairs because we all want to give back and ensure veterans are successful from the time they apply through graduation. Beyond the co-chairs, all the members are committed to helping each other here at Booth and veterans looking to apply. It really is a team effort. We want to help service members learn more about what exists out there as far as transition opportunities—like the financial support that Booth provides specifically. That an MBA is not just within reach, but a very realistic option.”
Indeed, Booth has a substantial and growing portfolio of resources, scholarships, and financial assistance to Armed Forces members pursuing their MBA. Since 2006, the number of veteran MBA students enrolled at Booth has increased nearly 300 percent. “Military veterans and active duty servicemembers are an integral part of the Booth community, and our student body averages around 7 to 8 percent veterans each year,” said Donna Swinford, associate dean for student recruitment and admissions, MBA Programs, at Booth. “Thanks to collaboration among our passionate alumni community, the Armed Forces Group of students at Booth, our committed staff, and the supportive Booth community at large, we continue to attract great students from the military to Booth, and we see them go on to great success while in school and after graduation.”
In 2016, alumnus Eric Gleacher, ’67, gave $10 million to fund the Gleacher Veterans Scholars Fund, which helps bridge the gap between government benefits and the remaining costs of earning a Booth degree. The following year, Booth increased our Yellow Ribbon match amount to ensure 100% of tuition and fees would be covered for all eligible students in the Full-Time MBA, Evening MBA, and Weekend MBA Programs. Last year, on Veteran’s Day, it was announced the Harper Family Foundation gifted an additional $10 million to double the support available to veterans at Booth. Booth also offers several other awards that give preference to military candidates, including the David W. Fox Scholarship, the Stephen J. & Jennifer L. Czech – US Navy SEAL Scholarship, and the Dennis W. and Jane B. Carlton Fellowship for those who served in the Israeli military. The AFG is extremely thankful for this support, Payne said. “Eric Gleacher’s donation was incredibly generous and has changed lives,” Payne said. “The Harper Family Foundation’s matching gift really humbled our group. It’s a testament not only to Eric’s leadership, but also a signal that the broader Booth community recognizes the value veterans bring to Booth.”
In his work with Booth’s Armed Forces Group, Payne is able to share these opportunities with military candidates, and to help early on in a candidate’s MBA journey by providing information about interview preparation, resume workshops, career coaching, and family social activities. “I have a desire to provide current service members with the information they need to make the right decision for them,” Payne said.
At Booth, Payne has also found parallels between leadership lessons he learned in the military and the kind of collaboration and teamwork involved in business school. “I think a misconception—one that I had when I was a kid, and that I think a lot of people who don’t interact with the military often have—is that the military is extremely rigid and that it’s driven from the top down only, with orders being issued and then followed,” he said. “But there is a strong emphasis on collaboration and pushing decisions down to the place that has the most situational understanding in order to empower your supporters to lead and make decisions within your scope of responsibility. That translates extremely well from the military to business school, where you are also collaborating—it’s a flat organization, there’s no hierarchy, but you’re still trying to find that right answer together.”
Having chosen consulting as his immediate path after Booth, Payne has focused his studies each quarter on three areas: finance, data analytics, and entrepreneurship. “The flexible curriculum at Booth is incredible, and what it really means to me is that you can either double down on your strengths, or attack your weaknesses, or just build a path based on your interests,” Payne said. “I wanted to really attack my weaknesses in data analytics and finance to build an understanding of financial statements and how that informs decisions in a business. And I love entrepreneurship—long-term I want to be an entrepreneur. I have been able to layer those desires and interests on top of each other and build a curriculum that gave me those skills.”
In his post-MBA career at Boston Consulting Group, Payne said, “I hope to be able to use the skills that I’ve learned here at Booth to solve challenging problems for our clients.”
He also plans to continue with his “pay-it-forward” work, via his podcast and other avenues that help veterans. “I hope to be able to use the things I’ve learned and the network I’ve been able to create, to assist other veterans both at Booth and transitioning out of the military, to land in the right spot to pursue their passion and their path,” he said.
Looking back on his own watershed pivot point as a high-schooler, Payne has no doubts about his decision to serve. “I couldn’t be happier with that choice,” he said. “I’m glad that I chose to serve. It’s been the honor of my life to do it.”