On this episode of the OneHaas Podcast, host Sean chats with Andrew MacNeil, Executive MBA class of 2017. Andrew is currently the Global Head of Enablement at Flexport. He is also a Coach, Advisor, and Mentor for the UC Berkeley Executive Education program.
Andrew shares his background growing up in a military family and his time as a US Army Special Forces Officer. He also talks about why he ended up at Haas after leaving the military and how his career in the tech space took off after he graduated.
Andrew also tells us about his time in Afghanistan, where he met an Afghan Army Special Forces Soldier who eventually became his friend. Amid the current situation in the country, Andrew started a fundraiser to help his friend and his family attempt to escape Taliban persecution and land safely in the United States.
What a business school acceptance can do to jumpstart your career
“It’s actually very hard to get someone in technology to hire you out of the military. I struggled very much trying to get an interview, and the funniest thing about it was as soon as I got the Berkeley acceptance, I popped that thing on my resume and got an interview. No one was giving me the time of day before that. It was just a testament to that. Once Berkeley’s willing to sign off on you, you have the street cred. Some of my friends call it the technology stink. I was able to get into the program and hadn’t learned anything really yet, but all of a sudden, everyone’s taking my calls and took me seriously.”
How you can extend your help to the people of Afghanistan
“You can support in two ways. One, keep asking these questions of what’s the plan? You can secure an airport all you want, but if people can’t get to it, that’s not a great solution. And it’s not just about America. It’s about tens of thousands of people that helped us along the way. And if you think about our ability to have a strong level of national security on the global scale, who’s going to want to partner with us after this? Who’s going to trust that they’re going to be taken care of when they help us? We need to fix it. So, that’s one part of it.
The second part of it is continuing to look for nonprofit organizations that are raising money to get people out of there, to support them after they land. There’s a lot of opportunities out there to help these organizations.”
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
Sean: Welcome to the OneHaas alumni podcast. I’m your host, Sean Li. And today we’re joined by Andrew McNeil. Andrew is a Haas Executive MBA class of 2017. He is currently the Global Head of Enablement at Flexport. He is also a Coach, Advisor, and Mentor for the UC Berkeley Executive Education program. Welcome to the podcast, Andrew.
Andrew MacNeil: Thank you for having me, Sean. Appreciate it.
Sean: Andrew, can you start off just sharing a little bit about your background, where you grew up, where you’re from.
Andrew MacNeil: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. So, I grew up in a military family. My dad was a career air force officer and a pilot, and in my junior and senior year of high school, my dad actually took a position at Berkeley, moving out to California and he was the professor of military science at Berkeley, leading the ROTC program there. So, that’s how I ended up in California and getting my first exposure to Berkeley.
Sean: Where were you before that?
Andrew MacNeil: We moved around. Yeah. We moved around all over the place. The way that Air Force structures their officer careers as you sort move every two to three years. So, I lived everywhere from New Jersey, DC, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Illinois, Florida. And so, you kind of rotate around as your father gets different positions of increasing responsibility.
Sean: Where’s your dad from originally? What part of the country?
Andrew MacNeil: Boston. Yeah.
Sean: That’s cool. Well, I’m from the Midwest so I’m always interested in where people are from.
Andrew MacNeil: Yeah, a long line of Boston electricians but my dad broke away and became a pilot which brought us out west.
Sean: That’s awesome. What did you study for your undergrad?
Andrew MacNeil: Yeah, so I studied economics at Cal State Chico up north but I didn’t join college right out of high school. In fact, I enlisted in the army, into the national guard as an infantry and then, and my first semester, which would have been my freshman year, fall semester. I was in boot camp.
Came back, went back into the reserve capacity, and then I actually applied to Chico State and started studying economics. About a semester in, I got deployed to Iraq. So, I was 19 years old and got sent to a train up in Texas and then over to Baghdad, Iraq, I guess January of 2005. So, spent a year there and came back and said, I definitely need to go finish this degree and go get a job where less people are shooting at me.
And, you know, finished my degree pretty early at Chico and took a job at Merrill Lynch in wealth management in San Francisco. This was also about the time of the financial crisis. I believe it was 2008. And realized that wasn’t probably an area I wanted to be in.
So, I ended up becoming an intelligence officer in the army. I was still in the reserves at the time. Did that, once I got enough experience as an intelligence officer in the army, I applied for the special forces and essentially, you know, did that for the next five years, two years of training and then about two and a half, three years as a detachment.
Sean: For us laypeople, what are the special forces? I presume it’s different from the Navy SEAL, right?
Andrew MacNeil: Yeah. So, the Navy SEALs are the Navy’s special operations. The Army has the Green Berets or the Special Forces. So, if you think about each branch of the military, what their core function is to take a sort of a military fighting capacity and own that space.
So, the Navy is very much their mandate is to control the ocean. The Army is to control land, obviously Air Force, the air, Coast Guard, Homeland coast. So, the SEALs are their special operations force that would go and be able to conduct special operations from the like what the recall and amphibious capacity. The Marines, for example, the Navy’s infantry force. So, they ride on the ships and once you get to an island, they would be the ones that would move on and secure the land there.
So, the Green Berets, you know, with all that context are the army special operations force, very focused on conducting clandestine and confidential operations for the United States Army.
Sean: I was listening to David Goggins last year. And I remember him talking about trying for the Seals and then going for the Ranger. Is there a difference between the Army Ranger and the Green Berets?
Andrew MacNeil: Yeah. So, the Army Rangers, it’s kind of a tricky topic. So, Army Rangers are what’s considered like an infantry force, an elite infantry force. So, think like a really advanced strike force. If you think about the type of missions that the Army might have, hey, we need to go secure this airfield, we need to go, get this bad guy, you would send in, potentially, the Rangers.
Now, the Army also has a school called Army Ranger School, which is a leadership training opportunity that’s about two or three months long that you cannot be part of the ranger unit, which is called the 75th ranger, but you could still go to this school. So, you can be a graduate of the army ranger school, but not necessarily a member of the ranger unit.
Where the Rangers would differ from like a Green Berets, for example, the Green Berets are much more oriented around, it’s a 12-man team that’s autonomous, that can go anywhere in the world, you know, behind enemy lines, potentially, and work by, with, and through the indigenous people. So, yeah, a number of tools in your toolkit to enact any kind of mission that you want to conduct.
Whereas the Rangers you’re sort of, you know, they might beat me up for this but a little bit more of a one-trick pony.
Sean: Thank you for explaining that to me. The more you mentioned, I was like, I was really curious about this area. So, you were deployed for, I believe for 13 years, was it?
Andrew MacNeil: Total service, it was 13 plus years, but, yeah, but I did active duty and reserve time. I went to college during that time and, you know, had some different jobs, but, of the 13 plus years I was in, I was active duty. So, meaning, I was there every day for about half that time and deployed twice for combat operations. So, one to Iraq and Afghanistan, and then a training mission in the Southeast Asia.
Sean: Well, let’s switch gears a little bit and talk a little bit about your reason for coming to Haas and what you’ve been doing afterward since.
Andrew MacNeil: Yeah. Of course. So, when I was leaving the military in 2016, I knew I wanted to work in technology. I was just talking to somebody the other day about this. It sort of feels like the gold rush of our time, this digital transformation that’s happening in the world. And I thought I’d be remiss in many ways if I look back and say, I wasn’t a part of that like we’re leveraging technology all over the world to automate and digitize and transform all of these traditional industries and just felt like that was the place that people are going. They want to flex that innovation, that creativity, to have an impact on the world.
All that being said, I had no idea what I was going to do in that space or where my experience is at, where it would add value. So, at the end of the day, I was like, I need to go to business school. And what’s a great business school in the bay area that I happened to have a little bit of a connection with and in Berkeley was the place that I wanted to be to do that, the connection to Silicon Valley, the innovation that goes around it, obviously, the comradery and the connection to just all of these businesses and on the west coast, specifically. So, I was able to convince Berkeley to let me in.
Sean: Shouldn’t be hard, not with your background.
Andrew MacNeil: It’s funny because business schools, I think recognized the leadership that you bring from a military background, but it’s actually very hard to get someone in technology to hire you out of the military. I struggled very much trying to just get an interview. And the funniest thing about it was as soon as I got the Berkeley acceptance, I popped that thing on my resume, and I got an interview with Amazon. And no one was giving me the time of day before that.
So, it’s so funny. It was just a testament to that once Berkeley’s willing to sign off on you, you have the street cred. Some of my friends call it the technology stink. Once you have that on you, everybody’s okay, this guy’s, legit.
So, I was able to get into the program, yeah, but I was able to get into the program and I hadn’t learned anything really yet, but all of a sudden everyone’s taking my calls and took me seriously.
Sean: This is why I want people to hear more about Green Berets and these positions. You guys should have higher Green Berets, that should be a street cred by itself.
Andrew MacNeil: You know what it is though, Sean, and this was like a quote actually from, I won’t name the company, but a large leading technology company in the bay area. Hey, I would love to have a beer with you but I don’t know what to do with my company. So, I think people respect it and they’re like, wow, that’s great, but what do you actually do? And what can you do for my organization?
Now having the five years under my belt in corporate America, I think I can translate that a little bit better now. Like, hey, I can plan, I can organize people, I can manage projects, I can see around corners pretty well. I can lead teams, right? You have to be able to articulate that. And when you’re first trying to make that transition, it’s difficult. It’s an additional mental step that you have to do when you’re trying to discuss, you know, in an interview or a really difficult interview, it’s another step you have to take, and it becomes pretty difficult.
But yeah, I would love to be able to tell that story more effectively for folks transitioning out and what value they can add for business organizations.
Sean: I was just going to say any listeners, any veterans that are listening, who are having that difficulty transitioning, they should definitely reach out to you and seek that advice
Andrew MacNeil: Yeah. Happy to chat.
Sean: It’s very relevant. How did you transition from Amazon to Flexport? Actually, one of my classmates worked at Flexport, Andrew Price. I saw that you knew him or have met before.
Andrew MacNeil: Oh, yeah. I think he left shortly thereafter my first joining of Flexport but we did have some overlap.
Sean: Yeah, in the coast guard.
Andrew MacNeil: Yeah, that’s right. Now that my body’s all beat up after years in the Army, I sometimes think the Coast Guard might’ve been the place to be.
So, I spent some time at Amazon, two and a half years. It was really important for me, you know, from a branding perspective, I really wanted a big technology company on my resume. And what’s great about Amazon in a lot of capacities, they’re not without their problems from a business perspective, great business but they’re not without their own challenges. But what’s great about Amazon is that you can navigate that company and you can move internally very easily and they actually encourage it as a culture.
What’s great about that is when you come in, a person like myself that just recently transitioned out of the military, you have an opportunity to go and take a bunch of different roles every single year, right. You can kind of move. I went from what I would call vendor management partnerships to program management to a highly technical product interaction role.
So, I was able to get different exposure of the business and saw where some things that were interesting to me and where some areas that I probably wanted to shy away from. So, it was a great opportunity. And then once again, like the branding play of Berkeley on my resume, Amazon had that same effect. Now I have two of these things where these big brands and these trusted institutions have kind of stamped the office as somebody that can be effective in their area.
So, after about two and a half years at Amazon, I started kicking the tires at different technology organizations out there. I really wanted to go smaller. I sort of draw the parallel of when I joined the Army. I was in the big army, the conventional army, and there’s a lot of similarities between huge organizations and the army, has been around hundreds of years and there’s a lot of bureaucracy for better or worse. I really wanted to go smaller. I liked the feel of being in special forces where I was a small team. I was able to move, make decisions. I was empowered, a lot of autonomy, a lot of ambiguous problems.
So, I knew I wanted to get smaller. So, I said, what’s the startup I can go to that has the highest degree of likelihood of going public. I chose WeWork, which ironically enough, ended up not being the lock that I thought it was. But nonetheless, I went over there and it was a tremendous opportunity.
It was sort of a joke. It was the life cycle of a 30-year company all condensed into about a year of hyperscale, and then all of a sudden you’re unwinding everything and laying people off and unwinding organizations and so, it was a great opportunity still for me to just see that, you know, not every business is Amazon, right?
Not every business is going to be hyper-successful, not every leadership team is a four-star general equivalent, right? So, it was a great opportunity for me, I think, to learn some valuable lessons about how to run an organization and how not to, how to be responsible with investor money and, you know, what that looks like when you’re not.
And so, again, I had a peek behind the curtain, into the rise and fall WeWork. And, that was a great opportunity for me for sure. At the tail end of that experience, once Adam Newman sort of got shown out, the new chairman from SoftBank came in temporarily until they found the new CEO and he said, hey, we’re going back to core business. Every group that’s not directly contributing to the core business, we’re going to restructure and you guys are going to have to leave the company.
Well, I was in the technology group bringing innovative technology for WeWork. We were focused on like the real estate development, construction design, and supply chain aspect of that. There’s off-the-shelf solutions for that, that they could go to. Yeah. It’s not going to be as groundbreaking, but it would get the job done for a company that really needs to cut costs very quickly.
Andrew MacNeil: So, I was at the time, the chief of staff based in a remote office for about a 250-person organization. There’s 50 of us in the office and this is in the Seattle area. The comradery there was actually very strong. Everybody liked working with each other, a lot of ex-Amazon folks, people with strong resumes.
And so, we decided to take the opportunity and we shopped ourselves around as sort of an acqui-hire. Yeah. We went around to different companies and we said, hey, this is a group of software engineers, product managers, designers, which is, if you know the market any at all right now, it’s very difficult to stumble upon, you know, a bunch of free agents with great resumes and technology.
And we went around to some big names and some medium-size names and some startups. And we ended up getting several offers without interviews or anything. We just chatted, you know, with the execs in these companies and did kind of some semi-loop interviews with some of our leaders. And we were able to get the whole office a job at Flexport. So, everybody went over there all at the same time. It was great. It was a super cool experience for me. I project managed the thing and, you know, we were sort of writing the playbook as we were building the plane, as we were flying it, and trying to figure out how this whole thing worked. I never heard of anything like that before. It was sort of uncharted territory, but yeah, super cool experience. And I thought that was even a testament to Flexport leadership, to be able to think outside the box and look for an opportunity to, essentially, hire a whole 50-person high-performing team at once.
Sean: The team was 50 people? That’s amazing. That’s a feat. That’s really an acqui-hire.
Andrew MacNeil: And there was a lot of internal dynamics too. Cause you know, there were people with different motivations that wanted to go to different companies. We had other offers. And the people that were in as part of the leadership team, we knew that the deal was going to blow up if it wasn’t everybody. If it starts getting into like it’s 20 people, does Flexport or this other company really want to take 20 people, do they want to take 10? Probably not. Especially if they didn’t have a big presence there already. Cause many of them were considering starting an office there because they’d be able to hit the ground running.
Sean: In Seattle you mean?
Andrew MacNeil: A lot in Seattle, yes, that’s correct. So, we knew that a lot of it hinged on getting everybody on board. So, there was a lot of human aspects of this that we were trying to navigate as we were working through the process.
Sean: That’s awesome. Thank you so much for sharing that story. That’s actually not only an ingenious solution, but just very inspirational, I think, from, like you said, the leadership and management perspective to think creatively to help teams. And I think these days more than ever, it’s less so about the company that you’re with long-term, you know, the people that you work with and the communities that you build. So, maybe there’s a startup idea there long-term.
Andrew MacNeil: Maybe. You know, I think part of it was too, you know, as the chief of staff, I was heavily involved when we’re pruning and the executive that I supported was heavily involved in selling this story to our networks. So, bringing the people over from WeWork, so I think we felt a level of personal responsibility of, we sort of like put ourselves out there and said, this is working, you know? Cause from our perspective, it was working, the technology was working. You know, there’s a lot of reasons why things happen the way they happen from a corporate strategy perspective. And so, we brought these people over and we were holding, you know, recruitment events and we were tapping our networks and we were actively marketing positions.
So, we thought to a certain degree of like, you know, we told these people this was going to work. Now they’re about to be back on the job trail. And I think we wanted to avoid that. People have mortgages, people have obligations. And so, I think we felt a little bit responsible for bringing people into that situation, right or wrong.
So, that certainly helped us feel, I think, a lot better about looking out for the team and making sure that they were taken care of. Whether they took the job or not, it felt good to know that we did everything we could to help them land in a good place.
Sean: No, I think that’s a perfect segue. Helping people out seems to be a recurring theme in your life, whether it’s protecting our country or helping your fellow classmates and friends. Can you share a little bit about the fundraiser that you had mentioned to me?
Andrew MacNeil: Yeah.
Sean: Kind of the backstory to it.
Andrew MacNeil: Yeah, well, I mean, to take a step back, I think everybody’s probably watching what’s going on in Afghanistan right now which is super troubling. That phrasing doesn’t even do justice. I watched the news all day and it’s just, yeah, it’s really heartbreaking this situation that we’re in.
You know, I spent 2015 and 2016 in Afghanistan. My first part of the tour was that special operations Institute in Kabul. So, we were training, I was the head NATO advisor for training commandos and Afghan special forces that we would push out to the different regions to help them establish national security with the foresight of the (unintelligible) we were going to leave. They would be able to secure their own country.
And I met in that first half of the deployment a gentleman named Mirwais, was a Sergeant Major of Special Forces. And what struck me about him is one, his English was fantastic, and he had a great sense of humor, and he was just a Johnny on the spot with everything. I really just gravitate towards him very early.
And, I had the opportunity actually, from one of my predecessors that was in my position who had started this sort of grassroots initiative to take some of the special force’s leaders in Afghanistan and bring them to the United States so they could see our institution, how we train special forces, things like that.
So, the opportunity to, I broke my tour up and helped get this mission approved through the state department and the United States military. And I brought Mirwais and a couple of other special forces leaders to the United States. When I took him to the White House, and I took him to North Carolina, Fort Bragg, where that’s the head of the Green Beret, National Training Center.
And I took him around and it was just like a fantastic experience. I took him to Wilmington Beach. And I remember things that we take for granted. It was so interesting. He came up and had dinner, my parents came up and we had dinner together. I took them to the beach the next day. And he had never seen the ocean. I didn’t even think about that. It never registered to me. And he would stand on the waves and the waves just continued to hit him and knock him over. And he just kept getting up and standing every chance. I was like, you know, that’s going to keep up. The waves are going to keep going. You know, he’s a super optimistic guy and I think he really had hope that Afghanistan was going to turn out a certain way for the positive.
And what’s happened since then, obviously, you know, we’re all watching the news is about a month ago, he had reached out and said, hey, I know that the Americans are leaving. Would you, I would never ask you for this if I didn’t need but can you give me $2,500 to pay for visas for me and my family to get out of the country. And the first thing that me was like, are we making these guys pay for visas? Where is he going to get $2,500? That’s not realistic in that part of the world. So, that was baffling to me.
The second part was how difficult the visa process was for him, getting his paperwork approved, getting through the process, and just started asking them questions. What do you get for $2,500? Well, so I can process the visas. Okay. How are you going to get out though? Or like what are you gonna do when you get out? Like, how are you going to feed your family? He’s got several children, his wife. And so, I started a GoFundMe for Mirwais. And I wanted to raise $15,000 just so that he could have a decent start, right? Get out of the country, feed his family, not worry about paying for meals or anything like that.
Andrew MacNeil: And so, we’ve raised actually, we’re almost at the goal. I think it’s somewhere close to thirteen thousand three hundred and thirteen thousand four hundred now, which is more than enough money to get him started. So, super happy about that. Super proud about that.
The challenge is now with everybody watching the news is that everybody’s stranded there right now. Like he can’t even take the money. I got it transferred into his account. We’ve gotten $5,000 transferred. From what I understand, he picked that money up. I can’t send them any more money because the Taliban are controlling Kabul, couldn’t even get to a bank. I don’t even think the banks are operational at this point. Can’t get through checkpoints to get to the airport to process his visa. We’re watching the news and we say Americans are able to get some of these checkpoints.
What about high-risk Afghans that used to serve in special operations? Those are high-risk individuals and if the Taliban found out who these people are because of the paperwork they need to get into Hamid Karzai airport, needs to be held on a person, now you add in the level of complexity of now you’re taking your children through this.
I just don’t know with the current plan or lack of plan in place, I’m just not sure how that’s going to work. So, super troubling continuing to try to work every day to get him teed up for success, having him fill out the embassy evacuation link, make sure he’s on there, make sure people are tracking him. And that’s kind of where we’re at today.
Sean: Is there anything additional that we can do?
Andrew MacNeil: I think in terms of Mirwais, I’m feeling good about the direction. I think at a higher level, I think we need to be asking the questions that we’re asking as a country of how did we get ourselves into this situation? I’ve heard a lot of, you know, obviously, I watch the news probably like many people that listen to this every day and a lot of it’s focused on, should we have left Afghanistan?
I don’t think that’s the debate, at least from my perspective isn’t should we have left. I agree, we should leave but there’s a way to do that that’s effective and safe for people and we haven’t done that. You don’t pull out all the troops before you pull out the non-combatants. And now you have a city that’s controlled by a political terrorist organization, with checkpoints everywhere, that’s intense to cause harm. So, I think we should be doing exactly what people are doing today is, demanding answers on, you know, who’s responsible for this inaptitude, you know, in planning. And now, what’s the course of action to fix this? That’s what I’m really concerned about. Because we can all donate to the Mirwais fund, but if he can’t get to Hamid Karzai airport, we’re not doing anyone any favors. So, I think we need to be asking what’s the solution to this. What’s the plan? What’s the, you know, let’s get people in place that know how to deal with a crisis.
And the second thing I think is there’s a lot of people doing some great things in Afghanistan. There’s a lot of, I could probably find the links later and sham with you Sean, but there’s people that are essentially raising money and chartering private planes to get people out of the country.
That’s where I would love to see support go. I saw one that was like, you know, every million dollars they’re raising, they get another plane there with like several hundred people out of the country. That’s some awesome stuff. That’s impactful and scalable. So, that’s where I would love that people were going. Yeah.
We can support in two ways. There’s one, keep asking these questions of what’s the plan. You can secure an airport all you want. If people can’t get to it, that’s not a great solution. And it’s not just about America. It’s about tens of thousands of people that helped us along the way. And if you think about our ability to have a strong level of national security in shots on the global scale or who’s going to want to partner with us after this? Who’s going to trust that they’re going to be taken care of when they help us? We need to fix it. So, that’s one part of it.
The second part of it is continuing to look for nonprofit organizations that are raising money to get people out of there, to support them after they land. Somebody reached out the other day and so they’ve volunteered to help once Afghans land in the United States help shuttle them to where they’ll be staying, to their accommodations, things like that. There’s a lot of opportunities out there to help these organizations.
Sean: Okay. Yeah. Please share those links after our interview and I’ll definitely put it down in the episode description for people to check out and click on.
Well, Andrew, thanks so much for taking the time to not only share that story but share your own personal story as well. I think these are trying times for a lot of people and I think just to have that space, and give compassion, right? I think it’s really important.
Andrew MacNeil: Yeah.
Andrew MacNeil: Thank you. I truly appreciate the platform to communicate this and I didn’t envision myself of going on a campaign around this but what you realize is that that period of service there, you know, while it was several years ago, it leaves you with much more perspective and deep insights and understanding of what’s going on over there.
And it becomes sort of like your obligation to share that, I think, in many ways. Because a lot of people out there that haven’t had that experience of being in Afghanistan, deploying to that region, they want to help but they want to understand. I’ve people reaching out all day long, like what does this mean? Like, why is this happening? Should this have been avoided? Could this have been avoided? And absolutely. And I’m not doing my job in my own mind if I’m not sharing these perspectives because I think people want to help and they want to see this recover, but they don’t really know where to go to help do that and help push that ball forward. I think it’s important. Again, thank you for allowing me to have that platform to just speak about it.
Sean: Thanks for being on the podcast.
Andrew MacNeil: Thanks.