From the Navy to networking

New MBA applied skills acquired in Armed Forces to thrive in business school

Like any business student, Kenny Yen knows that networking is crucial to succeeding in a finance career. But his definition of networking seems a little different than the stereotypical view.

It’s not just being personable, talkative and memorable. For Yen, networking also means being helpful.

“When people have questions, you try to help them out,” he says. “That changes the perspective. If you’re willing to help people, people are more willing to help you.”

Yen, who will graduate from the University of Alberta’s Alberta School of Business with a master’s in business administration this June, put that philosophy to work assisting fellow students (and probable future colleagues) throughout his two years of MBA studies.

He did it even though his first year (2021-22) was hampered by COVID-19 restrictions that limited interactions outside the classroom. 

As a first year, he helped organize student social events and relayed first-year MBA students’ concerns and feedback to the business school’s leaders. In second year, he was vice-president of finance for the MBA Association. For that role, he not only managed the student group’s budgets and transactions, but he also helped manage events, one of which may not have otherwise happened at all.

Since the annual Toronto Finance Trip had not occurred in first year, due to COVID, Yen impressed upon the school’s leaders that his cohort did not want to miss the career-track field trip that includes meeting with managing directors, traders and recruiters in the heart of Canada’s financial industry. 

He also helped organize the Calgary Energy Finance Trip and an energy finance round table, co-organized the MBA gala and participated in the one-week New York Finance Trip, an academic event in which MBA students offered bankers help in solving a real-life business problem in Africa.

"Kenny has been one of the most active and engaged students I have met in my time at the School of Business (17 years and counting),” says Chris Lynch, senior director with the Masters and Professional Programs Office, Alberta School of Business. 

“From day one, he’s been a constant presence at all student events, bringing a positive and supportive mentality. As VP Finance role for the MBA Association this past year, he not only made sure everything ran according to budget, he also acted as a guide and mentor to first-year students on how to get the most out of the MBA program.”

In thanks, Yen’s peers voted him the 2022/23 recipient of the Olivia Bourda Student Award. It’s for the graduating student who has developed the most over the MBA program by demonstrating a strong commitment to personal development and growth, by active participation in extracurricular activities, and by dedication to learning.

Naval Career

Yen’s belief in and facility for assisting fellow students derives directly from the career he had prior to starting his MBA. For more than 13 years, he was a member of the Royal Canadian Navy, based in Esquimalt, B.C., and sailing to Latin America and the Asia Pacific.

As a naval communicator, he was part of a team that’s the voice and ears of the ship, dealing with visual and digital communications, messaging, secure and non-secure communications and some IT troubleshooting. Besides imparting those skills, the Navy — like the rest of the Canadian Armed Forces — teaches its members how to supervise, mentor and coach junior members to succeed, too.

“It’s not like the private sector, where you can hire someone from another firm,” says Yen. “You can’t hire someone from another country’s navy to run the ship. Having that mentoring experience definitely helped me in terms of organizing and managing.”

His capacity for meeting challenges head-on no doubt helped, too. After earning a BA in economics and history from Simon Fraser University, Yen began studying for credentials in Certified Management Accounting. But those six-to-eight-month sails he’d signed on for with the Navy interrupted his studies. 

So, when all of Canada’s accounting organizations announced they’d be merging under the CPA designation in 2014, Yen took advantage of Navy budget cuts that docked vessels at home temporarily and crammed in all his remaining course work over six months, working evenings and weekends. 

The principle behind such dedication is not so dissimilar from the advice Yen has for prospective MBAs on how to persevere when overwhelmed by classes, the essential networking, speaker events and conferences they must juggle, not to mention personal responsibilities like families and jobs. 

“Be resilient,” he says. “It’s important to prioritize the things that are important to you in terms of why you are doing an MBA program.”

And of course, “find ways to be helpful.”

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