Have you ever felt frustrated that your career didn’t take a “linear” path? On this episode, Damon Reynolds walks us through his early career years that took him down some winding roads: from leaving college after sophomore year, to joining the Marine Corps for four formative years, to finishing his college degree in 2014, and finally breaking into management consulting at one of the most elite firms in the world, through his MBA. Check out Damon’s story to remind yourself that it’s OK if your journey takes a little bit longer or if your destination is not always clear.
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I had a recruiter tell me one time and I think this is where it clicked for me. She said to me, “When I’m looking for consultants, it’s one thing to be smart. We can find smart people all day, but I need the best communicators. Because you can be as smart as a whip, but if you can’t communicate, no one cares how smart you are.”
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Hey, everyone. Today we’re hearing from Damon Reynolds, who was my MBA classmate, friend, and is a fellow Houstonian. Damon is currently a consultant at BCG, one of the top management consulting firms in the world. But it wasn’t always clear that Damon would one day land there. He went to U of H for two years before deciding he wasn’t quite ready for the college experience and ended up leaving school to join the Marine Corps, which his parents were not too thrilled about. After his military service of four years, Damon finished his degree and went on to explore different career paths before discovering the world of management consulting. His story is a great reminder to never settle for less, to always pursue your dreams even if you get off track or if the journey takes a little bit longer. One thing that has always stood out to me about Damon is how fiercely he believes in himself. And that is something that I wish for all of you.
Priscilla: Hey, Damon, welcome to the show.
Damon: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Priscilla: Awesome. So Damon, why don’t we start by having you share a little bit about where you’re from, you know, a little bit about your background?
Damon: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a male so I identify as he/him/his. I grew up a little outside of Houston into a suburb called Missouri City, Texas. And I went to majority, minority high schools, as well as middle schools, those interactions and those environments definitely influenced who I am today. Initially, I did undergrad at the University of Houston. That’s a good…would say a non-traditional path to complete my bachelor’s degree.
Priscilla: Yeah. So let’s talk about that non-traditional path to get your bachelor’s. What made it non-traditional?
Damon: Yeah. So, I ended up at U of H straight out of high school. I got involved in the social life as we do when we go to a big school, you move out of your parents’ house for the first time. And so I got involved in social life and wasn’t necessarily focused on my studies. I didn’t have a major at the time. I was what you would call a general studies major, which just means you’re taking your general classes, haven’t declared a major yet. So I was just experiencing the college
life and not really focused on the academic part per se. And so when I say non-traditional, I actually decided to leave college about halfway through my sophomore year. I decided to leave and join the military.
Priscilla: Yeah. So what was motivating that decision to leave college for you?
Damon: So my freshman year of college, I realized that I may not be at the level of maturity that I need to be at to do this right now. I think that was a self-realization. It wasn’t like anyone told me or anything like that. It just, you know, sitting around and just maybe I need to do something else for a little while I figure this out and mature a little bit. And so it came up then, and at that point I brought it up to my father. “Hey, I’m thinking about joining the military,” and he quickly
shut it down. And it was like, no go basically. So I came back to school for my sophomore year. And then after my sophomore year or I would say the second semester of my sophomore year was when I made the decision personally for myself. But I think I made the decision based on the fact that I knew the Marine Corps was probably, you know, one of the more difficult services, as it relates to just the level of discipline that you have to have and the expectations that they have for you as a Marine and some of the responsibilities that you’re going to have. You’re almost forced to mature faster than most 18 to 19 year olds when you’re deployed to a country and people’s lives are online. And it was a forcing mechanism for me. I knew that joining the Marine Corps would be a forcing mechanism. It would force me to grow up. It would force me to mature. And that’s ultimately why I made the decision.
Priscilla: That’s really cool that you had that level of self-introspection at that point, where you’re able to reflect and say, “I’m not really ready for this experience yet, and I’m going to do something that’s different even though other people had thoughts and feelings about it.” But, yeah, so tell us about the transition to the military. I’m sure it was shocking, but were you really excited about this next chapter?
Damon: When I joined the Marine Corps, I felt great about the decision. Obviously, it’s a transition, right? You’re transitioning from being a young 18, 19 year old to being a Marine, a United States Marine, and all the expectations that come with that. But I don’t think I could have been more excited about the opportunity to just serve our country, as well as just grow as a person.
I think one of the things that the Marine Corps does a great job of, and it’s by the nature of what they do and who they are, they push you beyond whatever physical, mental, spiritual, emotional limits you think you have. They are going to push you beyond those. It’s just, when you go through bootcamp, when you go through combat training, when you’re deployed overseas for 8, 9, 10 months at a time, and you haven’t seen your family and you haven’t talked to anyone for 2 months, and the only thing is dirt and loud noises in the background, obviously, you are pushed beyond whatever limits you think you had. And I think there’s goodness in that because if you decide to separate from the military, the Marine Corps or whatever service and you decide to come back to civilian life or whatever you decide to pursue in your life, the fact that you went through some of those things, it allows you a level of confidence when you’re faced with some of the hardships and the obstacles that come in normal life. You say to yourself, “Hey, if I figured out a way to get through that, or if I figured out a way to get through this and I came out on the other side and I’m fine,” you’re able to go into whatever life may throw at you with a level of confidence that I think sometimes you just can’t get unless you’ve really been through some things.
Priscilla: Do you think that this experience really helped build your self-confidence?
Damon: Certainly some of that comes from being in the Marine Corps. One of the unique things about the Marine Corps is that you’re going to be asked to lead Marines at a very young age. There are 20-year-olds leading teams of Marines in combat situations. If you think about life outside the military life, outside the Marine Corps, at what organization can you walk into and there’s a 20-year-old that’s leading a team, right? Are you going to walk into Google or Facebook or Microsoft or Deloitte or BCG and see a 20-year-old leading a team of consultants or data scientists or project managers or program managers? Probably not. But in the Marine Corps, they ask you to do those things at a very young age. And so I think you just develop, you’re in front of guys. You’re motivating them, you’re coaching them, you’re mentoring them. And you’re doing that all at the age of 20, 21.
Priscilla: I remember you telling me that when you joined the military, this was the first time that you left the country. So how did being in the military impact your worldview? How did it change?
Damon: It made me feel small because I think we have our problems here and we have the things that we face on a daily basis here. And then when you go, for instance, being in Iraq and we did interact with people native to Iraq, and so it just reinforces how fortunate we are here and it truly makes you — it truly humbles you. And it just makes you feel small when you see some of the things that they’re facing on a daily basis, especially given that was my first time out of the country and in that environment, it just was like, wow. So this is what it’s like in other parts of the world or in some parts of the world, many parts of the world, quite for quite frankly. And so it just was a reminder of how fortunate we are here and to honestly never take that for granted. And I don’t — after experiencing that and traveling after that, just my worldview is that do not discount how fortunate you are and understand that there are people around the world that are facing many more obstacles.
Priscilla: So I know that after four years of being in the military, you decided to go back to school and finish your degree. How did you think through that decision and how did you decide what was next for you?
Damon: Yeah. Initially, I made the decision because I felt like after the four years of active duty service that I did, I felt like I was no longer being challenged. I personally gained everything that I needed from the Marine Corps. I grew as a man, as a person, as a human being. I matured. All the things that I was looking for to gain from my experience in the Marine Corps, I had gained. And so at that point, I just asked myself the question, “Okay. You’ve gotten everything from this.
You’re no longer feeling challenged. What’s next?” And so for me, the next thing was to go back to school, to go back and finish my degree, which was something that I didn’t complete previously. That was important to me, and at that time was the next challenge. “Hey, you didn’t get this right the first time. Let’s go back and do this the right way.” So I went back and I finished in about a year and a half after separating from the Marine Corps. I just put my head down to night classes, summer classes year round, basically, and finished in about a year and a half.
And, you know, I chose Poli Sci, my intention at that point in my life was to go to law school. It was around the time where, you know, Trayvon Martin and that situation happened and the George Zimmerman case. It seemed like on the news every day. And these issues are still, I’m still passionate about these types of things, right? And so I found myself really passionate about social justice and how can I impact people of color. And for me at that point in my life, I thought
getting a degree in political science and going to law school and working within the political arena to create institutions and structures that benefit people of color. I thought that was the way to go. And so I made the decision to study political science with hopes of going to law school at that time.
Priscilla: Yeah. So what made you decide to not go down the law school route?
Damon: I actually took a class in undergrad constitutional law and the professor was an amazing professor, but he made no secret of the fact that he structured the class exactly like law school and constantly reminded us of that. And just let us know, “Hey, I’m going to structure this just like law school. I want you all to get a taste of it. If you all are thinking about doing it, I want you to know what you’re getting yourself into.” And for me, I quite frankly just didn’t enjoy — the content was great. I love constitutional law. Learning about our constitution, I think everyone should do it. And everyone should have some knowledge of what’s in our constitution and what it means. The constant reading, the cases weren’t all that exciting. And so I was just like, “Ah, I’m not sure the law school is what’s going to stimulate me and truly challenging me in the ways that I want to be challenged.” And so at that point, I just made a decision not to pursue law school, but I immediately shifted to this idea of, “Okay, if I’m not going to do law school, how can I still impact the populations that I care about? How can I still work to create a better future for those people?” And so it wasn’t like a gave up on my dream. It was more of I just have to figure out a different way to impact the people that I care about.
Priscilla: Great. And better that you figured that out earlier rather than later. So how did you think through what was next for you after you finally had that bachelor’s degree in hand?
Damon: Yeah, so I actually went into financial services for some time. I spent my first year and a half after undergrad at AIG. I was working in their life and retirement division. So they provide financial services to a host of different organizations, basically 401(k) services to host of different organizations. And so basically I was a financial advisor within their Life and Retirement Division, working with the employees at the organizations that we provide our retirement services. So just giving people retirement advice, helping them save, think through what investments they should be, how their portfolio should be allocated, things like that. And it was really cool work.
I think I initially got into that because I fell in love with the capital markets. I started reading books my last semester of undergrad about the capital markets and just found myself fascinated by capital markets and was like, “How can I teach other people about this?” And I had a friend who was a financial advisor, who actually helped me to get on-boarded with AIG. And so that was really cool. We did that for a year and a half, and then I transitioned to JP Morgan, where
I was working in their private bank with their high net worth clients. At that point, doing similar work, helping them plan for the future, as far as it related to their investments and banking and mortgages, essentially everything, managing their entire relationship with JP Morgan. And so that was fun as well.
So that’s what I did for a while. And I think those were to figure out what’s next year. Still care about helping people of color. That hasn’t changed. It’s still a passion of mine. I’m not necessarily — I don’t feel like I’m doing that right now, but how can I get to that place? So I spent those years trying to figure that out.
Priscilla: Yeah. And that’s actually a really good point that sometimes there are months, periods, times in our life when we’re doing things in our career that don’t necessarily align with what we’ll be doing long-term but that’s okay, right. Because sometimes we’re uncertain about what to do next and we need to regroup and think about what is our next step. So I love that that was a part of your story. How did you find out about consulting?
Damon: Yeah, absolutely. So it was really cool, actually. I had no clue what consulting was when I was working at JP Morgan. I never heard of the industry, had never heard of the function, never heard of the role, quite frankly. And I had a client who at the time was working for McKinsey & Company, thinking he was an associate partner or so at McKinsey & Company. And so he was doing well and he would come in for his appointments and we would talk and I will see — I had access to these people’s entire financial life and so I could see what was going on. And I just thought to myself, “Okay, what is McKinsey?” I see this coming in every couple of weeks and then I see a — what is this? And so I Googled McKinsey & Company. And their website came up and so I did a little research, and then I went even further and started looking at websites like vault.com, which ranks the consulting firms and all these different areas and just really learning what this was.
And I found myself fascinated by it because one thing that has been consistent about me is I do enjoy being challenged. I think I tend to thrive in those types of environments. And so in the research that I was doing, I found that consulting is almost a constant challenge, right? You’re changing projects every three, four, five months. It’s oftentimes going to be new work that you’re doing, whereas you may have done a marketing case for a client, now you’re doing a risk
case for a client where you’re assessing the enterprise risk throughout the organization. And so to me, that was just, “Wow. Wait, you’re telling me I can get something new every three to six months, and it’s going to be a new challenge, and I don’t have to actually switch jobs to do that?” To me, that was really cool. And so that kind of started my pursuit of consulting, but then it turned into this, “Wow, this is an industry that quite frankly has not and I think they will admit it, their diversity numbers are not where they would like them to be. And so I also saw this as an opportunity to say that, “Okay, if I can do this, I can then go back to the communities that I care about and teach them how to do the same.”
Priscilla: Okay. So you identified that management consulting was where you wanted to go next, and this industry or this career can be a little heavily guarded. It’s not very easy to break into unless you know someone or you’re going through a school channel. So, yeah, did you have that feeling like almost like it was a secret career that you hadn’t heard of?
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Damon: Yeah, I felt the same way. It’s almost like a secret society because if you’re not in consulting or you don’t know someone who’s in consulting, you likely don’t know that consulting exists. And so to your point, I felt the same way that if you aren’t in an undergraduate program that they recruit from or you’re not in a graduate level program that they recruit from, the ways to get into this industry are very limited. And we’re doing this to help out younger individuals who are thinking about these things. And that’s something that you need to think about is if this is in fact something that you decide you want to do, just be aware of the difficulty of getting in and understand how you can so that you know what levers you have to pull to make it happen.
Priscilla: Totally. So let’s fast forward to you finally being in business school, getting ready for on-campus recruiting, which is the way that you can get your consulting job that you want. How did you think through telling your story about where you had been, as someone who really hadn’t worked in business and as someone who was a veteran, and just being able to package that into something that BCG would be looking for in a consultant?
Damon: Yeah, I think for me, I tried to lean on — because I came from a non-traditional background, political science degree, I’ve never really worked in business in any capacity. The roles that I had prior to business school were more relationship, sales-based roles. So I certainly wasn’t doing analysis in Excel. I think the only thing I used Excel for at that point was lists. And I knew that I didn’t have these technical skills that they would be looking for or anything like that.
So I relied more so on my personality a little bit, my ability to speak, articulate my thoughts pretty well, the confidence that comes from serving in the Marine Corps, and some of the things that I’ve been through in my life. I really relied on that during recruiting, where I was able to demonstrate that, hey, from a intellectual standpoint — we talk about intellectual horsepower sometimes in recruiting — from an intellectual standpoint, I was able to demonstrate that I can do this job in the case interviews.
But I think prior to that, I truly relied on my personality speaking well, confidence, and those types of things. And then also just talking to as many people as I could and building those relationships. I had a recruiter tell me one time, and I think this is where it clicked for me. And when she said this to me, it resonated and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to run with that.” She said to me, it was actually Opie, she was a recruiter for Accenture and she said to me, “When I’m looking for consultants,” she was like, “it’s one thing to be smart.” She was like, “We can find smart people all day.” She was like, “But I need the best communicators. Because you can be as smart as a whip. But if you can’t communicate, no one cares how smart you are.” And for me, that just really resonated.
Priscilla: That’s such a good point because soft skills really are just so critical in consulting or in any role where you’re on a team or you’re influencing, leading. And so I think that obviously you have those soft skills from your military experience. And a lot of the work that you did in recruiting was being able to convey that you were a leader and you had all of these skills that were very transferable.
So now you’re on the other side, you’re a successful consultant at BCG. You’ve made it. And my last question for you is, what would you tell your summer 2018 version of yourself when you were starting business school, starting to go through this recruiting process? What would you tell your younger self?
Damon: I would say the advice I would give to myself honestly, is don’t be too hard on yourself. We have these ideas of where we want to be in life and what we want to do and what we want to accomplish. And sometimes we hold ourselves to standards that even other people aren’t holding us to. I think sometimes we can be our own worst critic. You may have heard that before. And so for me at that point in time, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself, a lot of unnecessary stress. And if I could go back, I would just say to myself, “Hey, relax. Don’t stress yourself out. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be this perfect person because you feel like you have to be at…this point in your life.”
Priscilla: And that’s a great place to end. Don’t stress yourself out. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t take life too seriously. It’s too short. If we learned anything in 2020 is that life is too short. So thanks, Damon, for being here. I appreciate you.
Damon: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. This was fun.
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