Student Spotlight: Mordechai Sorkin


I met Mordechai (Moti) Sorkin during the Finance refresher camp in the summer. We were both trying to figure out how to calculate an annuity and had trouble grasping the concept of real dollars and nominal dollars. Haas offers summer workshops for finance, accounting, and statistics to help ease our transition from the working world to academia. However, when Fall-A started, Moti and I were sorted into different cohorts.

Earlier this week, I finally had a chance to have lunch with Moti, catch up about our busy MBA lives, and learn more about his career before Haas.

Below is a transcript of our conversation:

KEVIN: Tell me about yourself.

MOTI: As you probably know, I have a military background. From the summer 2005 until the summer of 2011, I served in the Army. During that period I deployed four times for approximately 30 total months, to both Afghanistan and Iraq. Currently, I'm getting my MBA at Haas and trying to figure out what I want to do with the rest of my life.

KEVIN: When you were younger, what did you want to do with your life?

MOTI: No idea. I attended UC San Diego after high school but decided to drop out after six months. I didn’t see a point in staying. I saved money and traveled around the world.

KEVIN: That’s pretty interesting. Tell me about your adventures overseas.

MOTI: Let’s see. At first, I just wanted to save money to travel. So I worked at Round Table Pizza, dabbled in construction, and worked in a group home. Later, I joined a program that brought Jewish people to Israel to deepen their faith. I spent a month and a half in the Middle East and then backpacked across Europe. I picked apples in Ireland and worked as a bartender in Scotland.

KEVIN: Sounds like a pretty epic journey of self-discovery. When you returned to the US, were you a different man?

MOTI: My travels made me realize that I knew too little about the world. I decided to resume my college education. I enrolled at Claremont McKenna in 2002, majoring in history and politics. It was at Claremont McKenna that the concept of service in general, and to my country more specifically, went from the abstract to concrete.

KEVIN: There are a lot of ways to “help others,” such as starting a charity or joining the Peace Corps. Why did you choose to enlist in the army?

MOTI: My wife hates hearing this, but I always say that joining the army was the easiest decision I've ever made. I believe in what the United States stands for on a real macro level. That is, we truly want to make peoples’ lives better. Yes, there are a lot of bad policies here and there; but in general, our focus is centered on preserving and advancing human rights, freedom, and equality for all people.

KEVIN: And on a personal level?

MOTI: One of the events that really moved me was the Nicholas Berg video. I don’t know if you remember, but Berg was an American telecommunications worker who went to Iraq and was abducted by militants. They beheaded him and uploaded the video to the Internet. It’s pretty powerful.

KEVIN: So this moved you to enlist?

MOTI: I knew I wanted to serve my country, but that video helped crystallize things for me. I realized that there were people out there who were just bad, as simple as that may seem. And I figured that there was no reason for other people to be sacrificing themselves for a cause that I believed in, while I idly stood aside. The Army and the Marines were doing 90 percent of the work, so I knew it was one of those two. And the Marine recruiter was a total jerk, so the Army prevailed.

KEVIN: Tell me about the journey from Claremont McKenna to Afghanistan and Iraq.

MOTI: Sure. I graduated college in 2005. I was 24. I took a brief trip to visit a friend in Costa Rica, and another friend in DC, and then shipped off to basic training. I had no access to a phone, email, or anything. A few days into it (I think), I sent a form letter home to mom and dad talking about what a great time I was having. It reminded me of summer camp.

KEVIN: A form letter?

MOTI: It was pre-written. We just signed our names.

KEVIN: Sounds like summer camp, alright.

MOTI: Eventually, I got in touch with my brother by phone and asked him to send an email to my friends and family, telling them not to think I was rude for ignoring emails.

KEVIN: Wait a minute. You hadn't told your parents at that point in time?

MOTI: No, I told everyone. My family, friends in college – everyone knew. But I didn’t advertise widely, and there were probably 100 people that I talk to sporadically that didn’t know.

KEVIN: What did your email say?

MOTI: This is a funny story. My brother typed up an email in all capital letters, that went something like this: Hi! MOTI HAS MADE THE GREAT CHOICE TO ADVANCE HIS LIFE AND JOIN THE ARMY! IF YOU ARE INTERESTED IN THIS OPPORTUNITY, SEE YOUR LOCAL ARMY RECRUITER. SINCERELY, SERGEANT SLAUGHTER!” When I found out I thought it was hilarious. Evidently it really confused some folks.

KEVIN: What about your wife? How did she feel about all of this?

MOTI: I wasn’t married yet. Here’s a quick background. I met my wife when I was 18 and she was 17. We had a long distance relationship for 8-9 years with a few breaks in-between. We actually got married in December 2006, right before I left for Afghanistan.

KEVIN: I thought you joined the army in 2005.

MOTI: Yes, I joined in 2005. However, the US Army doesn’t just throw people into war immediately after they sign the papers. I spent a year in basic training, officer training, airborne school, infantry school, and ranger school. I shipped out in February 2007 and my first tour lasted 15 months.

KEVIN: How did it feel to come home after being overseas?

MOTI: I went back and forth a few times. At the conclusion of my first tour, I was very happy to be able to live with my wife. At the same time, I felt there was unfinished business in Afghanistan.

KEVIN: I read that you were in the 82nd Airborne Division and the 1/75 Ranger Battalion. How were these experiences different?

MOTI: The goal of the American military in Afghanistan and Iraq has always been counter-insurgency.

KEVIN: What is counter-insurgency?

MOTI: Here’s a simple model to explain the strategy. Let’s say there are two types of people: enemy combatants who are trying to kill you and neutral parties that just want to live their lives in peace. Let’s just call them ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys.’ In a counter-insurgency, the soldiers try to separate the good guys from the bad guys, so they can fight the bad guys and support the good guys.

KEVIN: Ah... I see.

MOTI: The 82nd spent most its time focused on helping the good guys. The Rangers spent most its time focused on the bad guys. That was the difference.

KEVIN: Let’s talk about helping the good guys. Tell me about your role in the 82nd.

MOTI: For starters, I was a platoon leader. This meant I led about 30-50 people. Depending on the size of the mission, I sometimes had to coordinate with local police and lead 300+ people.

KEVIN: What did you lead these men and women to do?

MOTI: As I mentioned earlier, the 82nd engaged the local population in Afghanistan. We went to villages to facilitate local governance – help them build roads, dig wells, repair buildings, and enhance security. The latter was difficult because people didn’t like to talk to us. We couldn't walk up to a villager and ask "what is the source of your insecurity?"

KEVIN: What was the biggest challenge you faced during your time with the 82nd?

MOTI: I spent two independent 3 month periods in an isolated rural base with no Coalition or NATO support. There were about 25-30 villages in the vicinity that we needed to support but we only had 50 people in the base. For most missions I would go out with four trucks and 18-20 guys. To put this in perspective, the minimum force authorized by my battalion was 4 trucks and 20 guys, and that was the maximum I could project at any given time! We had to figure out the best way to scale our outreach efforts with very little manpower.

KEVIN: One-to-many support. I love it.

MOTI: We’d ride to a village, hand out supplies, talk to people, and show them that American soldiers did more than shoot people.

KEVIN: How did the tribal leaders respond?

MOTI: Talking to tribal leaders was very challenging. Most of them were set in their old ways and traditions. Also, they were generally much older than us and didn’t appreciate being lectured by kids. Lastly, we were uninvited guests.

KEVIN: Ouch. That’s three strikes.

MOTI: Around harvest season, we brought in shipments of fertilizer and seeds. However, many of the villages rejected our supplies because the Taliban told the elders that Americans would try to poison them and take their women.

KEVIN: It sounds like you guys played a constant cat-and-mouse game with the Taliban.

MOTI: Often, the Taliban would follow us into a village and destroy the supplies that we gave to people. We couldn't be in every village all the time. So as soon as we left one village, the Taliban would confiscate everyone’s supplies. They burned things publicly to make the US Army look powerless. This in turn reduced villagers’ willingness to cooperate with us.

KEVIN: I guess you have to win the hearts of the people.

MOTI: When we went to the villages, we found big charred piles left by the Taliban. One time, while we surveyed the damage, a kid came up to me and showed me a pen. He told me that when the Taliban came, he hid the pen so they could not destroy it. That was a small victory.

KEVIN: Maybe that’s a seed of doubt that will blossom.

MOTI: I have no idea what that kid is doing today.

KEVIN: We’ve talked about the 82nd. Now, tell me about the Army Rangers.

MOTI: We had a different focus there. We went on targeted missions with very specific objectives. Picture a SWAT team.

KEVIN: Take me through a mission.

MOTI: You’d wake up, review intelligence, and go out after a bad guy. If you discovered that a target was on the move or holed up in a location, we’d change plans and be flexible. This meant grabbing maps, figuring out entry points, and creating a tactical plan on the fly.

KEVIN: Life with the Army Rangers sounds significantly more dangerous. What was the most dangerous experience you faced?

MOTI: In my last deployment I was sent to Kandahar, the home of the Taliban. It was a bad area with no American presence. Our mission was to go into a village or city by helicopter, occupy a building, kick civilians out, and squat in the building for 2-3 days. It sent a message to the enemy: "we've arrived!"

KEVIN: What was the general feeling of the troops in these dangerous zones?

MOTI: The American military has a tremendous advantage over the enemy. We control the skies, employ better ground technology, undergo better training, and possess all kinds of monetary assets. That's why the Taliban and insurgents use IEDs (improvised explosive devices). It's an equalizer. So I would say that there was always a feeling of uncertainty in the air.

KEVIN: Shifting gears a bit, I’d like to talk about why you decided to come to Haas?

MOTI: About a year ago, I realized that going overseas so often was taking a toll on my family. My wife and I decided that I needed to settle down. Because I’d been in the army for so long, I felt I needed to go to business school to broaden my skills and explore my career options in a stable, supportive environment.

KEVIN: What functions or industries are you exploring?

MOTI: Business is what makes American great. I feel we have a tremendous engine that promotes creativity and ingenuity. As for myself, I'm currently open to working in many different industries but have three big buckets now: real estate, energy, and technology.

KEVIN: What has been the most surprising thing about Haas?

MOTI: Haas has dispelled the stereotype that business schools are filled with superficial and greedy people. Everybody I've met at Haas has been passionate about making a difference beyond him or herself. I don’t mean to sound cheesy, but it’s true.

KEVIN: Finally, what advice would you give to veterans looking to transition to business?

MOTI: I highly recommend figuring out what you want to do before applying to school. Everyone gave me that advice but I unfortunately ignored it. Business school gives you tremendous resources to advance your career. But if you don't have a clue what you want to do, you won’t be able to take full advantage of the opportunities here.

KEVIN: Thanks for talking to me!

MOTI: Let’s do it again sometime.

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