Former Coast Guard skipper and sales exec explores the academic side of business

By Susan Petty

The Crab Fisherman’s Ball in the tiny town of Trinidad on California’s north coast was a critical turning point for Joe Odell, EMBA 20, who’s faced several major junctions in his career.


Born and raised in Redding, Joe had been a white-water rafting instructor, a deckhand on a Columbia River stern-wheeler cruise ship, and had just finished a physically demanding season as a crab fisherman.

At the ball, he says, “I saw all these old weather-beaten sailors. But they were actually in their late 40s, with bad backs and practically needing walkers. I asked them if they had it to do over again would they. They all said ‘Nope.’”

So Joe joined the Coast Guard, where he rose to Boatswains Mate 2nd Class and was stationed in Alameda, California, and Cleveland, Ohio. He even spent three months at the helm of a drug interdiction cutter off the coast of  Columbia, South America. He loved the Coast Guard, but after four years he was married with two children and felt he needed a less peripatetic life.

Joe moved his family back to his hometown and joined 511 Enterprises, a growth consultant firm. Named after the Biblical parable of the talents in which a servant turns five talents into 11, the firm offers a full-service business/talent incubator and growth center for B2B technology companies. Over six years he moved from unpaid intern to director of business development.

After a while, he says, “I knew a lot about sales and tried to learn more about business and management through books, blogs, and video, but I knew I was plateauing.” 

That’s when he applied to the Berkeley MBA for Executives program. The reasons were simple: He wanted an outstanding school that offered an executive program at a public university where he could maximize his Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits.

But there was some trepidation.

“I was a little concerned about how accepting everyone would be in Berkeley,” says Joe. “I’m Redding moderate, which is not the same as a Berkeley moderate. Plus, I have a military background, and I hunt and fish.”

This is a place that wants people to achieve the full expression of themselves."

 Joe’s roots in the Redding area go deep. He’s a member of the Nor Rel Muk band of the Wintu Nation. His great-great-grandmother was one of only five people, all children, to survive the 1852 Natural Bridge Massacre of 150 Wintu near the town of Hayfork, west of Redding. 

His hometown is conservative, he says, “but while I’m not politically aligned with Berkeley, I am emotionally aligned. This is a place that wants people to achieve the full expression of themselves. It turns out I didn’t need to be guarded,” he adds. “My classmates and I have had great conversations, even great political conversations.” 

Now in his second semester, Joe is enjoying the diversity he finds in the EMBA program.

“Over half of our class wasn’t born in the US,” he says. “I can learn something from everyone, about anything.”

Joe says the core coursework has been challenging. But he says he’s already used what he’s learned in the finance and accounting courses to better analyze his clients.

“The marketing class also has been very good,” he says. “I’ve known the theory, but I didn’t know the underlying science of marketing, with calculations and data.”

Joe claims that the executive program gets the best professors.

“The top professors are doing research,” he says. “So they want to interact with executives from all kinds of industries. They tell us they learn something from teaching the class, and there is a ton of value in that.”

Joe says he’s looking forward to courses on management and leadership. His varied life has taught him a lot about both, which he’s written about in LinkedIn blog posts. Like why sometimes doing the right thing means breaking the rules, even in the military. It’s a description of taking an unauthorized risk during a sea rescue when he commanded a Coast Guard vessel. Or the lesson in humility and the need to seek help he learned after a painful encounter with a Portuguese Man of War. Even a doomed squirrel in the middle of the road offers a poignant lesson about decisiveness.

But when it comes to leadership, he wants to know more.

“In the military,” he says, “a leader has an advantage in that obedience is required; while in civilian life, you can have dissension and whether people follow you is something that has to be fostered. I think I do a lot of things well intuitively because I have experience and a high amount of empathy. But I don’t know the science of leadership, and a big part of that is understanding what outstanding people in business have done to achieve greatness. It’s that exposure to other ways of leading that I’ll get at Berkeley Haas.”

Learn about veterans funding for the Berkeley Haas MBA for Executives program.

Learn about the Berkeley MBA for Executives program

Posted on October 31, 2019
Susan Petty
Susan is Director of Admissions for the Berkeley MBA for Executives Program. She has nearly twenty years of experience in marketing and advertising, having worked in several different industries including technology, travel, healthcare -- and many others from her media planning days at J. Walter Thompson where her clients included Chevron, Kaiser Permanente, Nestle, and Ford. She enjoys advising prospective students and guiding them through their personal MBA experience.