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Commander Navigates Coast Guard Policy with the Help of an MBA

Catherine-KangCatherine W. Kang’s brand new MBA better be waterproof.

While her fellow MIT Sloan Fellow peers head back to corporate offices in industries like telecommunications and investment banking, Commander Kang will hone her MBA skills managing deepwater assets and floating offices as a commander in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Starting July 10, 2006, 38-year-old Kang will be the special assistant for policy to the incoming Commandant of the Coast Guard, Vice Admiral Thad Allen. “Basically, I’ll be helping the person who runs the whole Coast Guard,” Kang translates.

There are no stockholders and IPOs, but the Coast Guard is big business. With operating revenues of more than $5 billion, the armed service agency is in charge of the country’s entire maritime domain. Search and rescue. Drug enforcement. Safety inspections. Oil spills. Undocumented migrants. These are just a few of the agency’s daily concerns. Like private corporations, the agency has a fleet of fixed assets (cutters, rescue boats, offices), a huge workforce and, well, a country full of 298 million customers.

“At MIT I did a lot of strategic-level thinking about development, budget issues and marketing. In my new job, I’ll be the relationship builder trying to get everyone internally aligned” Kang says. “This MBA experience will directly translate to that in-house work and to external efforts as we try to leverage our position with Congress and other federal agencies.”

Kang won’t need time to get her feet wet. They’re already soaked. A 17-year veteran of the Coast Guard, the commander was standing duty as a military aide for Vice President Dick Cheney on September 11, 2001. “After three months of intense emergency actions training, I was on guard when 9/11 happened,” Kang says. “The four other guys from the Department of Defense and I looked at each other and thought: ‘We actually have to do our jobs.’”

Up until that point, Kang had worked her way up the rigorous rungs of the Coast Guard. A self-proclaimed “music and art person,” Kang shocked her Ivy League-minded parents when she chose the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., because it offered the adventure of “drug busts and flying helicopters.” She graduated in 1989 with an undergraduate degree in government.

The next 15 years were spent alternating between two-year stints in the sunshine and saltwater spray of active sea assignments and office jobs at district offices and agency headquarters, where Kang became proficient in researching, developing, and implementing Coast Guard policy. She embraced the Coast Guard’s lifelong learning philosophy, earning a master’s in educational technology at San Diego State University and, last year, accepting a seat at the intense, one-year MIT Sloan Fellows Program.

Kang was one of nine women in the class of 100. Her fellow female students were complaining about the seemingly small number of women but Kang put things in perspective. “I was one of three women on a ship of 105 so the odds are getting better!”

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