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Future in His Hands

There are few who can say that they have determined their dream—even fewer can say they have achieved it. Jason Harris, an M.B.A. student specializing in entrepreneurship, can make that claim—and his stellar career backs him up.

In college, Harris started an insurance sales operation. By his junior year at the University of Maryland, College Park, his two-man company had expanded to 16 agents, with offices in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Harris, a born multi-tasker, was splitting his time between school, odd jobs and the Navy Reserve.

But he hadn’t gotten to this point by choice: After his freshman year at College Park, his parents decided not to support him financially, telling him that the money he was saving for a new car was better off spent on tuition.

“I was mad  for five or six years after that,” Harris recalled, “But it wound up being a blessing for me, because it meant that I had to decide if I would take my future into my own hands or not.”

Harris joined the Navy Reserve, utilized the GI Bill, and took a year off from school for basic and advanced training. During this time, at 18 years of age, Harris was chosen for cryptology training working with Naval intelligence.

During his undergraduate studies, he took a course which gave him the opportunity to interview two Navy pilots. Harris had always dreamed of flying, but he didn’t like some of the subjects required, such as math. The pilots pushed some humility onto Harris’s dream, and though he received an A for the interview project, he learned from the pilots that he wouldn’t qualify to fly in the Navy.

By this point, Harris’s insurance business had taken off. One day, watching Oprah, he picked up on some advice: write your own obituary, with the stipulation that money is no object. In other words, dream big—really big.

What an eye-opener for Harris this was: Nothing in his “obit” was part of his life at that moment. There were attainable opportunities on the list—college graduate, naval officer, Navy pilot, etc.—but not one item lined up with where he was in his life at that moment. So, he bore down. And shortly thereafter, an opportunity became available.

Harris’s next big move was Officer Candidates School, followed by flight school. Having successfully completed those daunting programs, he has since flown 26 different types of aircraft, including both sides of the mid-air fueling experience.

“I must have been in seven or eight near-death experiences when flying,” Harris said. “All of them stick with me, but one really comes to mind.”

Harris said he was in command of a 20-person crew communications aircraft out of Texas. During the flight, multiple fuel pumps shorted out. Harris knew that an airplane had suddenly exploded over Long Island after experiencing a similar problem, so he had to make a big decision: find somewhere to land locally—they had just crossed the Rocky Mountains—or turn back and bring the plane to home base. The latter would require passing over the Rockies a second time, and keeping the crippled plane in the air for at least a half hour until touchdown.

Harris chose to return to base. With one of its four engines now completely out of commission, he nursed the craft back to Texas, fighting strong winds and foul weather, plus an uneven fuel load that made controlling the airplane even more difficult. Finally, though, he brought it back down safely. Later, it was discovered that fuel had leaked into a dry electrical area and a single spark could have ignited the aircraft.

Harris, still a reservist, left active duty in 2004 and worked as a test project pilot, technologist and technology transition liaison for Wyle Laboratories. After three years at the company, he sought out his next dream—one that he had known briefly as an undergraduate—by founding Harris Consulting. For the second time, he became the owner of a small business, focusing on the management of two federal programs to bring new technologies to the U.S. Army and the Navy.

Not quite four years later, Harris is a second-semester graduate student in the UB/Towson M.B.A. program. He’s expecting to graduate in 2013, and is now affiliated with the Merrick School of Business Student Ambassador program—an alumni outreach effort to build stronger connections and uncover the multitude of accomplishments that our 26,000 alumni have achieved since graduation. 

When asked on the first day of his accounting class: “Why are you here?” Harris answered: “To learn to better evaluate the businesses that I would like to purchase.”

A Navy pilot, a member of highly-respected boards, and a business-owner—Jason Harris’s self-written “obituary” may turn out to be more like a dream come true.

 

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