March 15, 2018
Interview with Michael Morales
The 2017 Young Leader, Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, and 2016 White House Fellow shares his experience with us.
You’ve had an active and varied career in service to your country, including your time piloting airlift missions into Afghanistan and Iraq with the U.S. Air Force, as well as your current position as Legislative Liaison to the Secretary of the Air Force. What first attracted you to the Air Force? And what is the most rewarding aspect of your role?
When I was in 2nd grade, my great aunt took me from Puerto Rico to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Something clicked on that visit, and I decided right then that I wanted to be an astronaut. The following year, when the Challenger Space Shuttle exploded, my resolve to follow that dream only intensified. Somehow the risk inherent in the space mission made the reward of reaching uncharted places seem too powerful to ignore. For the next 20 years, every decision I made was geared towards making that dream a reality. At some point I realized that the best way to become an astronaut was to become a pilot first, and the best way to become a pilot was to attend the Air Force Academy and then join the Air Force. So that is precisely what I did. The hardest part was convincing my father and grandfather, both decorated Army veterans, that I was doing the right thing in “abandoning” the family service!
Now, almost twenty years later, I can say that the two most consistently rewarding parts of my Air Force career have been 1) getting to work with incredibly intelligent, hard-working, and service-oriented people, and 2) having the opportunity to travel and make friends all over the world. As if those two weren’t enough, getting to fly above the clouds and see the sun and perfectly blue sky even on the rainiest of days is not too bad either!
You’ve also had the opportunity to build partnerships with military leaders in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America over the years. How do you approach building trust and respect with people from different cultures and backgrounds?
My father was an Army Foreign Area Officer, working with foreign militaries, which meant that we lived in several different countries besides Puerto Rico when I was growing up, including Panama and Honduras. Those experiences gave me perspective on both the similarities and differences between people from other countries and cultures.
In addition, I have always been intensely curious about the world around me. The Air Force has allowed me to foster that curiosity by letting me interact with governments and militaries all around the world, sometimes as the only American to represent our country. I’ve found that three things have helped me be most effective at building meaningful relationships with people from other countries. First, I try to learn as much about a country—its history, people, and culture—as I can before arriving. Second, I leave my preconceived notions behind and ask the locals questions to better understand them and their culture. Lastly, I quickly try to find similarities between us—be it family, career, hobbies, or anything else—as a foundation upon which to build a friendship. I truly enjoy doing all these things, and have had the good fortune of making some great long-term friendships along the way.
For example, in 2007, I deployed to Kabul, Afghanistan as a young Captain. I was part of a small team tasked with thinking strategically about how to build an Afghan Air Force. A few months into that deployment, I had the opportunity to lead the creation of an English school for Afghan aircrew. I learned a lot during the process of securing a building, buying furniture from local contractors, and working with Afghan customs officials to get our English curriculum into the country. Better still was what I learned from my English students. I learned about their families, their living conditions, their loyalty and hospitality, and their sense of humor despite the devastation that surrounded them. Eight years later, I returned as a Lieutenant Colonel and a squadron commander leading a team that was working closely with the budding Afghan Air Force. Many of the Afghans I worked with, shared meals with, and flew around the country with had been my students in 2007. Those relationships, built almost a decade before, were not only what allowed me to be more effective in helping the Afghans, but also brought an immense amount of joy and satisfaction at a personal level.
What were some of the highlights of your experience as a 2017 French-American Foundation Young Leader?
The week in San Francisco with the other Young Leaders was incredible. We had the privilege of learning from experts in a variety of fields. I would say my two favorite parts were hearing from experts at Intel and Google talk about the ethics behind Artificial Intelligence, and going on a tour of the Tenderloin with unofficial mayor Del Seymour.
Ultimately, the most valuable part of the week was getting to know my fellow Young Leaders, which included extremely accomplished leaders in public policy, venture capital, tech, government, banking, just to name a few. I’ll never forget the day we ate at an amazing restaurant with the perfect waterfront view, surrounded by our fellow young leaders who had become friends over the course of the week, while sampling magnificent Château Angélus wine created by our French-American Young Leader colleague Stephanie de Boüard-Rivoal. That’s just not an experience that a country boy from Puerto Rico ever expected to enjoy!
As a 2016 White House Fellow, you served in the U.S. Small Business Administration, crafting policy addressing business growth in the continental U.S. and Puerto Rico. Is there an experience during your term that stands out?
My year as a White House Fellow was a life-changing experience, and while so many parts of that year were unforgettable, there are two I am especially proud of. First, the SBA Administrator, Linda McMahon, asked me to lead the agency’s efforts in Puerto Rico in response to their $72B debt crisis and the sizeable migration of talent to the US mainland. That involved meeting with entrepreneurs, bankers, and both federal and local government officials in crafting policy to kickstart Puerto Rico’s entrepreneurial ecosystem as an engine of their local economy. As someone whose formative years were spent on that beautiful island, I was deeply honored to apply my talents in that way.
Second, I had the opportunity to lead one of SBA’s largest public-private partnerships, the Small Business Technology Coalition, focused on helping small businesses around the country leverage technology as a core driver of differentiation and market growth. Working closely with 30 incredible leaders in the tech field to include Google, Microsoft, Facebook, LinkedIn and many others, and having the opportunity to help entrepreneurs in the process, was a phenomenal experience.
What are your aspirations after the Air Force?
Does simply saying “I want to change the world” count? My experiences thus far have been incredibly varied and at all levels, from the strategic to the tactical. They have taught me to lead effectively in many different environments and I am eager to apply those skills in the private sector, and perhaps in public office someday. In the short term, the specific industry matters a lot less to me than working with a high-trust, high-talent team and being part of an organization passionate about creating something that impacts its surrounding community, our country, or the world. I want to eventually lead organizations, so I suspect that my journey will put me in a place where I have the opportunity to stay connected to the tech world as it disrupts major sectors like finance, health, and education. I also want to help entrepreneurs thrive, especially those with disruptive ideas who live in places that don’t have easy access to capital. Having said that, I’m open to the wildest of opportunities!