Prior to business school, I served as an infantry officer in the U.S. Marine Corps. I deployed to Afghanistan and Kuwait, serving in a rifle company. My Marine Corps experience taught me a lot about leadership, problem solving and mental toughness, but it did not teach me finance, marketing, accounting or how to run any sort of commercial business. Because I lacked the hard skills needed to transition into a successful post-military career, I believe it made sense for me to pursue an MBA.
Initially I was skeptical about finding an internship following my first year that would be as rewarding as leading a platoon of our nation’s most precious human resources. I never considered the other types of precious resources our nation has to offer – the natural and cultural ones. Fortunately, I discovered the National Park Service (NPS) Business Plan Internship (BPI).
The mission of the NPS is to “preserve unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” Of the four federal land-management agencies, the NPS has the strongest conservation mandate.
With an annual budget of only $3 billion and a workforce of around 22,000, the NPS must make sound business decisions to effectively preserve 84 million acres and host 300 million visitors each year. Like any large commercial organization, the NPS has a slew of uncertainties and management challenges. As visitation rates rise, historic structures age and the budget remains relatively constant, the NPS must apply some creative problem solving to effectively accomplish its mission.
For 20 years, the NPS has brought together top graduate students in business, public policy and environmental studies to work on the most challenging business issues facing our national park system. Students are divided into teams of two to three and deployed as summer consultants to eight or nine of the 417 national park sites. Over the summer, students advise park staff and work on projects involving commercial services, fleet strategies, financial forecasting, workforce planning and business plans.
My summer experience started with a week of training in Acadia National Park in Maine. I got to know my colleagues through outdoor activities, social gatherings and many learning sessions on NPS finance, operations, partnerships and commercial services. Toward the end of training, I was paired with a co-consultant, and we met with our project champion from the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SAMO) to refine the project scope and logistics for the summer. Our were to develop a business plan for building out a short-term leasing program and develop program management recommendations for resolving encroachments onto NPS land.
Our next destination was Los Angeles and we started to explore SAMO. Our first task was to get out and experience the park. Among many adventures, we enjoyed kayaking at the Channel Islands, surfing at Sunset Beach, mountain biking in Malibu Creek, hiking Sandstone Peak and rock climbing at Point Dume.
After establishing ourselves as locals, we developed a plan to conduct our analysis and ultimately deliver a meaningful contribution to the park. I spent time interviewing park staff, building a financial model, analyzing comparable parks, and leading brainstorming sessions, while also getting to enjoy weekend excursions to San Diego and Idyllwild, karaoke Wednesdays at Café Habana and morning surf sessions.
I never would have imagined spending my MBA summer internship in the Santa Monica Mountains working as a consultant for the National Park Service. I had expected to spend it stuck in a dark cubicle, working late at night, chugging through Excel documents and building decks for a Fortune 500 company. While I did spend some of my time with the NPS working as a “Spreadsheet Ranger,” I couldn’t imagine an internship experience more personally, professionally or spiritually satisfying than my summer with the NPS. And my learning experience would not have been possible without my outstanding UNC Kenan-Flagler education and support from the Stacia L. Wood Social Impact Summer Grant.
By Bailey Whitaker (MBA ’19)