No One Left Behind: B-School Students Help To Evacuate Afghanis To Safety

Jeff Phaneuf, at right, poses with Congressman Seth Moulton who is leading legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to change who qualifies for the Special Immigrant Visa. (Courtesy photo)

Jeff Phaneuf, Stanford GSB, MBA ‘24, NOLB director of advocacy

Phaneuf spent eight years as a Marine Corps infantry officer including deployment to Iraq in the fight against ISIS. He studied history and literature at Harvard as an undergrad and, after his military service, earned an MPA in international relations at Princeton. He was attending Stanford GSB with the class of 2023 when he took a year-long leave of absence to join No One Left Behind. He will return to Stanford next fall.

What kind of advocacy work are you currently engaged in?

I think the resettlement and evacuation work is really critical and directly impacts people, but I think we’ve realized that private organizations, even ones that are well funded and really committed to this work, cannot fulfill the role of the government. A big part of what we do is trying to convince the U.S. government to fix the problems that we see with the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program and with the folks that we left behind in Afghanistan.

Jeff Phaneuf

I’ll give you a few examples. Right now, the SIV program is a 14-step process. It’s incredibly convoluted, it requires mountains of paperwork, and it’s something that’s incredibly difficult for people to get through. Not only that, there are critical gaps in the legislation as it exists. That means that people who probably meet the spirit of the original law actually don’t qualify.

One aspect that we just had a pretty significant win on was convincing the House Armed Services Committee through Congressman Seth Moulton, who’s also a Harvard MBA, to adopt a piece of legislation for the National Defense Authorization Act. What this piece does is that for SIV applicants who didn’t meet the 12-month service requirement because they were wounded in the line of duty people who 10 months in stepped on a roadside bomb and lost their legs, or people who were shot on a patrol with Marines they are now going to be eligible. It’s just a couple of lines of legislation, but for those folks it is life and death. We’re really excited about that.

We’re also working on completely rewriting the SIV program to include folks that work in that same interpreter capacity or contract capacity in other theaters of the global War on Terror. I’ve got a friend, actually from Stanford Graduate Business School, who was a Navy SEAL who had an interpreter in Yemen who is now effectively stateless because the American teams pulled out. Others who worked in Syria who could be eligible if they were just 10 miles over the border in Iraq, even though they’re doing the same job. In our mind, that doesn’t make any sense. And we intend to fix it.

Why do you believe the MBA skill set is well suited for non-profit organizations like NOLB?

With a lot of my classmates at Stanford, there is a huge drive to do things that are world changing. I think sometimes, though, from certain MBA programs, there isn’t a pathway that’s clear on how to do that. Many MBA programs, I think, are working to develop better pipelines to the nonprofit world and social impact.

Jeff Phaneuf poses during a United States Marine Corps training mission in Virginia. (Courtesy Photo)

The skill set that MBAs bring to the table the ability to think analytically, the ability to think creatively, the ability to problem solve really complements this work nicely. It brings a certain sense of business acumen to the problem. If you just look at it from a perspective of humanitarian concern, it might not make you as effective, whereas those who can pair understanding the mission with the ways to get that mission done enables one to be really effective in the nonprofit space. In the military, we call that a force multiplier.

To give you a bit of context: Right now, according to the State Department’s most recent estimates, there are 160,000 Afghans who are eligible for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program still left in country. The State Department is flying 300 to 400 out per week, and they’ve got a pipeline where they process those folks outside of Afghanistan to get their visa and then bring them to the U.S. You don’t have to be a mathematician to see that 300 to 400 per week with a problem set of 160,000 is not really an acceptable solution to the current problem.

I think that’s why we have to be very entrepreneurial in how we think about these things. We’re thinking about our own flights and ways in which we can create our own third-country lily pad to eventually bring people to the US. We’re identifying a problem set and trying to think through creative solutions. The additional layer is that we work closely with the State Department and foreign ministries of the countries that we’re considering to help bring people through. It requires a lot of on-the-spot entrepreneurial thinking that, I think, is part of why this group of MBAs is really well suited for the task.

NEXT PAGE: Blake Lindgren, Duke Fuqua School of Business, MBA ‘17, NOLB board member, and Matt Watters, University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School, MBA ’13; NOLB board member