How This Columbia MBA Lifts Those Who Come Next

Everyone who talks with Paul Capon comes away impressed. Even before earning MBA degrees from both Columbia Business School and London Business School in 2013, he was a United States Air Force Academy graduate and Air Force officer for six years, during which he served as a convoy commander for more than 120 convoys in Afghanistan. Post-military and post-MBA, Capon founded impact investment fund LunaCap Ventures, which invests in military-, women-, and minority-owned or -run companies.

A year later, he launched LunaCap Foundation, which assists those of Mexican descent born anywhere in the world or current active military or U.S. Armed Forces veterans with the cost of an MBA education. A deeply personal undertaking, LunaCap’s $200,000 scholarships have been awarded to 10 outstanding recipients at the leading business schools each of the last two years. The 2021 selection process is now underway; the deadline to apply for this year’s cohort is March 30, with interviews through May and final decisions announced in July.

Inextricably intertwined with Capon’s remarkable professional story is his personal one. It is a fundamentally American and hugely inspiring story. Born Moises Luna Soto in Mexico, he was adopted at 3 months old by a well-to-do family in Connecticut and renamed — hence the moniker of his venture firm and foundation, LunaCap. “It’s opportunity meets potential,” Capon tells Poets&Quants. “It’s bridging the gap between America and Mexico. It doesn’t mean ‘moon capital’!” he adds, laughing.

‘I HAD BETTER DO SOMETHING WITH MY LIFE’

Paradox is a theme for Capon, who grew up in an affluent community, yet felt drawn to the military. “One of the reasons I went to the Air Force Academy was, I recognized that I’ve been given an opportunity, that I grew up with privilege, and that there were a whole bunch of other people out there that didn’t grow up with it,” he says. “The Academy, I think, was something where I wanted to go off, do something on my own. I didn’t want mommy and daddy to be able to just pay my way through it.

“And when I was at the Air Force Academy, I met a whole bunch of really fascinating people, and just to give you an idea of the town I grew up, it was the first time I’d ever met someone who wasn’t able to afford college.”

One summer while he was still in the Academy, Capon traveled to Mexico to find his birth mother. He was unsuccessful. Yet walking around the area where she had lived, he had an epiphany.

“It looked like Eastern Europe after World War II,” he recalls. “I saw somebody the exact same age, could have been a year older than me, just sitting on the sidewalk. And I’m there in my khakis and button-down shirt, and I realized, just seeing what my life could have been and recognizing the fact that I had been given an amazing opportunity — what if this individual had that opportunity? What would he be able to do? Not only for himself, but for others — and how many other folks could this person help out?

“This person would give their right arm to be where I am. So I had better do something with my life!”

LUNACAP FELLOW, EMPOWERED

Marcia Austin

If Paul Capon had launched LunaCap solely as a way to meet fascinating people, he couldn’t have found a better vehicle. Among the 20 MBAs who are the first to receive the organization’s six-digit award, more than half boast sterling military resumes — Air Force navigators, Marine Corps logistics officers, Navy SEALs — and the others are equally impressive young professionals with Mexican heritage.

Marcia Austin, in the latter group, came to business school from the Los Angeles media entertainment world, where she worked in strategy and analysis of talent deals and co-financing. Ten years into her career, she was advised to avoid an MBA, but in 2020 she began her MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Now nearing the end of her first year, Austin says the LunaCap scholarship has been “more helpful than you can imagine.”

“All of my mentors said that an MBA was a waste of my time and that I should not leave for fear of possibly losing my place,” she tells Poets&Quants. “Coming from a background where financial security is not a thing, it’s a really terrifying place to be, that debt — I think about it every day. And so the fact that there was a portion of that, that was able to be covered, was one of the most uplifting things that they could do.”

Austin says the process of applying to Stanford, and later to LunaCap, “made me recognize I had been, from a young age, really ashamed of my background.” Growing up in San Diego with the last name Garcia, she was a target. “People would make jokes about, ‘Oh, my gardener’s last name is Garcia. Are you related to him? Hey, can you have your dad come mow my lawn?’ And so, although those things were said in jest, it was just something growing up that I was embarrassed about.

“And I would laugh it off because of course in junior high, you’re not going to actually tell someone, ‘What you’re saying impacts me this way.’ It would not come until, again, applying to grad school and truly unpacking: ‘What does matter to me?’ There was a lot of growing through those barriers, learning to view the differences that I saw in myself — not only in high school, but especially going to undergrad, being first generation there — not feeling like I was mirrored in a lot of my classmates. I was ashamed of that at first. And it is now at the point where 10 years away from undergrad and in the real world that I recognize it’s actually been such a huge opportunity for me to grow, to learn, to view myself better. I see those as victories that I’ve been able to just grow from and empower.”

‘SENDING THE ELEVATOR BACK DOWN’

LunaCap’s mission “resonated with me, so impactfully,” Austin says. And her experience — and words — resonated with the foundation’s founder. In meeting Capon for the first time to interview for the fellowship, she used a metaphor for helping those who come after you: “sending the elevator back down.” In subsequent conversations, Capon repeated the phrase as central to his worldview and that of LunaCap’s fellows.

“I think it’s such a perfect way to describe a situation as you talk about empowering, creating a pathway for others,” Austin says. “This isn’t just about finding a program that’s going to help get you this, and then you get your job and you feel empowered as a minority in the workforce. It is about going through your own personal journey, where again, you send elevators down and you will lift up others and you help them. I think the way that Paul has described it and the way that I view it is becoming an active part of creating mentorship and providing resources to those who need it.”

What do those resources look like? They are not just financial, Austin says.

“Sure there’s the financial resources, but there’s more than that,” she says. “It’s mentorship, it’s sharing experiences. It’s having someone where you can match a student to and have some type of connection. I think that’s really needed. There’s so many large decisions that are being made within this two-year crazy time that I think there’s a lot you can learn from that. But I think there’s a lot that you could share with people before they even get here, to understand how can they embolden themselves to see that they have a sense of purpose and a rightful place to walk into leadership.

“I’m in my first year in the MBA program, I’m just over 30 years old, and this is the first time that I’m actually kind of proud of my heritage and I’m proud of where I’ve come from. I’m proud that I’ve been able to set up a legacy for my family to come, that this is not just a place for the overprivileged. It’s not just a place for people who have a path in front of them already laid out.

“I think if you look underneath the achievements and the GPAs and the accomplishments and careers — and I can only speak for the people coming from more of a Mexican background — but a lot of us, although we have that on paper, have not truly felt that we deserved it yet. And so I think a lot of this is recognizing that you can be uplifted, despite something you may have thought was not something to be proud of. So again, this has been a transformative view of myself, because of something that this organization is now trying to empower people to think is an important part of our heritage.”

Syed Faraz

Syed Faraz enlisted in the U.S. Air Force directly out of undergrad. As a navigator, he flew more than 630 combat hours. He has been involved in the rescue of thousands of refugees and aid delivery to earthquake survivors. He also was deeply involved in national security innovation as the CTO for the U-2 spy plane program, raising over $100 million for grassroots innovation initiatives, inspiring the launch of a $64 million innovation fund, and helping found the U.S. Department of Defense’s first unit-level Federal Lab — the lessons of which can be found in the Harvard Business School case study he launched exploring change in bureaucracies. Now pursuing a Stanford MBA as a Tillman Scholar and Harvard MPA as a Zuckerman Fellow at the Kennedy School, Faraz is a 2020 LunaCap scholarship recipient and a foundation fellow who is helping to interview the next class of 10 scholarship recipients.

He is a true American success story — but one that wouldn’t be possible without the drive of his hard-working father, part of a larger picture that Faraz equates with the mission of LunaCap.

“I was born and raised in India and lived in Saudi Arabia for a couple of years as well,” he tells Poets&Quants. “My dad worked there, just like a lot of South Asian migrant workers. He dropped out of college in the 1960s, hitchhiked from the middle of India to the coast, and slept on the streets for three months trying to find a ship that would take him to the Middle East because he had heard there were jobs there.

“And then he got a boat. Went to Saudi Arabia, didn’t speak a word of Arabic, but he learned. Started off as a security guard, was a janitor — did all the stuff. Eventually he started a company and did pretty well. Had about $5 million to $6 million saved up in the bank. And then, this was a crazy: In Saudi Arabia, if you’re not a citizen, which most people are not, your your business accounts have to be through a local sponsor. And that guy took all the money away.

“And here’s the incredible part. I haven’t heard my dad complain about that once. And this happened back in ’95.”

The Faraz family moved to the United States shortly after. Syed’s dad first job was at McDonald’s. “He would walk us to school, walk to his shift at McDonald’s, and walk back,” Faraz recalls. “Now he works as a baggage handler for American Airlines and I’ve never heard him complain about losing $6 million.

“The larger story of LunaCap is about helping people who are like him. Paul’s story is incredible. There’s people, there’s other veterans, there’s other people of Mexican descent, who have even more challenging backgrounds. And the beauty is, how do you overcome it? And then the second thing — the more important thing — is: How do you lift your community up with you?”

THE IDEA BEHIND THE FOUNDATION

Paul Capon, founder of LunaCap Scholarship Foundation, while deployed as commander of an embedded training team (ETT) at the interim logistics facility (ILF) Kabul, Afghanistan. LunaCap photo

Paul Capon couldn’t throw away the advantages he had been given in life. That drive to make a difference was the spark that led to LunaCap.

“I just had this feeling that I needed to give back, that I couldn’t take this opportunity for granted,” he says. “If I’m, as my mom says, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, what could somebody else do if they were given that opportunity, and how many other people could they help out? The exponential power that that could be — I think that was the nugget.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, or how that would manifest itself, but through business school was where things really started. I started sharpening the pencil on the idea. And so I started LunaCap Ventures. And then, after that, the foundation idea came to me.”

Capon says of all his varied and remarkable experiences, his two years at both Columbia and London Business School had the biggest impact.

“And having come from a military background as well, I also recognized that there were so many people out there that I’d met — who came from really hard backgrounds — that just needed that opportunity. They didn’t have the money to go to the MBA program. The GI Bill only covers a very small amount.”

As someone with a military background and Mexican heritage, it’s no wonder Capon wants to help those two groups. But those groups have connections beyond his personal story, he says.

“When I tell people, ‘We help out Mexicans and veterans,’ there’s a moment and a pause of, ‘Why these two groups? Did you throw dart at just different people, and that’s what you came up with?’ And I think, ‘It’s just my personal background’ — but what I do like about it is, once people from these two groups meet each other, they might come from both sides of the aisle, but they meet each other and they realize that they have so much more in common, and so much more similarities than there are differences and it’s bridging that gap,” Capon says.

“And so there’s that underlying current and tone and relationship that I’m also trying to build.”

3 THINGS

When a LunaCap scholarship is awarded, Capon tells the recipient three things.

“Number one is, always answer the call. And what I mean by that is, if somebody from LunaCap calls you, you pick up the phone.

“Number two, you always send the elevator back down. ‘You guys are going to get somewhere, and even if you’re in your second-year MBA and you still have a job, you can help out — go back to the people that you mentored in your previous jobs and bring them in.’ That is sending the elevator back down.

“And then number three is to make a positive impact in one person’s life — that’s it, to make a positive difference, a positive impact in one person’s life. And I basically said, ‘You do that, it is going to exponentially grow. And that one is going to turn into 10, and 10 is going to turn into a 100.’ And if we do that, and we all pull it in the same direction and as a group we work together, in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years when these guys are the top politicians, when they are the CEOs, and we all get into a room and say, ‘How are we going to make the world a better place?’ Then we can all pull together. So that’s the vision, that’s the idea.”

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