Commencement Feature: Becoming a leader | Jake Tarnoff

Jake at the summit of Mt. Fuji

Not only did UCCS MBA graduate Jake Tarnoff recently earn his second master’s degree, but he was also the first – and probably only – person to be accepted into, and graduate from, CU Boulder’s aerospace engineering graduate program whose undergraduate degree is in the humanities rather than STEM.

Several years ago, while earning his undergraduate in communications in his home state of Pennsylvania, Jake realized he wanted a different career path. With his love of outdoor activities and passion for aerospace, CU Boulder offered the chance to pursue an engineering degree in an ideal location for his hobbies.

​”I ​had ​a ​​change ​of ​heart ​with ​respect ​to ​the ​kind ​of ​career ​I ​wanted, and ​I ​did ​a ​lot ​of ​thinking ​about what ​I ​wanted ​to do instead,” Jake said. “I ​narrowed it ​down ​to studying ​some ​form ​of ​genetics or engineering ​and ​​ultimately ​chose ​engineering because ​of the range of disciplines to focus on. ​I’m very ​passionate ​about aerospace, ​specifically human spaceflight, so ​I ​ended ​up ​taking ​a ​ton ​of STEM and lab component ​classes – all ​these ​classes ​that ​I ​would ​need ​to ​get ​into ​graduate ​school ​to ​study ​engineering ​while ​I ​was ​finishing ​my ​communications ​degree.”

Not long into his graduate program at Boulder, Jake landed a job at Lockheed Martin working a project that aligned perfectly with his aerospace passions – being a part of the team working on NASA’s Orion spacecraft, which will carry a crew of four astronauts from Earth to lunar orbit and eventually Mars.

​”I ​knew ​I ​wanted ​to ​work ​on ​Orion, ​because ​it’s basically ​the ​cornerstone ​of ​Artemis,​​ NASA’s current human space exploration initiative,” Jake said. “I also worked on a stretch assignment developing a lunar lander simulator.”

Jake at NASA KSC in front of Orion and the SLS rocket

Jake’s role at Lockheed Martin has given him opportunities to pursue his other passions as well, like leadership and global business.

“I applied for a very selective leadership program at Lockheed Martin called the Engineering Leadership Development Program (ELDP), which is a rotation-based program that they use to identify and build up leadership talent within the organization,” Jake recalled. “I was privileged enough to earn a spot in that program and spent three years learning extensively about leadership.”

Around this time, Jake also learned about the tuition reimbursement program offered by Lockheed Martin and this combination prompted him to pursue his MBA, specifically at a school with an international business option.

“I knew that the quality of education from the University of Colorado system is top notch, I’ve experienced that for myself,” explained Jake. “I saw that UCCS in particular had an MBA program where I could adjust my schedule around work, and that plus the concentration in international business and the flexibility really sold me on it, so I went for that degree and I had an unforgettable time.”

Another benefit of the ELDP was that it gave Jake not just leadership experience, but international business experience as well.

“The highlight of my time in the ELDP was spending a year working and living in Japan on a program developing a first-of-its-kind satellite communications system that will be used to enhance search-and-rescue operations during natural disasters,” said Jake. “I was able to improve my Japanese language skills on a daily basis while travelling all around such a beautiful country.”

Jake and his wife, Taylor, with their dog, Perri, on their wedding day

Along with the professional doors that attending CU Boulder opened up, it shaped much of his personal life.

“My experience as a graduate student at CU Boulder created a domino effect that led me to securing a job working on NASA’s Artemis program, meeting my wife while we were interns together, earning my MBA, and the most exciting job I’ve ever had – working and living in Japan,” said Jake.

Unsurprisingly, Jake’s favorite class at UCCS was an international business course.

“One of the most rewarding classes I took was Professor Carol Finnegan’s Global Business class,” Jake said. “I learned so much in that class – she taught us about so many different topics in international business and the highlight of the course was when we travelled to Germany for hands-on learning. I got to know Prof. Finnegan really well and she shared some of her amazing life experiences, like climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, which then inspired me to do the same. In fact, for our very delayed honeymoon, my partner and I are going to Tanzania in a month and a half to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro.”

Jake skydiving at Mile Hi Skydiving Center

Mountain climbing is one of many outdoor activities Jake fills his time with, and he also loves SCUBA diving and skydiving, the latter of which he got his license for as a graduate student at CU Boulder. Another interest of his has been learning the Japanese language, especially when preparing for his year abroad.

“I taught myself a lot of Japanese since I knew I was going to be moving there and wanted to be our team’s language person and help them as much as possible,” said Jake. “While I’m not yet fluent in it, I got to the point of fundamental reading comprehension and could have basic conversations.”

That team mentality is central to Jake’s overall outlook on work and a vital part of what interests him in leadership.

“My MBA taught me that when an organization genuinely invests in the wellbeing of its employees, it always ends up performing better,” Jake said. “I’ve seen all the proof in the world that strong organizational performance comes from team members that feel appreciated and respected. I want to be the change that I want to see in leadership, regardless of industry or organization.”

Jake emphasized how participating in the ELDP and taking advantage of similar opportunities and resources offered by CU and industry partners made a difference in preparing him for future roles and securing job offers.

“Regardless of what you’re studying, get as involved as possible in all the resources that your university has to offer – whether it’s joining a project team, stepping up into a leadership position or going to career fairs, do as much as you can,” urged Jake. “Often, the project groups I joined were funded by companies looking for prospective future employees, and being part of those got me multiple offers after graduation.”

No matter where his career takes him, Jake wants to continue pursuing those extra opportunities and honing his leadership skills.

“As long as I have the time and resources, I always say yes to any opportunity that comes up where people are needed,” he said. “Once you’re through to the other side and employed, you can advocate for people who are in the spot you just left and help them get the resources they need to be successful and independent.”

“I want to be that person and bring what I’ve learned about overall success, and how to implement that success, to any job I have,” Jake added.