Michael Montelongo’s Courage to Climb
By Andrea Walker
Photos by André Chung
Michael Montelongo grew up knowing little beyond his housing project on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Fortunately, he says, angels were there to guide him through a career that led him to a job in the George W. Bush administration and his current position as senior vice president and chief administrative officer at Sodexo Inc.
These angels may not have had wings, but they had vision, and believed in his potential and know-how. They were people like his parents, who had limited educations, but showed their young son the importance of school. They were teachers who pushed and challenged him—and the Senate staffer who recommended his appointment to President George W. Bush’s cabinet, where he served as assistant secretary of the Air Force.
FROM ARMY FATIGUES TO IVY LEAGUE
Currently a resident of northern Virginia with his wife and daughter, Montelongo first left New York City to attend college at the United States Military Academy at West Point. When he was a young boy, his father told him about a West Point graduate who lived in his same hometown. The town was so proud of a young Latino being accepted to such a prestigious institution. “Dad never steered me in that direction, but that story stayed in my mind,” Montelongo says. “As I was applying to colleges, I thought, ‘Why not?’ It was full scholarship, and I didn’t have anything to lose if I didn’t make it.”
Not only did he make it into the elite institution, he graduated with a B.A. in political science and went on to have a near 20-year military career. Montelongo served as special assistant and speechwriter to the Army chief of staff and special assistant to the commander-in-chief of U.S. Southern Command. While still enlisted, West Point selected Montelongo to return to the academy to teach economics and political science. “To prepare for that assignment, I applied and was accepted to Harvard Business School,” he explains.
Being at the Ivy League institution opened his eyes to life outside the military sector. “At that point, I had only seen the world through my frame of reference, which was the military,” Montelongo says. “Harvard was critical for showing me what life would be like if I left—the question was when the right time would be.”