Damion DiGrazia, founder and CEO of Santa’s Knights, Inc., received a 2021 Military-Veteran Distinguished Service Award from the Harvard Extension Alumni Association. Here’s what he had to say about his time at Harvard Extension and his plans for the future.
What brought you to Harvard Extension?
Right before beginning at Harvard Extension, I had just finished a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Columbia University. I wanted my undergrad to be as liberal arts of an experience as it could be; to be exposed to the historical and contemporary human experience through the eyes of academia. I wanted to be as “complete” of a human as I could be, so I could try to be the most understanding, compassionate, thoughtful, and impactful creature that I could be on this little floating rock in the Milky Way.
However, after getting pulled into the whirlwind of finance recruitment at Columbia, I decided to pursue a career on Wall Street to grow my corporate/professional skillset and knowledge of the financial landscape that ties everything together in the modern world.
At the same time, I promised myself that I would pursue a technical master’s degree somewhere. In my last year at Columbia, I discovered the Harvard Extension School and knew that it would be a good fit for me, as I would continue to intern [at the United Nations] and then work as an analyst on Wall Street while I finished my master’s at Harvard with evening classes. It took me 2.5 years to finish the degree, travelling back and forth from NYC to Cambridge every week, while working full-time, but the overall experience was well worth it.
How did your time in the military influence your goals?
When I joined the United States Air Force, I had pretty much planned to stay in active duty for life, but I ended up with a career-changing injury during a training exercise in the line of duty that ultimately caused me to leave the military. However, on an uplifting note, I never thought I would go to college, but I did, thanks to my time in service and the veterans safety net that caught me after I got out.
To me, back then, it was not in my stars—not even as a child or teenager did I ever think of or plan for college in any real way. But when I got out of the military, the Veterans Administration came to the rescue and, because of my injured/disability status, they sent me to school with their Vocational Rehabilitation Program. Thank God for the VA!
The years went by, and I eventually left [finance] sometime after founding a nonprofit, Santa’s Knights, Inc. I now take all of that academic, professional, and personal experience and motivation and endeavor on growing the impact and reach of the nonprofit.
As this overall story narrates, the military laid a logistical foundation on which I could build years of study. It also set the tone for the pace and need for my studies. And it made me appreciate the importance of social safety nets and services for those that are in need, and ultimately how that helping hand can raise up a very productive, engaged, and grateful member of society.
Tell us about the work you’ve done since graduating from Harvard Extension.
Almost immediately after my graduation from Harvard Extension, I started at Morgan Stanley. My first role began in data analytics and after a few years moved into program management and the financial regulatory environment. After a few years at Morgan Stanley, I realized my heart wasn’t in it, and I decided to follow where my heart was leading me, toward the nonprofit that I had founded.
Since then, the nonprofit [Santa’s Knights, Inc.] has personally helped hundreds of children, adults, and families with our free martial arts and fitness programs and also our Santa’s letters program, and positively impacted thousands with our free events. The focus I have now for the nonprofit’s next year is to deeply incorporate the use of technology-driven solutions for our free martial arts and fitness program and also our Santa’s letters program.
Did your experience at Harvard Extension change your career trajectory? How?
Besides the impactful exposure to the incredible teachers, revelatory information, and high expectations of Harvard—and how the most polished rocks come from the roughest of waters—I’m sure it’s no coincidence that right after my master’s at Harvard, I ended up at one of the most respected investment banks in the world, Morgan Stanley. I’m sure it didn’t hurt to have Harvard on my resume, but also the experience that I had from my classes and classmates helped every step of the way as well.
Nonetheless, it’s the engagement, motivation, pleasantness, and collegial nature of the alumni of Harvard University in its entirety that have helped shape my ideas about myself, my career, my impact, and the world around me.
What’s next for you?
My concentration in life has become, and will continue to be, that of service to my communities and to the world at large. Currently, my main focus is on Santa’s Knights, Inc., and the people who volunteer, work, and participate in our programs. We will continue to grow the organization and increase our impact through mindful experience and broader, more effective use of technology.
I consider myself a social entrepreneur, and I have more ideas for nonprofits and other angles to use technology and social engagement and such to create social impact, and I plan to implement them in the future as well. Many people know the term “serial entrepreneur.” Well, a term I’ve never really heard used before is “serial social entrepreneur,” and that’s my plan currently.
Harvard helped me find my veritas along the same footpath so many of us have tread along for almost four centuries now. Rightfully so, I hope to live up to whichever paths are before me, those discovered and well-trodden, and even the parts less travelled by. As Frost ended his celebrated poem,
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”