Student Life

Hats Off to Andrew O’Brien (McIntire ’25)

As a teenager, O’Brien started a company selling hats to raise money for wounded warriors but that wasn’t near as challenging as public speaking.

Drew O'Brien

You could call Andrew “Drew” O’Brien a soon-to-be master communicator. He’s already proven himself to have all the potential to perfect his skills and is on the verge of becoming an expert someday very soon.

As it is, the McIntire Communication faculty who teach in the Comm School’s Integrated Core believe he’s already distinguished himself though his writing, presentation skills, participation, and peer interaction in the classroom and outside of it—so much so that they selected him as one of the 2023-2024 Joseph Miniotas Communication Scholars for what he has achieved with his fellow students in Block 7 and beyond.

Speaking to O’Brien, you would never know just how difficult it was for him to reach the level at which he now excels.

It’s that kind of resilience in the face of a challenge and the willingness to dedicate himself to do whatever it takes to reach his goals that make the Finance concentrator stand out. Those aspects of his personality are also what have seen him through his career at UVA thus far; as a high schooler, they fueled his business sense and the desire to succeed in it—as well as a keen interest in the military that served to spark his first foray into commerce.

But it was his attention to upping his public-speaking game that has proven to be one of the greatest challenges he’s faced and overcome.

His Head Followed His Heart

As a first-year, the West Palm Beach, FL, native was highly engaged by his McIntire prereqs and was drawn equally by the promise of the Commerce program’s coursework and what he saw as the palpable closeness of its tight-knit students. After being accepted to McIntire, he chose to pursue the Real Estate Track, and jumped at the chance to take the pan-UVA Leadership Minor. His choice traces back to a self-starting history fundraising for military causes while still in high school.

“I was always really passionate about the military. I was kind of obsessed with it,” he admits. “I’d watch all these videos on Navy SEAL training and just thought it was so interesting,” O’Brien says, noting that he can’t pinpoint a clear reason for his interest. “I don’t have any connections to the military, but I like the idea of working for something bigger than yourself.” As a teenager who admired the military personnel’s willingness to sacrifice, and as someone who wanted to give back and learn about business, he combined his passions.

“I started a company in high school called Hats off to Veterans, which was an LLC and an e-commerce company. I sold hats online and donated the profit to the Wounded Warrior Project,” he says explaining his business that allowed him to support the charity helping physically and mentally injured American service men and women.

That led him to transition into a fundraising organization, collaborating with the West Palm Beach branch of the national Fisher House Foundation, and taking part in the Hats off to Veterans 24-hour challenge in summer 2020.

“I ran one mile every hour for 24 hours to raise money for the Wounded Warrior Project. And I made it a bigger event where everyone could participate,” says O’Brien, recalling how donors would sponsor participants for each mile they completed within a daylong window when they would run or walk to contribute as many miles as they were motivated to complete, sending him video proof of their efforts. “The idea behind it was that 24 hours represents that veterans are working 24 hours around the clock while many of us stopped working during COVID because we couldn’t be in the office or [other places]. They’re always working.”

He raised more than $1,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project in one day.

Getting back to how this all ties into O’Brien’s interest in the Leadership Minor, it is the result of mentioning his fundraising efforts to his mentor, UVA English Professor John Casteen. “He said, ‘I know this professor named Jeffrey Lovelace. You should reach out to him.’”

And so, during the spring of O’Brien’s first year, he contacted the McIntire professor.

“We got coffee, and I talked to him about [Hats off to Veterans] because of his background in the military,” he says. “I learned a lot. He told me about the [UVA chapter of] Student Veterans of America and the things they do on Grounds. Then he told me about the Leadership Minor, which I wasn’t aware of.”

That conversation easily persuaded O’Brien to sign up for Lovelace’s class in the spring of his second year. He loved it and was spurred on to declare for the Leadership Minor.

He Worked for the Gift of Gab

A large part of being an effective leader comes from communicating, a skill in which O’Brien excels, as recognized by McIntire faculty with the Miniotas award. A pretty surprising turn of events for someone whose anxiety would go through the roof when met with the prospect of speaking in front of strangers.

How did the change happen?

His motivation to become a better public speaker came from a deep-seated appreciation for people who know how to work a room. “I always knew public speaking was a great quality to have. And I’ve always admired the people who seem to go up there and be able to persuade you on anything,” he says, pointing out that his original issues came to a head when he had to give a speech in his Communication class. “I remember my heart was just beating in my chest. I was freaking out. I ended up doing well, but knew it was something I had to work on.”

He chose to take Professor Robert Patterson’s Public Speaking class, with the belief that it would help him in the long run. His hunch was right. It made an outsized impact on his ability to get better at speaking in front of others.

“The first week, I was on the waitlist, so I missed the first class. [Professor Patterson] told me, ‘You’re going to have to talk for a minute in front of the class on your first day, and I’m not going to tell you what the topic is until one minute before,’” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Okay, that sounds horrible,’ so I was really nervous.” O’Brien remembers being put on the spot to give impromptu speeches on random topics, without any frame of reference, like the color orange.

He credits Patterson for getting him out of his comfort zone and mentions that the McIntire professor always pushed him to ensure his topic was relevant to everyone listening. “He made me really comfortable speaking in any setting, not just pitching in a business setting.”

Now, as he prepares for his summer internship as an Investment Banking Analyst at Solomon Partners in New York, he feels prepared for whatever may come his way in that new role.

He credits his Corporate Finance Professor David C. Smith and Associate Dean of Career & Corporate Engagement Tom Fitch with being “absurdly helpful” with his interview process, taking time to speak with him at off hours while he faced dilemmas about scheduling and other issues. “It just shows how much the faculty and staff really care and are committed to their students,” O’Brien says.

And during the internship itself, he’s sure that Patterson’s courses will prove to be worth all the energy he put into them, with crisis communication exercises and routine spontaneous speech-giving experience preparing him to tackle on-the-job emergencies and presentations in stride.

“Now, I don’t just stand there in one place and hold my hands together,” O’Brien says. “I’m comfortable looking people in the eyes now.”

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