While we appreciate the sacrifice and personal commitment members of our voluntary military make for all of us, we don’t hear much about how national service is a crucible for developing entrepreneurial skills.
Last week I asked several veterans about their businesses and how their service affected attitudes towards entrepreneurship. The similarities were remarkable even though each start-up is very different.
Blake Hall, founder and chief executive of ID.me identified the most important skill for effective entrepreneurs that soldiers have in spades: “the capacity to rapidly make tough decisions with limited information and limited resources in a chaotic and uncertain environment.”
His company is rapidly growing a technology product to solve the challenge of proving web users’ identities — a problem that ultimately touches on both privacy protection and ensuring the quality of information we receive. ID.me recently received a large amount of venture capital funding.
As a military leader, retired Gen. Stan McChrystal learned the benefits of agile and autonomous teams. He discovered how the ability to delegate and empower subordinates — making them leaders themselves — is just as effective in commercial organizations as in military ranks. He believes national service makes Americans “problem solvers.” McChrystal Group now works with many Fortune 500 companies at the board level on issues such as organizational change and leadership development, providing sorely needed insight to many large businesses.
Another veteran, Mark Rockefeller, echoes the sentiment that the ability to improvise is what sets veterans apart. The founder and CEO of StreetShares remembers how often he and his colleagues were not merely following orders, but regularly improvising and acting “as the mayor, police chief, city manager, zoning board and dog catcher” in unpredictable situations during his service in Iraq and Afghanistan. StreetShares now connects more than 30,000 individual lenders with veteran-started businesses and provides valuable funding.
Some do not even wait until they their service is complete before applying entrepreneurial skills. Jim Perkins realized that many day-to-day operational issues in the national security establishment could be fixed by connecting field personnel with those who support them. His Defense Entrepreneurs Forum operates around the country, providing an operator’s perspective to solving government challenges. An invaluable resource to those in the government seeking innovation and efficiency and not satisfied with the status quo.
Over the years many veteran friends have shared with me the observation that once someone has survived the experience of being shot at, entrepreneurship isn’t anywhere near as scary. Yet, the stories I heard last week reminded me that understanding veteran entrepreneurship is more nuanced. Clearly, modern warfare, as complex and unpredictable as it has become, places a premium on improvisation and the ability to think and act decisively. It also provides the test of life experience through which people find their inner strength.
When those of us in the private sector think about veterans, it’s often as an employee. “Hire a veteran” is the patriotic urging.
However, if we really took the time to understand the skills our veterans have gained through their service to our nation, instead we might be asking for them to hire us. So many of them have the entrepreneurial skills to start new businesses and succeed.
We should be making sure that they have the resources necessary to unleash their entrepreneurial spirit. We owe that to them. And, we owe it to ourselves.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.