Veteran entrepreneurs get shit done.
At the foundation of a successful business or technology startup is the story of survival and beating the odds. Business, like life, is not a math test–it’s an undertaking where grit and determination defy logic every single day over an extended period. No group identifies with these qualities more than veterans.
You don’t become successful by doing what’s comfortable. This trait, among many others, is the same driver that motivated my grandfather to join the United States Air Force. My grandfather, Charles DeBow, was one of the first five Tuskegee Airmen. He expressed in The American Magazine in 1942 that his dream of flying, although unrealistic, developed at a young age:
“Negroes didn’t become aviators. They became elevator operators and janitors, and porters like Dad. I knew all that with my head, but I kept my dreams in my heart.”
Enlisting is the starting point on a path to the exemplary skills acquired while in service. My grandfather’s desire to learn to fly is not unique to other veteran experiences. Many of the veterans who served with him would go on to excel in business upon transitioning from military service. After World War II, 49% of veterans went on to start and own businesses, according to the Kauffman Foundation.
Today, there’s a true need for people who have systems thinking and organizational leadership. There is no true leadership training in college or MBA programs but leadership is a fundamental part of the military experience, which is very beneficial. An orientation around leadership is particularly powerful when combined with technical training. Applying leadership training to businesses and startups is an innate response that many veteran entrepreneurs rarely second-guess.
Entrepreneurship is the activity of setting up and de-risking a business in the hope of profit. There are many success stories across a variety of demographics, skill sets, and industries. Below are three examples of why veterans are uniquely equipped to be great entrepreneurs:
Phil Knight is the Co-Founder and current chairman emeritus of Nike. Immediately after graduating from the University of Oregon as a track & field star, Knight enlisted in the Army and served one year on active duty and seven years in the Army Reserve. Born out of a research paper about shoes that he wrote in an entrepreneurship seminar at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in 1962, this “run-of-the-mill assignment” turned into an “all-out obsession.” Nike, which began as Blue Ribbon Sports, rose from conception to iconic brand in large part due to the vision of Phil Knight, the team he surrounded himself with, and the perseverance he learned from serving in the Army. Knight bootstrapped his way to being one of the richest people in the world, with an estimated net worth of $37.6 billion.
Gregory Coleman is CEO, President, and Chairman of Sworkit, a digital fitness company dedicated to making fitness accessible to people of all ages by providing guided exercise programs anywhere and anytime. Sworkit has over 30 million combined downloads, an average rating of 4.6 stars on both iTunes and Google Play, and over 100,000 5-star reviews. Sworkit raised $1.5 million in funding from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban on Shark Tank in 2016. As an Air Force Colonel and the grandson of a Tuskegee Airman, Coleman uses his acquired set of skills to effectively scale his startup.
“People tend to think that being a female in tech or the military can be difficult, and while that’s true, I find women can turn it into an advantage. I actually look at it as a huge win, because I stick out.”
Krissa Watry, a US Air Force Officer and MIT educated engineer, is the Founder & CEO of Dynepic. Founded originally as a product design firm in 2011, Dynepic has developed a number of products for clients, helping take them from idea to finished product. Today, Watry enables clients such as the US Military to improve digital innovation, training, and engagement through its DX-Platform.
Entrepreneurship is an incredible story of courage and perseverance. Entrepreneurs, much like veterans, de-risk opportunities and maximize potential rewards when undertaking a new venture. Like business, life is not linear. There are time delays and unpredictability. When this is all you know and all you want to do, you’ll inevitably find a way to achieve the impossible — it’s what veterans do.