During the course of this year’s run for the White House, Americans on either side of the political divide have found very little common ground. That the country should do more for its veterans is one. This year around 200,000 servicemen and women will re-enter civilian life.
It can be a troubling, even traumatic, experience. Many veterans feel obliged to study with people many years their junior, or settle for low-rung jobs that, unbeknownst to them, they are far overqualified for.
“They don’t realize this because we don’t foster their reintegration in meaningful ways,” says Josh Anderson, development director at Patriot Boot Camp (PBC), a charity helping veterans connect with the tech industry. “We don’t want to do the hard work of translating skills, competencies, relevance, and creating pathways for veterans into jobs of which they are most deserving.”
Tech, Anderson and many others think, is the perfect industry for veterans. Anderson dismisses the idea that the rigid working culture of the military prohibits entrepreneurial thinking as “bullshit. Part of what makes veterans great leaders, if we can agree that, by-and-large, they are—and that they are, from my perspective, hard-wired for entrepreneurship and innovation—is that they are in fact quite uniquely self-thinking, self-motivated, bold, and risk-tolerant.”
Patriot Boot Camp was founded out of the Techstars global startup ecosystem in 2012. In 2014 it became an independent program, and is currently run as a non-profit based in Denver and Austin. The group’s alumni have created over 150 companies and raised over $40 million in capital, in an industry that has shown increasing interest in veterans over the past few years.
Five years ago Michelle Obama and Jill Biden launched Joining Forces, a nationwide initiative to swell employment opportunities for veterans and military spouses. Since then 1.2m have been hired, while tech giants such as HP, Dell and EMC have pledged to add 1,000-3,000 roles for veterans or military spouses over the next five years. Microsoft also runs a 16-program, after which 80% of veteran graduates find jobs.
Tech talent is always tough to come by. With the protectionist, anti-H-1B visa policies of President-elect Donald Trump surely to come, the clamor for homegrown tech workers will never been higher.
Anderson doesn’t want to get too prescriptive about what “tech” means in for PBC’s participants. He is more concerned with fostering skills he sees as innate to those who have experienced the military.
“We see military veterans as innate innovators,” he says. “They are accustomed to facing unfathomably difficult problems, under-resourced, “outmanned and outgunned,” comfortable in discomfort, and still finding inventive, resolute ways to achieve their missions. Beyond that, there’s a deep historical precedent of conflict-era veterans returning to lead innovation in post-conflict economies.
“We believe this generation should be no exception.”
In Tribe Sebastien Junger wrote that the “lack of social support has been found to be twice as reliable at predicting PTSD as the severity of the trauma itself” for veterans. 36.4% of veterans hold a college degree, compared with just 28.1% of non-veterans. Median incomes, however, are greatly skewed towards non-veterans: in some states the difference is more than 70%.
Tech initiative like PBC can, therefore, be an effective way to proliferate information and access to programs that are sorely lacking for America’s returning servicemen and women.
PBC executive director Charlotte Creech cites two PBC alumni whose military experiences have directly affected their innovative civilian careers. Tom Cox, founder of Atlanta-based hotspot firm CANDL, developed a hardware/software lab for military-grade mobile solutions, among other breakthroughs.
Hyprloco co-founder Nic Gray devised his mobile location-based software after tracking the nighttime movements of enemy and NATO forces during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“Today’s servicemembers and warfighters are exposed to some of the most advanced equipment and cutting-edge technologies, making them uniquely suited to leverage this technology, or develop new technology to solve commercial needs in the civilian world,” Creech says.
According to Katherine Webster, founder of VetsinTech, a similarly-oriented nonprofit, one of the most promising spheres for veterans is cybersecurity. “One of the fastest growing companies, Palo Alto Networks, is led by West Point graduate and Army veteran Mark McLaughlin,” she says, adding Moonshots Capital co-founder Kelly Pardew and Veritas CEO Bill Coleman to an ever-growing list of veterans making it big in tech.
VetsinTech has run its own hugely successful programs. This summer it partnered with LinkedIn to run an employer meet-up at Ten-X.
There are over 40,000 non-profit organizations serving veterans in the US today. But Anderson argues that it is less “disparate noise” and more of a “coordinated signal” to help veterans navigate the civilian labor market. Competition for finances, among veterans groups, is fierce: as a result veterans often have more options on offer, but are still worse off.
“I believe a more effective model would be for organizations to consolidate and build connected pathways by having a joint intake process and working together to funnel veterans to the programs that are best suited to address their needs and goals,” adds Creech.
“By doing so, we could streamline and accelerate the process of connecting veterans with the programs and service that will help them advance.”
Anderson believes that the venture capital market is increasingly looking at veteran-founded companies, as negative stereotypes of veterans begin to fade. “Countless times in recent months I’ve heard investors say that they consider veterans a safer bet than their civilian counterparts,” he says.
“They work hard, they work smart, they are organized and disciplined, they can simultaneously prioritize the mission at-hand with taking care of people, and they tend to have an adaptability that’s hard to replicate outside the ranks of those who’ve served,” he adds.
Not to mention the fact that, Anderson argues, veterans are inherent risk-takers. “Think about the fears one must face to voluntarily sign up for several years of service, to commit to something they know is going to be grueling, uncomfortable, uncharted, something that they can’t just quit when it sucks – which is generally quite often,” he says.
“That sounds like entrepreneurship.”