In a title which may seem oxymoronic, indeed, offensive to a veteran, there lies some truth. Combat, the crucible of danger, calls for the most courageous and dedicated of people. One would believe, with good reason that our nation’s warriors are the perfect fit for the rigors of entrepreneurship. However, only 4.5 percentof the more than 3.6 million post 9/11 veterans will choose this path (49.7 percentin WWII). The Coalition for Veteran Owned Businesses (CVOB) states that of the 26 percent of veterans who want to start businesses, only six percent do. This is due, CVOB states, to a lack of access to funding. This and other contributors like a strong job market are all to blame but there is something else at play. That something is fear. In my own entrepreneurial experience, following 27 years in uniform and three combat tours I almost ran from this danger. Here are three reasons why.
- A Culture of Risk Aversion.
Training and combat are loaded with risk. Because of this, risk assessments compliment practically every military event, from parachute operations to a military ball. Unit safety officers constantly raise awareness and advise commanders of danger. Safety briefings and training on accident prevention precede activities ranging from weekend liberty to combat patrols. In combat, I’ve delayed operations for days due to inclement weather preventing aerial medical evacuation. Risk management works. Combat casualtieshave dropped significantly over the years and while casualties from training ebb and flow, they remain substantially low. While risk management thankfully saves lives, it does create a culture of risk aversion in a military which dominates, choosing when and where it will fight.
Good entrepreneurs analyze risk for sure, but not typically on par with military operations. Often, they take risks or gamble based on a hunch. Hazards are often ill defined or unknown. There is no chain of command or on-call group of experts to assess and manage risk. Urgency often trumps thorough risk management and there are no safety officers alerting entrepreneurs of dangers they cannot see.
From the first day in uniform onward, service members are never alone. Try going anywhere by yourself, even to the bathroom in Navy Seal training or in Army basic training and you could face expulsion. Envision a soldier in full combat gear on a remote battlefield. While the image may show only the soldier, within arm’s reach you’ll find his or her teammates. Beyond them exists a larger, cohesive team prepared to come to their rescue. Not in view but not far away, a helicopter stands ready to extract this soldier from danger. Artillery tubes and their crews stand by to provide supporting fire. Airborne surveillance drones scan the area depicting danger beyond view and attack aircraft dominate the sky ready to swoop in and save the day. The soldier is equipped with modern protective gear and weaponry. Team members watch his or her back and are ready and equipped to provide lifesaving first aid. While dangerous and frightening, the soldier is emboldened by an extensive safety net of protection, backed by a team which knows and trusts one another.
Now picture that same soldier attempting to start a business. Scan left and right and you’ll find no one. Once removed from service, from this comprehensive safety net and sense of security, trust and teamwork all but vanishes. An investor will not rush to the aid of an entrepreneur should they stumble and fall. A business mentor won’t be at arm’s length and they’ll be nothing hovering overhead to detect threats beyond their view. A new fear emerges from this isolation and nakedness.
- The Foreign Language and Focus of Money
Consider the fear of being thrust into a foreign country unfamiliar with the local language and customs. This is what combat feels like, especially in rural Afghanistan. I felt this fear but overcame it with my trusty interpreter by my side. Almost overnight, upon separation, the word entrepreneurship and its associated moneylanguage, rarely spoken in the military, become the veteran’s new native tongue. Scale, venture capital and valuation replace phase line, time on target, and mission command. I and my soldiers were good stewards of our allocated Army budget but we never lost sleep over cashflow or meeting payroll. Finances received little attention, especially after 9/11 where the military seemed to operate from a government blank check. We received our standard pay and allowances instead of negotiating a compensation package. To this day, three years into my own entrepreneurship journey, I’m still uncomfortable with this focus on money. I have mentors to turn to but they’re not at arm’s length.
While some battles have been lost, the war -- veterans as entrepreneurs-- is not. This fear can be defeated when veteran entrepreneurship is treated as a journey and not a one size fits all class or evening networking event. It starts with self-awareness and passion alignment. It then requires mentorship from engaged former military and civilian business mentors. Mentors must develop trust and actively and constantly challenge the veteran bolstering their courage and keeping them on task. “Call if you need me” will not work. Experienced teachers must transform the veteran’s risk management process and teach the new language of money. Vignettes of successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs should be studied. Repetitive exercises, like rifle drills, in business planning and operations should be conducted. We must find ways to replace the teamwork and trust once enjoyed in uniform with a new team of brave, risk-taking, mentors, coaches and trainers.
Veterans fought for the very freedom entrepreneurship provides. They ought to enjoy what they fought for. Emboldened by a new approach to risk, new businesscomrades and entrepreneurial language skills, they can muster the courage to overcome the obstacles of starting a business becoming America’s next generation of entrepreneurs.
Colonel Rob Campbell
Rob Campbell is the founder of Investing in People Consulting and Coaching LLC. A leadership entrepreneur, Rob speaks, writes and coaches on leadership in the modern workplace. He is the author of It’s Personal, Not Personnel, Leadership Lessons for the Battlefield and the Boardroom. Rob is a 27-year Army veteran with combat service in Iraq and Afghanistan. Under Rob’s leadership, his 5,000-person infantry brigade achieved Army-leading (number one of 34 brigades) results in personnel performance, soldier retention, promotion selection rates and other leadership accomplishments.
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