Despite their exceptional sacrifice and service to our country, many military veterans have a difficult time transitioning to civilian life. For many, the central challenge is around navigating the community-based services that were generally provided for you while in the military. At the top of that list is finding a new career post-military, which, if difficult, can contribute to hardships in other areas of life, including depression and homelessness.
Veterans are amazing assets that employers should actively seek when building a team. However, part of the problem with finding a job after service is the misconception employers have around hiring veterans. Many HR leaders believe vets are rigid, “agentic,” and lacking in emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. They’re perceived as doers, but not leaders and are often typecast into roles where they deal with things, not people. As a result, vets are 38% more likely to be underemployed — working in roles that don’t fully utilize their skills and abilities.
The reality is these assumptions couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the skills we, as veterans, learn in the military make us some of the best organizational leaders — and thus extremely well-suited for entrepreneurship.
After spending 17 years in the U.S. Air Force Reserves as a pilot, my fellow veteran co-founder, Taylor Justice, and I leveraged our military experience to start a company, Unite Us. While we originally began coordinating veterans’ health and social care needs, connecting them through technology with the fragmented community resources to support their transition to civilian life, Unite Us has since grown nationwide to serve people of all walks of life — civilians and veterans.
Veterans already possess many of the skills and attributes needed to be a successful entrepreneur — including having courage.
Our success is not unique: Data shows CEOs with military experience are more likely to deliver strong performance than nonveteran leaders, resulting in a higher average rate of return than the S&P 500.
So, what is it about military experience that lends itself so well to entrepreneurship? If you’re a veteran who’s considering starting your own company, here’s how to put the skills you’ve learned to work in starting your own venture.
- Sense of purpose. Veterans have a deep sense of connection to the mission and commitment to getting the job done. When there’s so much riding on accomplishing the mission, we’re accustomed to wearing many hats and very adept at cross-functional operations. In the spirit of the mission, we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and do whatever it takes to make it a success. In launching a startup, you will likely encounter many roadblocks and challenges from securing funding to building teams or evolving your solutions to meet the market’s needs. That inherent perseverance we learn through the military is incredibly valuable in navigating challenges under pressure.
- Team building. The reality of military service is that even if not everyone agrees with the mission or the tactic, you’re very often tasked with rallying the troops around the shared goal anyway. This ability to make tough decisions, have conviction to stick with them and build consensus and buy-in is essential in entrepreneurship. Even with the best idea, you will encounter naysayers. Having the ability to get everyone together on the same page is vital to the perseverance it takes to overcome those barriers.
- Resiliency. In every branch of service, individuals are held to perform to the highest standards. As a pilot, you are pushed to the limits in years of training to ensure you can meet the demands of the job, which are life and death. By nature, military service builds tenacity, toughness and intestinal fortitude — all of which are essential in entrepreneurship. Whether it’s figuring out how to navigate around a burned-out bridge to moving critical supplies or addressing a technical challenge in your new software launch, veterans are conditioned to solve complex problems in real time to keep things moving forward.
- Agility. In the military, things frequently change at a moment’s notice — shifts in strategy and expectations force teams to change gears and reconfigure their priorities. Almost every mission we flew at war had unexpected pivots and we had to turn our mindset and mission on a dime. This ability to adapt to meet changing conditions is extremely valuable in launching a new company. Our company is a great example: We started out working exclusively with veterans and soon realized the potential audience for our service was much, much larger. We were able to take the model we had established and adapt and deploy it to fit the needs of the entire nation.
- Skills beyond the tactical role. Many vets think they should stay within the realm of their military tactical role when starting a company. But this can be a mistake, and vets shouldn’t be limited to those roles. It’s highly likely that as a military member progressed in rank, they also developed leadership and training capabilities, coordinated deployments and managed teams — all of which are applicable across a wide range of industries or roles. Not to mention, military members usually don’t have a say in choosing their tactical role as most assignments are based on need. In my case, the work I’m doing today has nothing at all to do with being a pilot, and I think our success as a company is a testament to the fact that you don’t have to stick with what you solely have been trained to do.
If you’re a vet who’s ready to make the leap into entrepreneurship, here are a few tips to help you get the best possible start.
- Take advantage of veterans benefits. The Department of Defense, Veterans Administration and other government agencies offer programs to help you get started. The Boots to Business program offers education and training in business ownership through the Small Business Administration to transitioning service members, including National Guard and Reserve service members and their spouses. The Small Business Administration and state small business associations also offer support for veteran-owned businesses, including contracting opportunities, business plan development, and funding through grants and special loan programs.
- Seek out a mentor. Because of the close-knit camaraderie we develop in the service, vets very often turn to and trust other vets for support and guidance. In my case, it was another pilot in the Navy who was a trusted adviser as I was going through business school and beyond. It’s so important to have this different perspective when starting a company, but coming from the lens of someone who knows your hidden strengths and attributes and how to leverage them.
- Tap into your network. Military service can feel a bit isolated from the business world, so you might think you have no connections when it comes to finding a mentor, resources, partners and more. However, we are a band of brothers and sisters and fighters, and we want to help one another succeed. Reach out to fellow vets through LinkedIn or local groups and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Veterans already possess many of the skills and attributes needed to be a successful entrepreneur — including having courage. Entrepreneurship should be uncomfortable, test your limits, and push you beyond your comfort zone. Just like the satisfaction you felt from a mission accomplished, building your own successful venture can be the most rewarding and satisfying career move and life experience.