Understanding the value of military talent can be a complicated challenge — popular perception of the organization and its methods often leaves false impressions that the individuals who make the military run operate within a rigid framework, but the reality on the ground is often quite the opposite. In a sense, military service members have created these largely inaccurate impressions by being so good at what they do — bringing order to chaos. What seems like a structured, efficient operation on the surface actually requires levels of creativity, flexibility, and ingenuity that are difficult to imagine.
21st century warfare has redefined what we ask of our military. Rather than clear-cut, well-defined missions like ending the Nazi regime or pushing the North Korean army back across the 38th parallel, modern operations have pursued ambiguous outcomes like advancing democratic norms across the Middle East, preventing Iranian influence over the Iraqi military, or supporting the rights of Afghan women and children. Definitions of success have continually evolved, but our military has learned to operate and excel in this phenomenally complex matrix of social and political structures, cultural nuances, and shifting alliances.
Upon transition from the military, these leaders make ideal employees at high-growth startups. Military veterans possess a bias for action that makes them allergic to accepting the status quo. These are deeply mission-driven individuals whose profession requires dogged pursuit of a desired outcome. Well-acquainted with the axiom that “no plan survives first contact with the enemy,” they are adept at making decisions with incomplete and imperfect information, preferring to move forward and iterate rather than wait for operating conditions to become ideal. They possess a level of comfort with taking intelligent risks that the average nonveteran civilian can rarely relate to — when you hold the lives of others in your hands, you can’t afford to be indecisive.
The tech community is taking notice of the deep value of this talent pool. For the past two years via Shift’s Defense Ventures program, we’ve worked with 91 venture capital firms, startups, and incubators to facilitate 8-week externships which immerse Active Duty service members into the innovation economy. During these immersions, our Defense Ventures fellows have completed a wide range of projects, including evaluating startup pitches, conducting due diligence on potential investments, informing federal business development strategies, evaluating the dual-use potential of emerging technologies, conducting cybersecurity threat assessments, providing introductions to military subject matter experts, and informing organizational culture development.
In a startup context, military backgrounds can admittedly look unconventional because the relevance of a veteran’s experience isn’t always immediately apparent from their resume. Acknowledging this, the Department of Defense (DOD) has created an opportunity for companies to “try before you buy” via the DOD SkillBridge initiative. Active Duty service members can sign out of their units for the final 3-6 months prior to their separation from the military and work in the private sector at no cost to their host company. During this period, DOD pays their salary and benefits and if it’s not a fit, hosts can part ways amicably just like they would with any other intern. Historically though, it doesn’t take long for Shift’s SkillBridge interns to demonstrate their value — to date, 85% of them have converted to full-time hires.
This Veterans Day, Shift is working hard to expand awareness of and participation in this innovative program. We’ve assembled a coalition of dozens of leading venture capital firms who have committed to encouraging their portfolio companies to host SkillBridge interns. We’ve built an easy-to-use talent platform that tees up a pipeline of interview-ready SkillBridge candidates and is refreshed every two weeks with new profiles to select from. One of our coalition members, Insight Partners, is so dedicated to this effort that they’ve decided to underwrite a portion of this platform’s subscription fee for members of their portfolio who’ve signed Insight’s DE&I pledge.
With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan behind us, the post-9/11 generation of veterans is looking for their next mission to believe in. The best way to honor them is not by giving them a trite thank you and a pat on the back, but by affording them the opportunity to prove their value to your team. You’ll find that their leadership, ingenuity, and grit will make a lasting impact not only on your culture but on your bottom line as well.
Dan Savage is Vice President of Program Partnerships at Shift.org. A West Point graduate and combat veteran of the Iraq War, he has previously served as Head of Military & Veteran Programs at LinkedIn and Head of Founder Programs at Sequoia Capital.
Photo Credit: Lance Corporal Scott Jenkins, United States Marine Corps. The appearance of U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) visual information does not imply or constitute DOD endorsement.