Independence Day offers an ideal opportunity to learn from the men and women who have made it their mission to protect and serve our country. These four veteran business owners parlayed their military experience into running successful companies.
Veteran Business Owners Can Make a Difference
Born in Taipei, Taiwan, Captain Sonny Tai, U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, learned about his life's calling at a young age.
"My father passed away from asthma when I was 3 years old. When I was 5, I had a severe asthma attack that landed me in the intensive care unit for a week," says Tai. "At the hospital, my mother told me bedtime stories. One was about political unrest in the Mideast and how the U.S. military went in and saved the day."
That story stayed with Tai, whose family immigrated to America when he was 13. At 18, he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps.
I learned from SEAL training the ability to persevere through hardship when there doesn't seem to be an end in sight. This outlook was crucial in the beginning years of my business when cash flow was tight.
—Eric Basu, retired U.S. Navy SEAL Commander, CEO, Sentek Global
"I joined out of a patriotic sense of duty to my adoptive country," says Tai, who served as an active duty officer and reservist from 2004-2013. Recently, he returned to the Marine Corps Reserves.
Now the CEO and co-founder of Aegis AI, Tai started the company in 2018 with co-founder Ben Ziomek. The company's technology enables existing security cameras to automatically identify gun threats and trigger an alert, potentially saving lives.
The roots of Tai's business also started in childhood. In 1992, he and his mother and sister moved to South Africa, where the air quality was better for his asthma. Although the experience was generally positive, he became troubled by the high rate of gun violence in the country.
Tai believes that Marine training helps veteran business owners like himself run a successful company.
"As a Marine, you learn to put your team before yourself," he says. “Good leadership and teamwork enable you to succeed."
SEAL Training Can Lead to Success for Veteran Business Owners
When retired U.S. Navy SEAL Commander Eric Basu decided to join the military as a young man, he chose the most challenging position he could think of. He served as a SEAL (Naval Special Warfare Officer) from 1989-1997 and in the SEAL Reserves from 2001-2005.
Basu started the cybersecurity firm Sentek Global in 2001 out of his home after working various consulting jobs and for a startup. Today the company, for which he is CEO, employs nearly 200 people and has offices in several states.
"At the startup, I met other entrepreneurs, including one who become my friend and mentor," says Basu. "The entrepreneurs I met were all in charge of their destinies, and that's something that appeals to veteran business owners."
For Basu, the skills he learned while serving as a SEAL have translated well to running a business.
"I learned from SEAL training the ability to persevere through hardship when there doesn't seem to be an end in sight," he says. "This outlook was crucial in the beginning years of my business when cash flow was tight, and we didn't have any consistent year-to-year contracts."
Leadership training in the SEAL Teams also translated to business ownership, as did the drive to excel in his field.
"Starting a business is a much more common path for veterans than it was 20 years ago," says Basu. "This is benefiting our society with new and innovative products, services and ideas."
Helping Fellow Veteran Business Owners Achieve their Dreams
Jaynine Howard served in the U.S. Marine Corps for 20 years as an administrator from 1982 to 2002. She discovered during her service that many members of the military don't look ahead to their futures after serving.
To help fellow veteran business owners realize their dreams and reach their full potential, Howard began her business coaching company, Dream Catcher, in 2006.
"In the Marine Corps, there is a procedure manual for each job, but that isn't the case in the private sector," says Howard. "I used my presentation and training skills learned in the military to help business owners create procedure manuals, employee handbooks, marketing and business plans and their social media strategies."
Howard also hosted workshops and retreats for business owners. This led to her being asked to host a radio show aimed at military members leaving the military in 2011. The successful show focused on veteran employment and included interviews with hiring managers.
In 2016, Howard decided to rebrand her company to JJ Howard & Associates and focus on offering career coaching and resume writing services aimed at veterans.
"Veteran business owners like myself, with veteran team members, understand the unique challenges veterans face when job hunting that civilians in their lives will never understand," says Howard. "Often, we're the only ones they can call who do understand."
Lessons Learned in Combat Translate to the Business World
After graduating from college with honors in 2007, James Ferguson joined the U.S. Marines as an officer on active duty for six years. In the spring of 2010, he deployed to Afghanistan, where his platoon conducted daily offensive operations in enemy territory.
During this time, Ferguson learned vital lessons that have served him well as CEO of Wild Bill's Olde Fashioned Soda Pop Co.
"The military, and especially our ground forces, place a tremendous amount of responsibility in the hands of young leaders," says Ferguson. "It's not uncommon for a 22-year-old E-4 to lead up to 12 team members in combat, with responsibility for their lives."
Such combat environments are unforgiving and dynamic, Ferguson says.
"Being a leader in combat forces you to get comfortable making sound decisions with limited information and resources," he says. "It's a great proving ground for entrepreneurship and makes for excellent veteran business owners."
Given the valuable skills service members possess, Ferguson's goal is to hire 100 NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) by 2021.
"NCOs include corporals and sergeants leading at the squad level," says Ferguson. "Many NCOs join right out of high school and don't have technical skills easily translatable to a resume, but they possess unparalleled leadership and team-building experience and the ability to creatively solve complex problems."
Ferguson has hired seven NCOs to date.
"The NCOs are key leaders across our company, and our success is largely based on their leadership," he says. "If we can bring greater awareness to the value that NCOs offer and inspire other companies to follow a similar track, we will have accomplished our goal."
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