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4 Entrepreneurship Lessons We Can Learn from Our Veterans

November 11, 2021
Ty Smith - Founder of VRS (source:
Source: Ty Smith – Founder of VRS (

By Tim Young, Forbes

When investors picture an entrepreneur, military veterans might not be the first people who come to mind. But the qualities that help startup founders succeed are exactly what you’ll find in most veterans. Sean Lane of Olive (an Air Force intelligence officer), Blake Hall of (Army ranger), and Taylor Justice of Unite Us (Army infantry officer) are just a few examples of veterans who have built unicorns—and there are dozens of others who have transitioned from serving their country to leading highly successful companies.

To better understand the parallels between military service and entrepreneurship, we spoke to four such veterans-turned-entrepreneurs (in one case, a veteran-turned-entrepreneur-turned-investor).

High Stakes Leadership

“The burden of leadership in war is the heaviest a human being can feel,” Ty Smith, a former Navy SEAL, who deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan six times and is now founder and CEO at CommSafe AI, said. “The results of your leadership dictate whether people live or die.”

Outside of a warzone, a startup CEO’s burden of leadership is one of the highest stake roles—their team’s jobs and careers are resting on their shoulders. Smith felt that the “servant leadership” he developed leading a SEAL platoon has translated seamlessly into the high-stress context of leading his team at CommSafe AI. Putting your team ahead of yourself is a principle the very best CEOs and the majority of military leaders embrace.

The military gives young officers unprecedented leadership opportunities that might only be realized by someone decades more senior in the private sector. Tim Hsia, a former platoon leader in the U.S. Army, who deployed several times to Iraq and is now a managing partner at Context Ventures as well as founder/CEO at Media Mobilize, noted, “there aren’t many places where 21-year-olds can expect to find themselves at the head of a 45-person team.” And no matter how stressful it can be to run a startup, the experience pales in comparison to risking your life on the battlefield.

Viola Carmona, a former aviation maintenance administrator in the U.S. Navy and now founder and CEO at Champion Lender, added that until she joined the Navy, she “never really understood the meaning of ‘leadership’— what it meant to persevere and work for something that’s greater than myself.”


The U.S. military is one of the most diverse organizations in the world, both socioeconomically and racially. Those who thrive and lead in this environment become leaders who can relate to and motivate almost anyone.

Alok Chanani, a former platoon leader in the U.S. Army, who deployed to Iraq, and is now co-founder and CEO of BuildOps (a technology platform for contractors in industries like HVAC and plumbing) highlighted this principle in our conversation, sharing that in combat – divisions like income or race are immaterial. Working together around the clock in a high-risk combat situation very quickly forces everyone to focus on the only thing that matters – taking care of each other at all costs. That, in turn, prepared him to not just lead people from diverse backgrounds, but also to “connect with people on a far more profound level.”

Being ALL IN

“We have a saying that ‘anything worth doing is worth overdoing,’” Smith said. “Anything we do is 150%. In entrepreneurship, you had better commit to everything you are doing.”

Chanani said he expects his employees to have a similar commitment to the company. “I think that the mindset of being an owner, being a leader, making this a lifestyle, that’s how we think about hiring,” he said. As he did as the Commander of his unit in Baghdad, Chanani views his company as a team first, moving towards the target with the same mindset.

Grit and Purpose

It’s not always a smooth transition from service to entrepreneurship. Smith, Carmona, Chanani, and Hsia all recalled periods after leaving the military when they were trying to adjust psychologically and emotionally to civilian life.

They were also looking for direction. Carmona said that after leaving the Navy, she wasn’t satisfied with working in a mortgage call center: “You’re always wanting to do more, you’re always wanting to push.” It was, she said, “very unsettling,” and ultimately led her to start Champion Lender, where she aims to help underrepresented homeowners qualify for a mortgage.

Of course, once they found a new purpose through entrepreneurship, they still had to deal with all the challenges of being a startup founder (not to mention some people’s preconceptions about veterans). But they never let it stop them — something Smith attributed to his military experience.

“I don’t care how much it hurts, I don’t care how tired I am, I have to keep going,” he said. “I think veteran entrepreneurs have that edge … If I didn’t quit then, when people were shooting at me, I’m sure as hell not going to quit now.”

The Ideal Entrepreneur

Hsia said that it can be a “complicated” experience for a veteran to pitch a traditional VC. After all, “in every organization, you only understand people in your tribe,” so investors may look skeptically at a veteran who learned more from the streets of Afghanistan than the classrooms of Stanford.

But as we’ve shown here, anyone who backs a founder with service on their CV isn’t making a counterintuitive bet at all. Instead, they’re investing in someone who will fully commit to their startup, keep their team inspired in high-stress situations, relate to customers and employees from a variety of backgrounds—and who has the grit to to break through walls and succeed.


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