Veterans startup pitch event
Veterans startup pitch event
Volunteering & Giving
December 7, 2016

From Soldier to CEO: Entrepreneurship lessons from the military

Through the support of Wells Fargo and two national nonprofits, veteran entrepreneurs are learning how to transition their military skills to the business world, and help fellow veterans along the way.

When confronted with his mortality and the safety of his platoon every day for 15 months in Iraq, former Army Capt. Blake Hall learned to get comfortable making difficult decisions amid chaos.

Those skills have come in handy now that he is a civilian business owner, though the weight of his decisions doesn’t have the same weight as it did during his days in service.

“It’s all about perspective,” Hall, a former member of the elite Army Rangers, said about the challenges of being an entrepreneur. “No challenge has the same magnitude as the prospect of losing a life.”

Motivated by a desire to serve the veteran community, Hall founded in 2009. The digital wallet allows veterans and others to manage their digital identities via a single login, which streamlines the process for applying for various services and discount programs online.

Blake Hall
Blake Hall

“I realized veterans had to carry around a paper document to verify their status in order to receive benefits,” Hall said. “It’s unsafe and even counterproductive to expose veterans to the vulnerability of carrying around that type of information.”

Through the support of Wells Fargo and two national nonprofits, Hall and other veteran entrepreneurs are learning how to transition their military skills to the business world, and help fellow veterans along the way.

Accelerating veterans’ businesses was selected among 10 veteran-founded technology startups that pitched their technologies at the Veterans Startup Pitch event sponsored by Wells Fargo and national nonprofits Bunker Labs and VetsinTech. The selected companies earned the opportunity to collaborate with Wells Fargo in its innovation lab for 90 days; they also receive resources — such as support, talent, meeting space, and mentoring — from the two nonprofits.

Wells Fargo board member and retired United States Air Force Maj. Gen. Suzanne “Zan” Vautrinot shared opening remarks at the pitch event, noting how important it is for veterans to support each other.

Suzanne “Zan” Vautrinot
Suzanne “Zan” Vautrinot

“Those who have served in the military represent a special group. Their ability to make tough choices, lead under pressure, and think strategically is of great value to businesses,” said Vautrinot, who continues to mentor and advocate for veterans in the startup space. “It’s important to advocate for veteran entrepreneurs as they channel their desire to serve into the mission of their companies.”

Continuing public service through business was the main motivation for Mike McNerney, co-founder and CEO of Efflux Systems, a cybersecurity startup that offers tools to filter through the noise of repeated cyberattacks in order to more quickly detect and respond to specific threats. Efflux was the other company from the Veterans Startup Pitch event selected to collaborate with Wells Fargo.

“I’ve always known I wanted to help the world, whether by advocating for women’s rights with the State Department or social justice issues in Afghanistan. My transition to Silicon Valley provided an avenue to make a major impact outside of the government space,” said McNerney.

McNerney served in the U.S. Air Force for four years and worked as an attorney and cyber policy advisor for the government before transitioning to the private sector.

“Veterans have grit and a determination to serve their country, but they often don’t know where to start when returning to civilian life,” said McNerney, whose company is comprised primarily of veterans. “Narrowing your focus to a specific industry will help fuel and sustain that drive.”

Leadership lessons

Both Hall and McNerney noted the value of the military in helping lead their businesses.

“The military is a phenomenal lab to learn the art of decision making,” said Hall. “I learned that no decision will ever be perfect. You make a choice based on the information you have, and you move forward.”

McNerney pointed out the value of adaptability, whether at war or in the boardroom. In both, leaders experience thrilling highs and extreme lows, but it’s their responsibility to remain even-keeled in order to lead their team past any obstacle, he said.

Mike McNerney
Mike McNerney

“In business, leaders can experience disheartening lows. I’m always honest with my team when the future looks scary, but it’s my job to set a tone of optimism and keep people moving forward,” said McNerney.

Hall and McNerney also agree that a willingness to learn from the expertise on their teams is another key leadership skill learned from the military.

“We had to quickly learn new technologies on the field, all with bullets whizzing around,” said Hall. “If you can lead a team in that setting, you can lead a team anywhere.”

A collaborative path forward

Hall and McNerney’s companies will spend three months collaborating with Wells Fargo innovation teams to refine their product offerings and glean best practices by working with a Fortune 500 company.

“This is definitely a mutually beneficial opportunity for Wells Fargo and these two veteran-founded startups,” said Rich Baich, Wells Fargo Chief Information Security Officer and a former U.S. Navy officer. “They get an inside look at how our broad, diverse customers drive our technology decisions. And we, in turn, learn insights from these bright, forward-thinking companies.”

“This program gives us access to resources and the opportunity to build relationships that would have taken a year for us to develop,” said Hall.

McNerney added, “As a young company, there are many things we can learn from a large financial institution like Wells Fargo that will help us become a better company over time. Plus, it’s a great opportunity to meet other veterans — like Rich, Blake, and Zan — along the way.”

The Veterans Startup Pitch event is one of many Wells Fargo initiatives that support the military community. Wells Fargo has donated more than $70 million over four years in support of military service members, veterans, and their families through housing initiatives, career transition programs, financial education, foundation donations, and event sponsorships.