7 Veteran entrepreneurs reflect on how their service has made them stronger leaders

by April Bohnert
May 29, 2018
Colorado memorial day
Photo via Shutterstock.

Memorial Day is a time to honor those who have died in service of the U.S. armed forces. After taking a long weekend to reflect on their sacrifices and to enjoy the company of our friends and family, we wanted to take a moment to put the spotlight on the veterans who continue to make a difference in the Colorado tech community and beyond.

We talked to six local veterans about what they learned from their time in the military and how they bring those skills to the leadership table today.

 

CSG veteran leaders Colorado
Photos courtesy of CSG.

Bret Griess is CEO and president of CSG, which delivers revenue management, customer experience and digital monetization solutions for communications, media and entertainment service providers worldwide. Griess enlisted in the Air Force in college, where he studied computer operations in technical school. He was assigned to a combat communications squadron, before being stationed in Saudi Arabia in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. After returning home and completing his undergraduate and graduate degrees, Griess combined his passions for technology and business with the experiences he gained while in the military.

Senior software engineer Raymund Kubassek joined the Marines shortly after high school, with a focus on computer operations. After working on high-priority systems at a logistics base, Kubassek transitioned into the corporate world, where he continues to hone his technical skills.

We talked to these CSG leaders about how their military experiences have molded their leadership styles today.

 

What skills from your military experience carry over most to your professional work?

Kubassek: Many skills have led to my daily success, but a couple of the skills that I appreciate the most are the ability to step up and take control of a situation to get a job done using the best information available and owning the results of those decisions. Another skill that I value is the ability to listen and understand a given situation or requirement.

Griess: I only had a six-year enlistment, but the list of skills and experiences is very long. I don’t claim to have gained them all, but I gained a better understanding and respect for them, which motivates me to continue developing those skills. The key skills include: strategy, leadership, vision, passion and drive for constant improvement. Also, a respect for things that are proven to work, empathy, courage, judgment, emotional intelligence, integrity, focus, and attention to detail.

No two people are the same, and all people require an adjusted and unique approach to bring out their best."

How does your military background make you both a stronger leader and a stronger teammate?

Kubassek: My background in the military honed my leadership abilities, and this makes me better able to understand my team and best use my team’s strengths. No two people are the same, and all people require an adjusted and unique approach to bring out their best.

Griess: I had the opportunity to meet and see both military leaders and world leaders in action. If you witness people putting those skills and traits into action every day toward a goal, you’re much better prepared to do it yourself. Learning from experience, what went wrong and what went right — both as a leader and as a teammate — accepting what you must, changing what you can, all toward that greater purpose, is life changing.  

 

Team Rubicon veteran leaders Colorado
Photos courtesy of Josh Anderson and Matt Colvin.

Team Rubicon is a non-profit organization that connects the skills and experiences of military veterans with first responders to deploy emergency response teams to places affected by natural disasters. At the helm are several leaders with military backgrounds of their own.

Josh Anderson enlisted in the Marine Corp in 2002, shortly after 9/11, and spent five years and two deployments in the intelligence field, supporting operations in 15 countries as part of the CENTCOM theater reserve unit. He returned to his home state of Colorado in 2007, where he began nurturing a career in recruiting and team building. As head of talent management at Team Rubicon, Anderson brings together his recruiting experience with a mission that brings him deep gratitude and purpose every day.

Matt Colvin actually began his Air Force career on Sept. 11, 2001. After a year and a half of training, he went on to become a military translator. He deployed to Afghanistan twice in support of raid coordination, communications jamming and counter improvised explosive device missions, and served six years before leaving the service in 2007. Wanting to serve again, Colvin built a career creating cause-driven marketing initiatives to raise money for veteran nonprofits. He recently joined Team Rubicon as its head of partnerships.

 

What skills from your military experience carry over most to your professional work?

Anderson: While there are few concrete skills from my intelligence and special operations experience that have been particularly transferrable to my current work, there are a hell of a lot of intangibles that have carried over to my civilian career: an intrinsic motivation to be of service and to make a meaningful contribution; team-orientation, and trusting and respecting those around me implicitly; high expectations of leaders and little patience for bad leadership; constant improvement, and never being satisfied with the status quo or inefficiency; a refusal to do things that don’t matter; demanding a lot of people and giving even more in return; approaching challenges with grit and enthusiasm; seeing most “problems” as minutiae; being driven by values and principles, not by dollars; emotional intelligence trumps pedigree or title.

 

Colvin: My military career shaped the person I am today. I learned so much through the teachings of the military; it's ethos and it's values I carry with me daily. I was lucky enough to see the world and experience things I never thought possible when living in my hometown. I believe the military taught me to be entrepreneurial, to be a creative problem solver and to lead or work as a team to achieve goals. All these traits I honed while serving my country and expanded upon after leaving the Air Force. You're taught to communicate effectively under duress. You're asked to complete missions with, and many times without, all the equipment and manning you'd like to have. These skills are wholly applicable in the civilian world and that's why I'm a firm believer that military veterans and their spouses can be true leaders after service.

 

What has your transition from military to civilian life been like?

Anderson: When I first arrived back in Colorado, I found myself in the recruiting field. If I’m being honest, it was a marginal fit at best. I certainly didn’t feel competent, and I didn’t feel like I was occupying my authentic place in the world. Fortunately, I was surrounded by patient mentors who helped me become adequately competent at it over time.  And, thankfully, the recruiting field did help with the “connectedness” part of Junger’s Venn diagram.

Over time, I built competence and passion for building and developing teams. In the decade since I discharged, I’ve taken a lot of risks and had some amazing opportunities. I’ve worked with world-class organizations like Accenture and Google. I’ve helped rocketship organizations like SendGrid build their growth-stage teams. I’ve worked with a half-dozen earlier-stage startups, to varying degrees of success and failure.

Now, a decade after transitioning out of the Marine Corps, I’ve finally arrived at a place where I feel authentically connected to my work, where I feel like I’m of service again, and where I’m truly content with my place in the world.

We take care of our own and mold them into the next generation of leaders."

How does your military background make you both a stronger leader and a stronger teammate?

Colvin: In the military, you're taught to follow the chain of command. Along the way, you're asked to both lead and follow in some of the harshest environments and situations imaginable. Each military member is charged with taking care of him or herself along with the guys to their right or left. This shared responsibility molds men and women to be their best selves and to bring others on that journey of self-discovery.

 

Tripcents veteran leaders Colorado
Photo courtesy of Brantley Pace.

Brantley Pace is CEO and co-founder of Tripcents, an app that helps people save for and book travels around the world. He joined the Marines in 2010 and served four years in the infantry. After serving, Pace took a few months off to backpack China and Southeast Asia with his wife. He moved to Denver in 2014, where he became involved in the local startup community and later merged his love of both startups and travel into the company he runs today.

 

What skills from your military experience carry over most to your professional work?

Marines and veterans are uniquely suited for the startup world. The Marines have a culture of using limited resources to make big things happen. Big decisions are made with limited information, and teams work with the mentality that quitting isn't an option. That's a big part of launching a startup, too. You'll never have all the information needed and you'll always have less resources than you want. None of that matters as success has more to do with your actions than your circumstances. Our team of six includes three Marines, and that high level of grit and determination permeates throughout the team.

Marine leaders take care of their team's needs before their own. They eat last at meal times, making sure the team is fed first." 

How does your military background make you both a stronger leader and a stronger teammate?

Service-based leadership is engrained in all Marines. Marine leaders take care of their team's needs before their own. They eat last at meal times, making sure the team is fed first. And they lead by example in everything they expect from their team. It's the standard we have for all leaders at Tripcents. The team environment is similarly impacted by our military experience. Everyone works with the understanding that the team depends on each of us to deliver.

 

PV Ventures veteran leaders Colorado
Photo courtesy of Aaron Stachel.

Aaron Stachel is a principal investor at PV Ventures, a seed-stage venture capital firm based in Colorado Springs. After completing his undergrad at West Point, Stachel spent 10 years as a helicopter pilot in the Army. He began working toward his MBA shortly after returning from duty and worked at companies large and small, before joining his partner Bill at PV Ventures.

 

What skills from your military experience carry over most to your professional work?

I often had to make decisions based on incomplete or ambiguous information, and I learned that planning is important but execution is what accomplishes the mission. As an investor, I have to make the best decisions I can with the available information and then focus on execution. We invest so early there is little track record of execution, so we have to make a bet on the team. Although I don't lead a team of people now, the experience I had in the military provides a great perspective for evaluating and helping the management teams of portfolio companies. We're looking for leaders who are mission-driven and can build great teams to accomplish that mission.

There's no better place to get leadership experience than the military because it is filled with opportunities that will force you to grow."

How does your military background make you both a stronger leader and a stronger teammate?

There's no better place to get leadership experience than the military because it is filled with opportunities that will force you to grow. At 24 years old, I took command of an attack helicopter platoon in Korea. Although West Point and flight school prepared me for that, I still had no real experience, which forced me to learn quickly. I made a lot of mistakes and got to witness and work for a number of other leaders — both good and bad — all of which gave me the opportunity to improve as a leader. In the military, everything gets accomplished through teams. Everyone on the team has a role to play, but great team members take initiative to go beyond that role and do what it takes to help the rest of the team succeed.

 

Salute Mission Critical veteran leadership
Photo courtesy of Dave Cass.

Dave Cass spent 10 years on active duty in the Navy, serving as a lieutenant commander and aviator, and deployed twice in support of Operation Enduring and Iraqi Freedom. His last tour brought him to CU Boulder, where he taught and advised at the Naval ROTC — and where he continues to teach in the School of Business. Today, in addition to serving in the reserves, he is VP of business development for Salute Mission Critical, which leverages the talents of America’s veterans to help with data center projects around the world.

One thing I truly loved about military culture is the process of learning how to do something, doing that something and getting really good at it, and then giving back by mentoring and teaching those coming behind you."

What skills from your military experience carry over most to your professional work?

I lean on my Navy experience often. As an officer, I learned invaluable leadership and management. Something most people don't realize is that an officer is essentially a manager — a manager who does a dozen different jobs at once and never has the resources that he or she needs. Sounds like an entrepreneur doesn't it? As an aviator, I learned the risk management, rapid decision making and crew coordination.

From a cultural standpoint, the Navy is where I learned to love cultures of mentorship and teamwork and I'm still drawn to these type of cultures today. One thing I truly loved about military culture is the process of learning how to do something, doing that something and getting really good at it, and then giving back by mentoring and teaching those coming behind you. That process is the cycle of mentorship and works amazingly outside the military. You see this spirit in cultures like Techstars, which is what drew me to that community.

 

How does your military background make you both a stronger leader and a stronger teammate?

As an entrepreneur, I founded Uvize, a technology platform that was started to deliver mentorship to military veterans returning to college. Uvize went through Techstars in 2013 and has evolved beyond higher education and was acquired in 2016. I now work as VP of business development for Salute Mission Critical, an education and training platform that trains military veterans to transition to become engineers and operators in the mission-critical data industry. We deploy teams all over the world.

 

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