How savvy veterans are turning into successful entrepreneurs

“Our personnel aren’t taught just to follow rules,” General Rick Hillier (retired) said. “They’re taught to be successful at achieving missions.”

Two years ago, I placed my first-ever call to the Department of Veterans Affairs. With the Afghan war winding down, I suspected a new generation of young, skilled veterans — with incredible diverse and valuable experience — would soon be hitting the job market. Most will make very valuable employees. But what, I wanted to know, was the federal government doing to help vets start businesses?

Several days and a few phone calls later, the answer came back: Nothing. I made a mental note to move to a smarter country.

But last year I discovered Based in Business, a program founded by a group of students at Memorial University in St. John’s, Nfld. Privately, with the co-operation of the Armed Forces and the socially minded St. John’s business community, the free, week-long program has been turning retiring forces members from across the country into entrepreneurs since 2009.

This year, the good news is that the recently renamed and reinvigorated program has been expanded across Canada. The Prince’s Operation Entrepreneur, as it is now known, will be inducting three cohorts this year, at Memorial, Laval University in Quebec City (en français, naturellement) , and the University of Regina. The difference-maker seems to be the support of the Canadian Youth Business Foundation and Prince’s Charities Canada, a not-for-profit that channels the philanthropic interests of Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne.

The monarchy stepping in to do the government’s job seems counter to history as I learned it. But I’m delighted somebody is recognizing the importance of matching experienced forces personnel with their own businesses. Few veterans get much business training before serving their country, and this program — built on Based in Business’s model of hands-on training and mentoring from entrepreneurs — can help them learn the ropes fast and build trusted contacts whom they can call whenever they need help.

Still, I wondered how people trained to take orders in a rigid hierarchy would fare in the creative and more egalitarian world of entrepreneurship. So I talked to General Rick Hillier (retired), the outspoken Newfoundland-born soldier who rose to the highest rank in the Canadian Armed Forces as chief of the defence staff. He told me I should stop getting my ideas about today’s armed forces from World War II movies.

“Our personnel aren’t taught just to follow rules,” Hillier said. “They’re taught to be successful at achieving missions.”

In today’s forces, he says, “Everyone is a leader. We empowered everyone, from the crusty chief of defence staff to the special forces on the ground, to step up and be a leader.” Entrepreneurs are often told they need a vision, he said; similarly, forces members are taught to envision successful outcomes. To accomplish a mission, “You have to have a focal point, however far out it might be,” Hillier said. “We love strategic doers.”

As for entrepreneurs’ legendary rugged individualism, Hillier considers that advantage oversold. “You can accomplish much more by working as a team,” he says. (Consider the guerrilla squads of Jobs and Wozniak, Balsillie and Lazaridis, or WestJet’s founding braintrust.) “I think Canadian Forces members understand teamwork better than anyone else in the world,” he said.

Not only that, but good soldiers (and by that he also means sailors, air force personnel, rangers and special forces) are resilient. “They don’t let any little setback deter them. They know they’re going to get a bloody nose from time to time.” Whatever business they go into, entrepreneurs must be prepared for setbacks, he said: “You just get on with it.”

Finally, forces members are trained to use their common sense, Hillier said. If they think a mission isn’t going to work out, “they have the ability to look at it and say, ‘This isn’t going to fly.’ “

So, I asked: When did the stiff upper lip and “How high, SIR?” of my cinematic military heritage get replaced by this leaner, freestyle decision-making model? “It changed after the Cold War ended,” said Hillier, whose career stretched from 1972 (he enlisted at age 17) to 2008, and included heading up a tank regiment in West Germany and commanding the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. As the opposition ceased to be the massed armies of the first and second world wars, and became shadowy rogue groups intent not on pitched battle but isolated acts of terror, a change in management style was called for.

“We realized we were in a very different ball park,” Hillier said. “We had to instill and support common sense and initiative. Doing things the old way would lead to defeat.”

It’s a fascinating perspective that gets to the heart of entrepreneurship. Just as today’s powerful, portable and often improvised weaponry has changed warfare, so have technology and fast-changing markets revolutionized business. Small teams of entrepreneurs can move further and pivot faster than any army, getting prototypes into customers’ hands and collecting feedback before their larger counterparts can get approval for a pilot project. Both business and the military have adapted to changing conditions, and while size and power always have advantages, victory more and more accrues to those who truly know their targets, strike first, and learn the most from both failures and success.

For more information on the Prince’s Operation Entrepreneur, visit The program is seeking 55 participants for this summer’s cohorts; applications close May 31. Participation is open to those who will be leaving the armed forces in the next 12 months, have left the forces within the past two years, or have been medically discharged at any time.

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