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Wednesday, 14 January 2015 20:06

Team Rubicon founder: Entrepreneurs should seek out veteran talent

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Jake Wood Jake Wood COURTESY PHOTO

In 2010, Jake Wood wanted to use the skills he had learned as a U.S. Marine to better respond to the disastrous earthquake in Haiti. Wood saw an empty space for the skills learned by military veterans and emergency responders during emergency and humanitarian relief efforts.

The result: He created Team Rubicon, a California-based nonprofit organization that has launched 82 missions in disaster zones across the globe and has grown to include 25,000 past service members.

Wood will visit Grand Rapids on Jan. 20 as a keynote speaker for the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s 127th Annual Meeting at the JW Marriott. During the luncheon – which runs from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. – Wood will discuss his leadership philosophy and the importance of teamwork.

As more veterans return from duty overseas, Wood spoke with MiBiz prior to the event about the advantages of attracting former military members to the West Michigan business community and lessons he’s learned from entrepreneurship.


Companies across West Michigan have cited sourcing quality talent as their top priority. What are the benefits of hiring vets?

I think there are a lot. Veterans have demonstrated, by virtue of their service, the willingness to follow, which I think is important and an underrated skill in being able to lead. Most of them have an inordinate amount of leadership experience given their age. You get someone who is able to plug into the team and effectively fill any role on that team and who’s dedicated to the mission. I think it’s important for people to understand that the notions of military members as cogs in a machine (who) can only adhere to strict orders are a thing of the past.


What can companies in West Michigan do to make themselves more veteran friendly?

Quite honestly, they don’t need to do much. We’re not talking about people that need to have their hand held. The best thing that an employer can do is to make an effort to understand the veteran and not be afraid to ask about their experiences overseas. Having a common understanding is one of the most critical things for those vets to have a successful transition. I think that if that boss just gets to know those veterans that they’re hiring, they’re 90 percent of the way there.


Are medical conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a barrier to employment or a challenge for employers to overcome?

I certainly hope not. PTSD is not this unconquerable beast that a lot of people make it out to be. It’s a very rare occasion where it’s a debilitating circumstance. Most often, it’s something they learn to live with, similar to someone with diabetes, and it’s fully manageable. I always caution employers from reading about PTSD and drawing conclusions about what it means for anybody they’re looking to hire. … They might need to be flexible with time off so those veterans can take care of any medical issues they may have.


What was the biggest challenge you’ve run into as an entrepreneur?

We’re definitely a very high-growth organization, and one of the challenges we’ve faced is continuing to fuel that growth while taking those necessary pauses to build systems that make the business scale and be sustainable. I think we’re in a good groove right now where we are striking a fine balance.


Did you have any trouble sourcing the funding to start your organization?

It’s almost impossible for a startup nonprofit to find funding. Corporate foundations, in particular, are very risk averse and want to see evidence of sustainability and scalability. It’s a chicken-and-egg dilemma where you need funding to achieve both of those things, but can’t get it without them. We had to be really scrappy during the first two years to get to a point where companies were willing to take a chance, and even at that point, it was only one or two. Once you have a few people that have bought in, a larger group of funders become more comfortable. Now we can walk into just about anywhere and we know they’ll entertain a grant proposal.


What advice do you have to small business owners and entrepreneurs?

The best thing you can do is to pay strict attention to the team that you’re building. Be very selective of who you bring in at an early stage. Constantly evaluate how everyone is fitting in the organization. Make changes as necessary as soon as you identify changes that need to be made. If you put together a good team and articulate a compelling vision that makes them want to accomplish and see it through, then the rest of it are the details.

Interview conducted and condensed by John Wiegand. 

Read 4205 times Last modified on Wednesday, 14 January 2015 20:42

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