Air Force Vet's Biz Plan: Use Returning Soldiers To Improve Tech

Jan 6, 2016

Air Force veteran Chris Jackson works on his plan to improve combat technology by involving veterans in product development.
Credit Chris Morisse Vizza

Myriad national and state programs aim to connect military veterans and employers.

The difficulty, say veterans and employment professionals, is making the transition to civilian life from a structured environment where each member of a team has a clearly defined mission.

U.S. Air Force veteran Chris Jackson survived 12 years disposing of explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I went into the military and did specifically what I did because I wanted to make sure the people that were there got home,” he says.

As challenging, and potentially deadly, as that work was, Jackson says his transition to civilian life since 2014, and finding a career that provides the same sense of purpose, has been daunting.  

Dissatisfied with a traditional job, Jackson enrolled in Purdue University’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities, one of ten in the nation that host programs designed to help veterans shape their passions into a career path.

Jackson entered the boot camp wanting to use his military experience to help solve problems he encountered in the Middle East, such as a surveillance drone that couldn’t operate in desert conditions. 

What my company or organization plans to do is bring those end users in the defense sector into the product development stage,” he says.

Jackson brought a business plan to Purdue’s Krannert School of Management.

Experts on campus, members of local coworking studios, other veterans and volunteers coached the physically and psychologically injured participants on all things business, from testing the value of an idea, to marketing, development and operations.

Jackson’s concept of connecting contractors with skilled veterans to field test combat-ready technology moved from non-profit, to for-profit, back to non-profit during the intensive eight-day course. 

“I was sacrificing my entire vision and desires just so I could make a business work,” he says. “When I expanded my view and said I don’t have to sacrifice these things, I was able to realize that you can meet a social need.”

Concerned Veterans for America CEO Pete Hegseth addressed Jackson’s class. He says the job market is difficult for veterans, and completing an entrepreneurship mission requires extra grit. 

“When it’s you, and a vision, and a passion, and a small bank account, and a few dedicated few that are willing to go forth with you, you learn a lot about entrepreneurship,” he says.  “But it is ultimately, I think, what you learned in the military that will usually help you push through.”

During his final presentation on the last day of boot camp, Jackson confidently tells a panel of three judges about his business plan, and where he will be in ten years.

He says he’ll be running a program at Purdue University in which highly-skilled veterans help develop defense technology the university can commercialize. The veterans also will have access to a support system, as well as educational opportunities.  

One month later, in a conference room at the public library near his home in Zionsville, Jackson works toward his vision. But there’s a twist.

He’s partnering with Indiana’s Operation: Job Ready Veterans to obtain funding to expand programming and connect with veterans early in their transition to civilian life. 

“We want to make as early as possible contact with them, pair them up with a peer mentor,” he says. “From there, we utilize the already existing Indiana resources within the state in employment, entrepreneurship and in education, and we create a transition plan for them.”

While Jackson works to create a smoother transition for future veterans, he says he continues to consult with mentors on developing his original idea.

Purdue alumnus Pete Kay, a management consultant who volunteers with his wife in the program, says Jackson’s struggle to define his plan is not uncommon. 

“In the case of the gentleman from Zionsville who appeared to have morphed his interests more than once, at the end of the day, the objective remained the same,” he says.

“How do I help fellow veterans find employment, and how do I help the interface between the research bench and what the person out on the battle field needs in terms of equipment?”

Kay and his wife Sally have shared their expertise in business and entrepreneurship with participants of four EBV classes at Purdue.

Sally Kay says Jackson’s focus on networking with potential business partners, employees, customers and investors, is an important part of the learning curve, especially for veterans who aren’t accustomed to asking for help.

Jackson says he still wants to source returning veterans and their field knowledge to solve problems those troops faced overseas. 

But he’s not sure how or when he’ll start his company.

“I tell people I don’t care how this works,” he says. “If it works as a not-for-profit. If it works as a for-profit. As long as it gets out there. It’s valuable enough and it needs to happen.”

Entrepreneurship – like the transition from military to civilian life -- is not linear, he says.