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Basic Training for Tomorrow’s Entrepreneurs

The Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship, at Carnegie Mellon University, encourages service members to join the next generation of business leaders.

When Alden Mills, a platoon commander with the U.S. Navy’s Sea, Air, and Land (SEAL) teams, left the Navy in 1998, he knew he wanted to go back to school and, some day, start his own business.

“I had basically grown up in the military,” he says, “having gone to the Naval Academy, and spent my young adult life, my 20s, in the SEAL team. It was really important for me to find a school that could not only teach me the basics of business, but also teach me about the cutting edge of what was going on out in the world.”

Mills’ search for a business education led him to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pa., an elite school known for more than a century for innovation in technology and industry, as well as for its Tepper School of Business, ranked one of the nation’s top five business schools by The Wall Street Journal. Mills loved the tradition at Carnegie Mellon and the Tepper School – one of the first U.S. business schools to offer formal entrepreneurship education. He also liked the fact that it had a low student-to-teacher ratio. “I wanted access to a professor,” he says. “A lot of [schools] are really kind of MBA factories.”

The only thing that threatened to stand between him and the Tepper School, Mills thought, was his own lack of preparedness for graduate study in business. “I took the GMAT [Graduate Management Admission Test] when I was out at sea,” he says. “And I didn’t do that great on it. I took it four times. It was miserable.” In a telephone interview with the admissions director, however, he found that his GMAT® score wasn’t one of her major concerns. “She said, ‘I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about your leadership experience.’” While his classmates were some of the brightest young people he had ever met, with master’s degrees in engineering, Mills found he had a lot to offer them, as well. “It worked out to be a really good partnership between me and my classmates,” he says, “because I got to learn a lot from them and they got to learn a lot from me.”

Fostering the Pioneer Spirit

Mills’ circuitous post-graduate career eventually led him to co-found Perfect Fitness®, an innovative fitness equipment manufacturer that grabbed the top spot on Inc. magazine’s Fastest-Growing Private Companies List after growing its sales a staggering 14,605 percent, to $66 million, in 2008. In 2009, after an additional 12,749 percent growth, the company was the nation’s fastest-growing consumer product manufacturer. The dramatic success came after several false starts, and the loss of nearly all his investors’ original stake. It was a success, also, that could hardly have been predicted by Mills’ professors at Carnegie Mellon. “Quite frankly,” he says, “they took a risk on me.”

In the decade since Mills attended the Tepper School, its commitment to bright, capable military leaders has strengthened. Today the school profiles individual veteran students on its Web site, and views its active recruitment of former military personnel as part of its overall commitment to a more diverse and varied student body. “We believe,” reads the school’s site, “that our innovative and analytical approach to decision making, coupled with your tested and proven leadership and teamwork skills will enable you to make a strong transition into the civilian workforce.”

Among several unique features of the Tepper School is its Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship, which connects its students with faculty and professionals who have logged years of research and experience in five of the university’s world-class schools and colleges: computer science, engineering, fine arts, life sciences, and robotics. The teaming of business students with these experts encourages collaboration, innovative thinking, and learning through direct experience.

Dr. Art Boni, the Jones Center’s director, explained that within the school’s MBA program, there is an Entrepreneurship and Organizations “Track” for students who are serious about entrepreneurial careers – with start-ups, emerging companies, or within more mature organizations. Overall, about 10 percent of the Tepper School’s roughly 200 students choose this track, Boni says, and a good number of them are former service members. “We get a goodly number of people,” he says, “who come here with the idea of moving from a military career to a business career. And I view entrepreneurship as one route to that. We view entrepreneurship here as a way of thinking and acting, as opposed to the more traditional view of just founding a company. A lot of our students in general, go through the program with the idea of learning how to innovate in existing organizations, as well as to innovate through start-up and early-stage companies.”

The Jones Center’s interdisciplinary approach was just being developed when Mills went through the program. “They were linking up guys from engineering, design, and computer science with entrepreneurship,” he says. “They introduced us to the technology transfer office, which is fascinating. It’s like walking into a James Bond’s Q’s shop, because [Carnegie Mellon] is a heavy tech school. I mean, we played flag football once and had to stop the game because a robot came out on the middle of the field. It’s the real deal. You’d walk on campus and a four-wheel ATV with a satellite dish would go by you, with no one on it.”

When Mills launched Perfect Fitness in 2006, he combined the innovative and collaborative principles of the Tepper School’s entrepreneur program with the functional training methods he learned as a Navy SEAL. With his business partner, industrial designer Mark Friedman, he created the company’s flagship product, the Perfect Pushup® – a rotating handgrip that allows for a more fluid push-up motion and involves more muscle groups. Today, the company offers three additional products, with more in development.

Veterans as Entrepreneurs

In order to understand why military veterans maintain such a strong presence within the Tepper School’s entrepreneur program, says Boni, it’s important to understand the overlap between their experience and that of their classmates. “Our typical student profile,” he says, “is somebody who is at least about five years out of another program, who has about five years’ work experience. And basically they’re coming here with the idea of taking their career from what might have been, let’s say, somebody with a degree in engineering who was practicing in an active engineering field, to maybe getting into product management, or project management, or even a higher-level management field. I think the retired military officer kind of fits that profile – somebody who may have gone through a program like West Point and spent five to seven years in the military now coming back and getting an MBA.”

It may seem counterintuitive to think of military veterans, with their years of service in a top-down command structure, as entrepreneurs – but Boni attributes this thinking to a too-strict definition of entrepreneurship. “You want to think about entrepreneurship not just as starting up a company, but of giving you the skill sets to innovate in any organization,” he says. “If you look at the command and control structure, obviously it’s ingrained in the military organizational structure. However, in battlefield situations, the leadership structure is much more similar to an entrepreneurial organization, where people have to make decisions on the ground without going back through the command structure.”

Boni knows several West Point graduates who have become successful entrepreneurs. “They have done very, very well. They get things done. They have leadership capacity. They’re very adaptive. They’re willing to take risks.”

To Mills, whether one’s military service translates well into entrepreneurship is due entirely to how one chooses to apply it. “I’ll say it’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “Not all military backgrounds are perfect for entrepreneurship. I had some classmates who served aboard ships. Now aboard a Navy ship, you are a very small cog in one of the largest bureaucracies in the world … on the flip side, it’s also a fantastic environment to understand the things you don’t like about bureaucracy. You have to make do with less and get more done. That’s an entrepreneurial attitude.”

It’s also important to recognize, says Mills, that the military is, like any other organization, in the midst of profound changes. “We are in a military that’s now becoming very cutting edge, very much thinking out of the box … We’ve got the best soldiers on the planet, and that’s because they’re able to think on their feet. The SEAL team was fantastic for that. They’d give the actions. They’d tell you: ‘These are the objectives; you guys present … three plans on how to achieve them.’ I think the SEAL teams and other special operations [personnel] are extraordinarily entrepreneurial.”

Of course, Mills discovered an additional challenge upon leaving the Tepper School and entering the world of business: There is nobody to tell you the objective. You have to figure it out for yourself. “I spent the summer of 2002,” he recalls, “pulling my belly button out, looking inside to try and figure out: ‘OK, what do I want to do?’ The SEAL team made that pretty easy. They asked: ‘Are you ready to die for your country?’ And we said, ‘Absolutely. I will do that.’

“OK, well, what’s the same question in the civilian world? To me, it involved linking up a passion of mine: fitness, with a higher purpose. And the higher purpose, in my case, had to do with the fact that I was an asthmatic kid. I was slow. I wasn’t going to amount to anything physically in life, because I had such poor asthma and lungs. And I’ve watched what fitness did for me and how it changed my life. And I’ve always used fitness as a way to really change people’s lives and help them get the most out of their lives. Now I had passion with a purpose.”

The passion alone, Mills says, isn’t enough for an entrepreneur – it tends to burn out, even among the best of us, unless it’s about more than self-interest. “If you have a passion and a purpose together,” he says, “then you’ve got something that’s going to power you – your persistence engine, as I call it – to get through the hard times. Because there will be hard times, and a lot of perseverance and hard work that you’re going to have to apply.”

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...