Military veterans provide a new competitive advantage for tech companies

Ask any Silicon Valley CEO what some of their biggest challenges are and you likely will hear “finding and retaining great people.” Tech is booming, yet even now that valuations and financing rounds are coming back to earth, it remains incredibly hard to attract and keep talent amid a competitive ecosystem where there are so many companies going after massive ideas.

A few companies, however, have figured out a competitive advantage through a relatively untapped source of talent: military veterans — and the idea is starting to catch on.

While the tech industry has been rapidly expanding, the U.S. has seen large numbers of military veterans returning to or looking to enter the private sector. Tech companies can’t find enough skilled people, and veterans are looking for exciting careers to utilize their skills. It should be the perfect match.

But as I talked to a number of veterans looking for jobs in the tech industry, many were frustrated that employers often didn’t know how to interpret the relevance of their skills or appreciate their capacity for such all-purpose skills as rapid learning, leadership and pure smarts.

That realization nearly three years ago led me to cold-call a group called VetsinTech. I’m not a military veteran myself, but I wanted to help; as a venture capitalist, I get to work with a lot of people in tech companies. At the time, VetsinTech was just a small operation with a mission to help train, connect and find jobs for military veterans wanting careers in tech.

What happened next inspired all of us. Led by the indefatigable Katherine Webster and a host of champions from the tech community, such as Craig Newmark and Craig Mullaney (to be clear, you don’t have to be named “Craig” to help veterans, but we don’t mind the name either), VetsinTech started hosting career networking events with top tech employers. This included training workshops, mentor sessions and even hackathons to introduce to some of the most exciting tech companies across the country talented men and women who had served in our armed forces. Katherine pointed out recently that over the next five years, approximately one million servicemen and women will return to the workforce.

Military veterans are growing and, in some cases, transforming their careers at technology companies.

We also found that veterans make some of the best entrepreneurs. A 2011 Small Business Administration (SBA) study concluded that “veterans are at least 45 percent more likely than those with no active-duty military experience to be self-employed.” Mark Rockefeller, CEO and co-founder of StreetShares (and a veteran) noted that one organization has produced more business owners than any other: the U.S. military.

So we ran entrepreneurship programs to mentor, educate and network veterans. We even launched a new national initiative out of a White House and Joining Forces working group that we named “VetCap” (capital for veterans), with a workshop program to teach veterans where and how to raise capital for their businesses.

A number of titans in the tech world have stepped up, such as Marc Benioff, the founder and CEO of Salesforce. They have a great heart for helping veterans, but they’re also doing it to bring exceptional people into their companies. For a while, these efforts went unnoticed, but that is changing, and a growing number of companies are seeing this competitive advantage in talent acquisition.

LinkedIn recently worked with VetsinTech to sponsor an employer meet-up at Ten-X. In May, Joining Forces, under the leadership of First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, convened tech companies and announced “110,000 new hiring commitments and nearly 60,000 new training commitments for veterans and military spouses over the next five years, primarily in the fields of aerospace, telecommunications and tech.”

VetsinTech and its partners, like Intuit, Salesforce, Microsoft, Palo Alto Networks, Cisco, HPE, Ten-X and Accenture, were all in attendance to support the Joining Forces initiative. Palo Alto Networks and VetsinTech piloted a cybersecurity training program for veterans. Salesforce is running a training program for veterans called VetForce. Facebook has hosted a couple of hackathons for veterans, including the first ever hackathon for female veterans.

Overall, VetsinTech has grown to 12 veteran-led chapters across the U.S. in just three years, and gained support from more than 20 top tech companies to hire veterans and develop training programs.

Military veterans are growing and, in some cases, transforming their careers at technology companies in Silicon Valley and the rest of the country. There is more work to do, and still far too many qualified veterans looking for an opportunity. But if there’s one thing the tech industry is good at, it’s recognizing the power of extraordinary people, and tech companies have started to tap into a new talent source that will bolster them for the next big innovations ahead.