“The military is more diverse than the general population,” says Phil Dillard, speaking on the state of veterans in tech at the Tech Inclusion Conference in October 2016. “It’s far more diverse than the tech community on a racial or ethnic basis.”
Phil should know. He spent seven years as an active duty member of the United States Navy, and did two different tours to the Western Pacific and Arabian Gulf. After his return, he went to business school and got an MBA, did some consulting, before heading the Military Veterans Network at Charles Schwab — an ERG of about 1200 people across the country.
An educator, entrepreneur, and lean startup trainer, Phil now runs VETCON, a veteran entrepreneur (vetpreneur) conference. An annual gathering of visionaries, hustlers, and game-changers from around the world, VETCON’s goal is to promote and provide massive value to the international community of veterans who run their own businesses.
Despite the military’s far superior diversity numbers compared to tech, Phil says that stereotypes and stigmas prevent many veterans from getting hired and then making advances in technology companies.
“We’re a healthy community that’s ready to go to work,” Phil says. According to a survey about the perception of health status of military veterans, the average American thinks that 60–75% of military veterans have TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) or PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).
“The actual number is around 13%,” says Phil. “So these people who are healthy and ready to go out and work — people fear that they have the inability to work, or that they’re not ready to come to work. This becomes an excuse not to think about hiring and advancing military veterans.”
And this is a big loss, according to Phil. “An important thing to know about military veterans,” he says, “is that we’re learners who thrive on education and training.” The military spends a lot of money on training and preparation, and this leads to a ton of knowledge in high technology realms. “There are all types of systems that people are running throughout the armed forces. And it’s young people who are doing this.”
And it’s those young people (the average age to leave the military is 26) who are ideal candidates to move into the civilian tech world and make a big difference. Because of their military experience working in highly uncertain situations with high risk and high stress, Phil says, “you have to engage with your team regardless of how they come to work. [You learn about how] you’re going to be successful as a team.”
How do we overcome the myths and stereotypes about veterans and help folks make the transition from a military career to a tech career? Phil thinks there are three simple steps.
First is to shift your thinking. “Think about this from your own perspective and your own assumptions, what you know and don’t know about military veterans,” Phil encourages all of us. “People don’t want a hand out. They’re not heroes or victims; they’re just human beings who are trying to move forward in this important career transition.” The more we can see veterans as allies in similar situations to other types of untapped talent the better.
Second, Phil asks that we look inside our organizations for insight into successful transitions and use those folks as models. “Dispel some myths and create opportunities,” he says, “whether we’re talking hiring or as partners — or however else they may help your organization.” In other words, be an internal ally and activist for veterans.
And third, we can use the plethora of veteran service organizations that specifically focus on helping people transition to jobs and entrepreneurship. “Engage veteran talent outside your organization,” Phil says. There are experts out there who are at the ready to help place highly skilled veterans in technical roles.
Phil has started a Facebook page, Bay Area Brave, to share the positive stories of transition. “We’re putting information out there that shifts the narrative around who we are,” Phil says, “how we can be a better part of the organization, and how we can help drive inclusion inside the organization as a result.”
“It’s so much better to help someone start a company than it is to thank them for their service.”
Today's environment for US Military Veterans is a unique one. Even after over a decade of continuous war in Iraq, Afghanistan and dangerous global hotspots, public sentiment for our veterans remain extremely positive and supportive. Through charitable events and organizations, sporting events, and daily interactions on the street, Military Veterans today return to an atmosphere of genuine respect and appreciation, often punctuated by a heartfelt "Thank you for your service".
Phil Dillard is an entrepreneur, innovation consultant, and navy veteran who teaches skills like leadership and strategy to business executives. He's also a black man who grew up and lives in America. Phil shares some of his perspectives surrounding racism in America and suggests 12 different ways to help create justice and equity for all people.