"We had this one day event where we rounded up former Navy SEALs that have gone on to become successful consultants, bankers, and entrepreneurs. What happened was that you had two sides of the transition. You have the professional side and you have the transitioning veteran side and nobody knew how to bring them together. So for the first time, these people were put in the same room together and magic happened. It wasn’t like, ‘Ok guys you’re all going to go in there and look for jobs.’ It was, ‘Ok you’re all going to meet each other because that’s really important.’ And five job offers ended up coming out of it.”- John Allen
John Allen is the CEO of Elite Meet, a Non-Profit organization he co-founded along with Jordan Selleck that connects high performing, transitioning veterans, like Navy SEALs and Fighter Pilots, with companies who are looking to hire. He started out at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, after which he served in the Navy as a Navy SEAL for seven years.
Why to Listen:
There are so many reasons to listen to this episode. First of all, John faced an unexpected transition from Navy SEALs to his own civilian career. While had been planning on going to business school and then doing consulting work, things changed and he found himself with just eight weeks to find a job. Through that process, he started Elite Meet, which is a fantastic resource for transitioning veterans. We talk about Elite Meet, we talk about starting a non-profit, we talk about how to present oneself in the hiring process, and much, much more.
- StoryBox - People trust each other more than advertising. StoryBox provides the tools and supports businesses need to take the best things customers say about them, and use them to drive more sales and referrals. StoryBox offers a 10% discount to companies employing veterans of the US Armed Forces.
- Audible is offering one FREE audio book to Beyond the Uniform listeners. You can claim this offer here, and see a list of books recommended by my guests at BeyondTheUniform.io/books
- Elite Meet
- Hope for the Warriors and The Navy Seal Foundation were both mentioned as providing the initial funding for the first Elite Meet
Transcript & Time Stamps:
Today is Episode #155 with Elite Meet CEO John Allen. There’s so many reasons to listen to today’s episode. One of the interesting things about John’s story is that he had a very unexpected transition out of the military. He had a goal of going to business school and then consulting but that went out the window when he realized he was unexpectedly eight weeks from his separation and had to scramble to find a job. This lead him to start Elite Meet which is a tremendous resource particularly for the Special Operations and fighter pilot community. John talks about what it takes to run a nonprofit and effectively promoting yourself.
If you have time, it would be greatly appreciated if you could leave us a review on iTunes. It really helps me get this valuable information out to as many veterans as possible. So with that, let’s dive in to my interview with John Allen.
Johning me today from Virginia Beach, VA is John Allen. John is the CEO and founder of Elite Meet which has mentioned to me by Andrew Neuwirth and a couple other people I’ve had on the show. Elite Meet is a non-profit organization that connects high performing transitioning veterans with companies that are looking to hire. John went to school at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and went join the Navy where he served for seven years as a Navy SEAL.
How would you explain Elite Meet?
I spend a lot of time thinking about what Elite Meet is and what’s it’s going to be. But I think to really understand Elite Meet, you need to understand the beginning and how it came to be. Back in early 2017, I had been planning and preparing to go to business school. I was very set on Yale’s School of Management. My thought was that I would get an MBA and then go into consulting. That came after speaking to a number of former Navy SEALs that had made the transition before me.
If you back up before that, I was injured in Afghanistan in 2014. I had checked in with a new team and about 90% of the way through our deployment, I was impacted by a grenade. It landed in a puddle so that diffused it a little bit but I still got a bunch of shrapnel in my hip and leg and one of my arteries was nicked. I nearly bled to death. I ended up being medevaced from the country and through this process, I saw how all of this impacted my family. I was transferred from hospital to hospital and my family was initially notified because I had been hurt but then they weren’t given clarity on the extent of my injury or my location for 24-48 hours. This was my first deployment as a Navy SEAL. In a lot of ways because I had lived through this, I felt validated by the experience, like I was now a battle tested Navy SEAL. However, the psychological damage to my family was very severe because they realized how dangerous it was to be a Navy SEAL. I’m married and I started to realize that if I was going to leave the SEALs it would have to be after my first enlistment ran out.
All of this lead me to make a pivotal decision about my contract. Maybe the rational person would have chosen to stay in the military but I was watching the implications of that job and what it was doing to my marriage and to my relationship with my family. So I made the decision to get out in early 2015. I knew I still had another deployment ahead of me but that I would be getting out about two years later. I started reaching out to people in different fields. I planned on going to business school and then into consulting. It just felt like the right fit for me. I knew that once I got out, there would be the two years that I was actually in business school and then I would be able to get a solid job at Bain, McKinsey, or BCG. So that’s where I was at. Then in early 2017, I was in a training command prepping to get out in 2018. I got called into my commander’s office in February 2017 and was told me that I was getting out of the military in eight weeks. It caught me completely by surprise, I thought they had gotten the year wrong. What had happened was that there was a mistake made in how many months of extension time I had left. My contract was set to expire earlier than I thought. The gravity of it really hit me. My wife was pregnant at the time, we had a 1-year-old and a house and no plan for employment. But the decision for me and my family was that I was going to job hunt for the following 8 weeks and if I couldn’t find a job, I would re-enlist. The great irony was that all the research I had put in investigating the MBA route ended up being all for naught.
So I started a fairly frantic search for a job. I really felt consulting was the right job for me so I was really clueless at where to start when that wasn’t an option. I made a LinkedIn profile which stated that I was a transitioning Navy SEAL. I began reaching out to people. A close friend of mine is Elite Meet co-founder Jordan Selleck. He was friends with a guy named Austin who was at Harvard Business School at the time. Austin was off-the cuff complaining to Jordan about how difficult it was to find a job. He imparted on Jordan that as a military member, especially coming from a combat unit, the transition out can be quite challenging. There’s a huge transition phase. Jordan didn’t really believe it because he had no military background. So he went on LinkedIn and started cold calling former Green Berets, fighter pilots, and SEALs to hear about what they did after they left the military. I was one of the people Jordan reached out to. I told him I had no idea what I wanted to do but I would love some help. Jordan advised me that networking is often a key part of finding a job but my entire network was inside the military. So Jordan offered to round up a bunch of successful business people and entrepreneurs and I got together a bunch of people from the military side. We hosted a networking event in New York that was supported by the Navy SEAL Foundation and Hope for the Warriors. What happened was that you had two sides of the transition. You have the professional side and you have the transitioning veteran side and nobody knew how to bring them together. So for the first time, these people were put in the same room together and magic happened. It wasn’t like, ‘Ok guys you’re all going to go in there and look for jobs.’ It was, ‘Ok you’re all going to meet each other because that’s really important.’ And five job offers ended up coming out of it.
To come back to your initial question - What does Elite Meet do? We are not in the business of taking veterans and forcing them into a job and then taking credit for it. Our candidates are unique and if we give them access to potential employers, they can close the deal. We take credit for giving them the access but the candidates do the rest. Since then we’ve hosted 13 events, and as we look ahead to 2018 we’re hosting an event in the spring in Seattle as well as many other programs.
I really love that autonomy that you give your candidates to roam around at these events and figure out what is the right fit for them rather than forcing them into a position that might not be right for them.
What really happened after that first event in New York was that there were all these amazing veterans and then you have all these business people that have never interacted with that caliber of a person before. Obviously there are incredible people that leave the military from all different rates and ranks. But in these communities, it’s a very conscious decision to become a part of it. You don’t accidentally become a SEAL or a fighter pilot. You turn down other opportunities to put yourself on the front lines. So when you put that kind of a person in front of business people and influencers at the event in New York, the business people want to hire these people. I planned the logistics of the event with no template. But at the back end, I was getting job offers. So we decided early on is that we wanted all of our events to be planned by a transitioning veteran. Something that is vitally important in the special operations and fighter pilot community is your reputation. So we knew that nobody would be taking advantage of this free event if they knew that one of their fellow transitioning veterans was the one planning all of it. All of our events have been planned by the kind of veteran we’re looking to help. As they’re planning these events out, they get an enormous amount of exposure and they get the chance to show a variety of skills they possess. Everyone is accountable to each other and to the person planning the event.
Could you share a little more about your #committoone mentoring program?
The program takes companies that are interested in working with Elite Meet and connecting them to one transitioning veteran for a year long mentorship. We have so many people that want to help us. At some point, you run out of things for people to do. One thing that we were missing was formalizing a relationship between veterans and companies that wanted to help out. So we pair the transitioning veteran with someone from a career field they are interested in going into. Elite Meet monitors the relationship on a bi-monthly basis but that mentorship can be anything that works for the mentor and the mentee. I regularly get emails back from our candidates talking about how valuable the connection to their mentor has been. Ultimately, we want the mentor and the mentee to take charge of the relationship and make it something that works for them.
Have you seen any common mistakes veterans make in promoting themselves during the transition?
My team of writers that writes these profiles is my family. My father and sister are both Pulitzer Prize winners for writing they did about the Boston Marathon bombing. My mother is also a fantastic professional writer. And their way of contributing to Elite Meet is through writing these profiles. I think they understand that I left the military as much for me as I did for them. I loved being on the SEAL teams but with the injury, my career got cut short. We’ve done about four profiles now. We advertised internally about the profile writing service but we didn’t get much of a response. The idea of coming out and promoting oneself goes against the culture that exists within Special Operations. But there’s a great paradox with this way of thinking. When Navy SEALs get out of the military, they know that they can exploit that they were a Navy SEAL. So what happens here is that when you’re in the military you think that if you got out if would be easy to find a job because you were a SEAL. The problem lies in that nobody is going to know that you were a SEAL unless you’re willing to go out and promote yourself. Special Operations and fighter pilots don’t advertise themselves at all.
When I was getting out, it was difficult to put “Navy SEAL” on my LinkedIn profile because you’re taught from Day 1 that you should absolutely not tell people what you do. So I think it’s not being inexperienced at self-promotion, it’s that there is no promotion at all. At our events, I usually do a section on social media and I level with the crowd - usually about 30 transitioning veterans. I tell them that there will be a segment of employers that are very interested in them just because they are from this community. But there’s also an enormous group of people that don’t know you exist unless you’re willing to get yourself out there and promote yourself. I think it’s a matter of getting guys to the point where they’re willing to make a LinkedIn profile.
What kinds of companies are looking to hire veterans from this community?
On one hand, you have where the candidates interest lie. I would say at least 50% of our candidates are interested in entrepreneurship. The other 50% is all over the place – it ranges from agriculture to banking and everything in between. Entrepreneurship is one that we’ve found good matches for. We can usually get them into startups to experience that. Often times, they go into operations roles within startups.
One success story – we had a guy who wanted to move to New York or Boston that was a former Navy SEAL officer. He wanted to work in operations in a startup. It just so happened that we had a connection at Food Lab, a company in Boston, and they were looking for a COO. The founder had just read the book Extreme Ownership and was interested in hiring a Navy SEAL. So that SEAL ended up there as the COO.
For a lot of companies, this might be their first outside hire so it’s a big decision for them. Other than entrepreneurship, we have a lot of guys go into consulting. Boston Consulting Group is going to be at our event in Seattle in March recruiting for management consulting roles. They are going to waive the MBA requirement for our members which has been a big discussion point for us because many of the guys at our events have a Bachelor’s Degree but many fewer have a graduate degree.
We also have some 1099 consulting work. Also business development positions. Obviously, a good amount of people that come through Elite Meet are interested in working in finance. One of the things that’s overlooked during the military transition is how important it can be to rule out what you don’t want to do. Finance is attractive to people because of the high pay and attractive locations but you might not know what that means on a day-to-day. So we can connect you with people currently working in finance that can get you that information. In this way, our guys can discover whether or not they actually want to go into finance.
What advice do you have for someone interested in starting a non-profit?
I think that realizing that you’re way more capable and respected than you think you are. Say you run Company X. At first, it’s really fun to take your idea and turn it into a company and help it grow. Every success is huge. And if it fails, it’s small enough that it doesn’t destroy your ego. But what happens when you start having successes and people have expectations placed on you? That is far more difficult to manage than starting something. At that point, the key becomes reaching out to advisors you can lean on and get advice from.
Do you have any last words of advice for our listeners?
The one thing I’d like to address is an Elite Meet misconception. I never intended to start Elite Meet so when it started happening, my network was Special Operations – that was who I knew. So Elite Meet is trying to help a niche group because that’s who we know really really well. And so I believe that I want to become excellent at helping that group before we start going outside of it. And so I think people might think we’re pushing people out that aren’t part of this community but really we’re just trying to focus on what we know first before we expand beyond that.
An essay that I really like is 1000 True Fans and the premise of the essay is that if you start something and have a thousand people that really support that idea, that will be enough. When you try to become all things to all people, your concept starts to get watered down. So I can really respect what you’re trying to achieve.