Today, less than 2% of the adult US population serves in the US military. Taxes didn’t go up despite our decade-long engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan. The resulting disconnect between the military and the civilian population has been cited as a source of concern by General Stan McChrystal, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and many others. MSNBC host Chris Hayes points out that the proportion of congressmen who had served in the military is now lower than for the population at large, while the reverse had been true up to 1995; we also have shown a greater propensity to project military force since around the same time.
I don’t recall a single person from my time at either Exeter or Brown who went into the armed forces. One woman the year below me at Columbia Law School joined the JAG Corps afterwards—I remember this in part because she was so unusual. For people who graduated from Brown or similar institutions, the notion of “service” tends to take less the form of “join the army” and more “go help some people.” Although Harvard, Yale, and Columbia have recently reinstated ROTC, there are more prevalent non-military service options for students, including Teach for America, the Peace Corps, City Year, and similar programs and organizations. The message is that service means working with children, teaching the poor, working at a non-profit and that sort of activity.
I’ll confess that I never realistically considered any of these options when I graduated from college in the mid-90s. I went directly to law school and became a corporate attorney. I did a few things such that I still felt somewhat pro-social (e.g., I took on a pro bono asylum case for an indigent woman, volunteered for friends’ organizations when asked), but these activities were peripheral to the basic cause of succeeding professionally.
I’m far from unique. There are a ton of young people whose goal it is to get a good job at a good firm, pay some bills, get a date, get an apartment, buy some furniture, etc. and maybe volunteer on the side. These impulses are healthy and positive. Teddy Roosevelt remarked that a man’s first duty is to provide for himself and his family; only after this has been done can he be of service to the general public. Today, with women experiencing higher educational attainment than men, I’m sure the same could be applied across gender lines.
After arriving at the law firm though, I found practicing corporate law to be a poor fit. It wasn’t because I wasn’t helping people or doing something noble. The problem for me was that my work felt fungible and pointless. I wasn’t creating any value. My reviewing documents was a transaction cost. Someone else could step in and take my place and the world would be exactly the same.
I left to co-found a startup, Stargiving.com, that used the internet to help celebrities raise money more effectively for their favorite non-profits using sponsored clicks (think freerice.com but with celebrities offering to meet people who clicked on their cause). The company didn’t work out, I’m sure in part because I had little idea what I was doing. I went from there to a mobile software company and a health care software company, eventually becoming the CEO of Manhattan GMAT, a test prep company that was acquired by the Washington Post.
I could say that these roles were about helping people (raising money for charities, making hospitals more efficient, helping young people achieve their goals, etc.) but that wasn’t why I did any of them. The important factor was that I thought I was making a difference for the organization each day. I just wanted to feel that my work mattered, and that I was developing in a direction I wanted to go. It was less about the activity itself and more about what I was accomplishing.
At least for me, the metrics were less about “am I helping people?”—it was more, was I creating value? Am I having an impact? Did I value the people around me? Was I becoming a better person or professional over time? If I stopped showing up, would it matter? I founded Venture for America in large part to drive our talented young people to environments where they could answer these questions in a positive way. Venture for America channels enterprising graduates to early-stage companies in Detroit, Baltimore, New Orleans, St. Louis and other US cities to promote job growth and train the next generation of entrepreneurs. Our goal is to help create 100,000 new US jobs by 2025.
People who enlist for military service or devote their lives to the unfortunate are clearly worthy of praise and admiration. At the same time, military service isn’t a realistic option for many, and I’ve seen tons of idealistic young people go work for large non-profits and organizations only to become frustrated with their roles or burnt out. In my view, if we broaden the notion of service to include “helping organizations succeed,” “creating value,” and “generating new opportunities for yourself and others,” we’ll give many young people license to take on pursuits that are more sustainable for them and will drive society forward.
Job creation and paths to the middle class are today what our economy and society need most. If you examine our communities, what we need as much as anything else are new companies that help enliven neighborhoods and give people meaningful avenues for personal advancement. Nothing conveys a sense of self-worth like the right opportunity. This is the new call to service—“Can you create 5, or 50, or 500 jobs for people in Detroit, New Orleans, Providence, or Baltimore?” Success will drive our ability to educate our children and many other things.
It’s time we posed a different vision of service to our young people that addresses the needs of today. Business formation and economic dynamism are at record lows. We need new businesses to drive job creation and new opportunities. If our young people decide to take on the challenge of revitalizing our country’s economy, they’ll grow to become precisely the kind of people and builders we need them to be.
The challenge that lies ahead is to make the path to entrepreneurship as well-lit and supported as other more conventional paths. Imagine if we gave each aspiring entrepreneur the same level of support and resources that currently go to aspiring lawyers and doctors, both of which often receive $100,000+ apiece in federally subsidized education loans and praise from all around them. In my experience, entrepreneurship is a lonely endeavor. We can make it less so and make it possible to serve both oneself and society.