When Building A Community For Impact, Purpose Changes Everything

Why tech innovators are drawn to defense

William Treseder

March 15, 2024

Stepping onto the Stanford University campus as a Marine-turned-student, I found a truly different world. Patriotism wasn’t a virtue. The school didn’t even recognize Veterans Day. Students weren’t hostile toward the military, they were simply apathetic. The military and U.S. defense were far removed from the big-tech ambitions nurtured by Stanford and the surrounding Silicon Valley culture. Curiously, that same culture is what eventually drove brilliant students to line up to dedicate themselves towards solving some of the toughest problems in national security. The community was always there, it just needed the right pathways, the relevancy, and the platform to develop and grow. Today dual-use technology and mission-focused innovation are the norm, providing lessons in community building for a common cause.

I recently sat down with Sam Combs, head of partnerships at BreakLine and host of the podcast, BreakLine Arena, to talk about the fundamental power of building communities around defense tech, and how growth in purposeful innovation gives the U.S. a brighter future than some may have thought.

Personalizing national security for a passionate generation

Being confronted with students’ apathy toward the military was a pivotal moment for me. I decided to engage with the university President’s office. We gained funding for an ROTC program, which kicked off further initiatives, including several programs and classes based around veterans, the military, and national security more broadly. Now the campus has a solid celebration for major holidays, including Veterans Day and Memorial Day. This shows what can happen when the conversation begins, and a seed is planted

Over time these efforts paid off. There was a rising pride and sense of purpose among the student body engaged in national security-focused classes like Hacking 4 Defense, co-created by my cofounder Pete Newell, which launched first at Stanford. Students working to solve  defense problems in our classes were also choosing to work for dual-use companies like Palantir because it wasn’t just about the  money anymore – it was about the mission. Students began to appreciate being part of a solution with like-minded, mission-driven people focused on more than just profit. That’s how a movement grows and builds momentum. Today most top-tier universities have more defense and dual-use startup activity than ever before thanks to mission-based community building.

The Government embraced startups and non-traditional innovators

Change was also stirring within the Pentagon. The Defense Department, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and Department of Homeland Security opened outposts in Silicon Valley. People started talking about these organizations and their missions. This new awareness, paired with the enthusiasm for Hacking 4 Defense led to more frequent and better interactions between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley.  Hacking 4 Defense is now a program within the Office of the Secretary of Defense, supported by the National Security Innovation Network and Defense Innovation Unit. It’s offered at 63 universities and has global reach, with H4D universities partnering with UK and Australia allies.  

Fresh talent and increasing activity around dual-use technology caught the attention of investors who were becoming what I like to call “Defense curious”. Now we have large, informal networks of investors who self-selected into this dual-use markets because they genuinely care about national security and want to be a part of the conversation. What we’re witnessing today is a movement by the tech community to be connected to the mission. At the same time, the DoD is building better pathways to partnership with tech companies.

Partnering with defense is rewarding beyond the paycheck

One thing people in this space need to know: the defense alumni community is like no other. Once you’re in, other members won’t let you down. Business moves much faster because you know you’re in a trusted space. People have a shared set of experiences and values, which is fundamentally different from the broader community and this helps move the mission forward.

In these broader spaces, Big commercial and consumer tech companies are, by design, based around money and growth. These aren’t always conducive to taking care of each other. What I’ve described here is a mission-driven mentality, which brings a depth to relationships, a comfort in knowing how you’re going to be treated, and as a result, better outcomes for everyone. I’ve seen this in practice through my experience at Stanford, and I see this as a blueprint for community building in other spaces as well.   

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