To most people, the word "entrepreneur" probably conjures images of someone tinkering in the garage or pitching a business plan to potential investors. With luck, the venture takes off and before long the entrepreneur is hiring more workers and looking for new space to house a growing enterprise. But this scenario captures just a slice of entrepreneurial activity, and it leaves out some of the most entrepreneurial individuals that America produces: our soldiers—men and women whose success or failure in high-risk environments often depends on their ability to create and implement new ideas while, quite literally, under fire.
At first blush, the military as an incubator of entrepreneurs may not seem to parse. After all, one might ask, isn't the military about the chain of command and following orders? Rather than individual action, don't military units focus on group missions and achievements by team? Where in this ecosystem is the space for the entrepreneur?
In reality, the leap is not so great at all. As Kauffman Foundation President Carl Schramm has observed, entrepreneurial capitalism is messy and chaotic, and so is warfare. Success in both environments goes to those who can adapt quickly to changing circumstances that are not in the plan.
A Tool for Establishing Security
To translate that 30,000-foot view to the operational level, we can turn our eyes toward Iraq, where U.S. military officers learned that economics is a tool for establishing security. That's the essence of Expeditionary Economics, a concept developed at the Kauffman Foundation for empowering the military to help jump-start economies torn by conflict or natural disaster.
A working economy promotes stability by giving people something positive to work toward, and that's a critical goal for any commander.
Expeditionary Economics begins with the premise that, in both war and peace, people naturally will strive to put food on the table and a roof over their heads. In most societies, fulfilling these basic needs requires a functioning economy. A working economy promotes stability by giving people something positive to work toward, and that's a critical goal for any commander. Of course, warfare often destroys an economy's ability to function. Thus war creates a challenging military paradox—first we disrupt an economy and, then, to re-establish stability, we must rebuild it. As it happens, security and economic activity are mutually reinforcing, and effective use of Expeditionary Economics advances both goals.
An Approach Based on Building
Making Expeditionary Economics part of our military doctrine can help us achieve the broader strategic goals of missions that increasingly are likely to depend on the trust and support of local populations. Drawing on the entrepreneurial talents of the local population and American soldiers alike can be a powerful weapon that gives civilian development teams a foundation to build on. As an approach based on building, not destroying, Expeditionary Economics advances stability by giving the local population hope for the future. It also shows them what is best about America.
For this to succeed on a consistent basis, the military must operationalize the concept so that it can be implemented by commanders who do not have economics degrees. That means providing commanders with some criteria for making quick investment decisions on the ground, without sending it up the chain of command. When you have a local citizen in front of you, asking when the lights will be back on, you need to act with urgency and give him a reason to support us instead of an insurgency. That's why we are working at West Point to design curriculum to train officers who are not economists to make economic decisions. We have to give them the basic knowledge they need to ask the right questions, think about the issues the right way, and make decisions on the spot.
Entrepreneurial Spirit: One of America's Core Strengths
In some ways, what we really must do is nurture officers' own entrepreneurial spirit. Empowering officers to take an entrepreneurial approach is critical because no curriculum at West Point or field manual is going to give them the single right answer for economic challenges. There's no relevant decision matrix or checklist because every country, every neighborhood, every situation comes with its own set of facts. Successful Expeditionary Economics depends on training officers to apply economic principles with a smart and entrepreneurial spirit while also taking account of local circumstances.
Some suggest economic development isn't the military's job. Certainly, long-term economic development is properly the realm of civilian experts with specific training and experience for the task. But, at the start of a conflict, the soldier is there and the civilian isn't. Before the civilians can move in, the military has to achieve a reasonable degree of security and stability. Expeditionary Economics offers a framework for that task.
Like it or not, American soldiers increasingly find themselves with non-traditional missions that require non-traditional tools. In today's world, every soldier is a type of ambassador for the United States. When soldiers help an entrepreneurial spirit take root in hostile environments, they are using one of America's core strengths to help build stable, self-sustaining societies that can contribute to a more prosperous and safer world.