Lots of people become entrepreneurs because of an unexpected career shock, such as a corporate acquisition or layoff. Dawn Halfaker's military career was ended by an explosion and a catastrophic injury, in Iraq, in 2004. Yet Halfaker would eventually recover and form Halfaker and Associates, an Arlington, Virginia-based contractor in data analytics, cybersecurity, software engineering, and IT infrastructure for the federal government, including the Navy, the Department of Transportation, and the Department of Defense. --As told to Kimberly Weisul
From an early age, I wanted to get a scholarship to play basketball. I was contacted by West Point about playing basketball there and becoming a cadet. At first I dismissed it. I didn't have a good understanding of what West Point was.
The minute I stepped onto the West Point campus, I knew it was the place for me. I was drawn to the intensity and sense of purpose. There was nothing that set any of the other schools I was considering apart--they were all about where you were going to party and hang out.
Part of the great thing about West Point was that I didn't fully understand what I was getting into. I didn't know what the plebe year was all about. It was probably better that way. The basketball coaches paint a rosy picture. Being there was a huge surprise and a culture shock. It was four years of just trying to survive.
After West Point, my first duty station was in Korea. Then I went to Fort Stewart, in Georgia, and deployed from there to Iraq in February 2004.
Our focus was on rebuilding the Iraqi police force. We were working hand in hand with Iraqis, training them, equipping them, going on missions with them. We were responsible for the security of the police station, and for protecting our area of operations from insurgents.
That's where things got a little messy. We were going on missions to flush out insurgents who were planting IEDs, shooting rockets at the embassy, or blowing up the police stations. On one of our patrols, near Baqubah, our Humvee drove into an ambush and was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. I remember being loaded into a medevac helicopter. When I woke up from the coma, my parents and doctors had to explain what had happened--and that I'd lost an arm.
I spent my 25th birthday in the hospital thinking that my life was over. It wasn't just that I'd lost an arm. It was that I no longer had a career. I had been physically fit, mentally fit, at the top of my game, and I went from that to a state of feeling basically useless. I was terrified about being just cast aside while everybody else moved on. That's what fueled me to go into business and to want so desperately to stay connected to the military and the mission.
I was constantly in pain, and I always had to think of a different way to do things. I worried about having to get in line at Starbucks and buy a coffee and get change and carry it back and open the door. Those were the things that plagued my mind, more than the bigger picture of what was going on with my life.
When you think of a wounded warrior, you think of a young male in a wheelchair. I had a hard time identifying as a veteran and fitting in as a female who was wounded in combat. People weren't laughing to my face--it was mostly probably in my head. But I look different. Whenever you're different, you're kind of vulnerable. I did an internship on Capitol Hill. It was really discouraging. There were very important issues that Congress had to deal with. Do the soldiers have the right helmets? Do we have the right equipment? Are vets getting the right care? I was amazed at how many times the debate became partisan, and people were willing to ignore the common-sense solution.
Then I thought I'd maybe work as a contractor focused on supporting the military. That's when I realized there was a big disconnect between what was going on in Washington and what was happening downrange. There were so many people who didn't have combat experience trying to make decisions and influence policy. I thought, you know what? I can do this better. I could start a company. I could hire people who have the right expertise, and provide the support myself.
When I was at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, there was a colonel who wanted me to help him better understand how technology innovations could be used in the field. I was able to leverage that experience and other relationships to learn the industry and start positioning myself for a career, and to begin building the infrastructure of my company in the background.
There's no question that my military training helped me become a better entrepreneur. You go through so much training in the military, but from that first year as a plebe, what the military is teaching you is how to be resilient. You plan your mission, and you execute, but nothing ever goes according to plan. Your job as an officer is to continue to lead in not-ideal circumstances, and you're probably underresourced. Being an entrepreneur and getting something started, you never have everything you need, and things never go according to plan.
You also learn that the people who can make things happen are the ones who are challenging the status quo. There are people who figure out how to make the whole system work for them, as opposed to being a follower. From the start of my company, I recognized there were other people in my situation. As my company grew, I knew I could bring in other wounded warriors.
Hiring other veterans affects my company in a positive way. There's a similar value system, a similar understanding of the mission. Then there's the skill set to do data analytics and IT infrastructure. For the type of work we're doing, we need people who understand the military, so that's critical. But as the company grows, we value diversity. We need to make sure that employees who are not veterans can still do well here. It's something I'm aware of. I don't want to create this in-group.
Certifications help tremendously, especially in my industry, where there are hardly any medium-size companies. You're not going to compete with Lockheed Martin. But you can leverage the set-asides to have an opportunity to show what your company can do. Once you're able to do that, then eventually you can compete with Lockheed Martin. I'm not in any rush to do it. We're still finding our sweet spot and trying to refine that before we say we're the best at what we do and we can beat anybody. That's the goal.