How can you provide proper veteran support to amplify their voices as civic leaders? How can you ensure that every transitioning service member succeeds in expanding their knowledge and skills? In this episode, Ryan Pavel, the CEO of Warrior-Scholar Project, shares how he assists veterans in acquiring higher education and bringing themselves to the next level. He discusses the support they give to these brave individuals so that they can continue serving the country and empower themselves to pursue continuous growth. Don’t miss this inspiring episode!
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Providing Veteran Support Through Education And Elevation With Ryan Pavel
Our goal is to help you be a better leader, inspire more people, create the passion your community wants, and profit from the experience. Some people ask me why I created the show, and the answer is simple. I want to learn from my guests and my audience how to effectively start, grow, nourish, and capitalize on the tribe. I believe tribes are the social experience that brings people together in many unique ways, and I want to share that with you. I also want to hear from you. Tell me what you want, who you are interested in hearing from, and what actions you take from every amazing guest we speak with.
Our guest is another amazing individual who is the CEO of a nonprofit focused on serving veterans. He enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was seventeen years old. He earned his BA from the University of Michigan. He also worked in a variety of legal institutions, including legal aid organizations and a large national law firm. His work revolves around the Veterans Leadership Council, and I’m going to let him explain the details of that as we get into the interview. Welcome, Ryan Pavel, to the show.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.
It’s my pleasure. How did this all get started with you?
I enlisted in the Marine Corps at seventeen and that had a large impact on my life and on my trajectory. I was a very apathetic high schooler and I had the option to go to college. It didn’t seem the right fit at the time so I decided to do something different with my life and kick myself into high gear. The Marine Corps did that. I did five years in there and all these years later now, I spend all day, every day interacting with veterans and thinking about ways to be able to help equip them for success in their transition and beyond.
I’m excited to have you because I have a very soft spot in my heart for veterans, in particular, those who have been in combat because of the high suicide rate. I’m also involved in an organization called No Fallen Heroes, which is related to saving veterans from committing suicide. As I said, I have a passion for your project and that’s partially why I am excited to talk to you. Before I start, I want to read something to you that I’ve written and have held to for many years. It is my definition of a tribe. It’s considered by me a manifesto, a vision, a mission, and a purpose.
You need to have, as a tribe leader, a passion to drive those who don’t belong and attract those who do. That is in fact the way I see how tribe leaders run their tribes. The best tribes are incredible attractors, but they also repel the exact opposite of whom they want. Given that background, tell us a little bit about the organization that you’re working with now.
It’s an interesting definition. We talk about tribes a lot. Sebastian Junger’s Tribe is one of the most commonly read books in the circles of veterans and that’s a consistent topic of conversation. The way that I think about this, and what we talk about a lot with the Warrior-Scholar Project is no matter what your feelings are about the military, what you did, or whether or not you were injured physically or you had a moral injury. If you had a neutral experience or you had a positive experience, virtually everybody comes out and had a purpose and a mission.
They were working with a group of people to accomplish that mission. You can think about that and that tribalistic term of, “You had your tribe,” and then you get out and those things are not necessarily as baked in. The example I use is I came out of the military with some very strong feelings about wars abroad based on the things from my deployments and the work that I did. I was very ready to get out. I did five years and, for me, it was quite clear that I was going to do my five years, accomplish my enlistment, get all the way through my contract, and then I was going to move on.
However, that doesn’t mean that transitioning out was a flip of a switch and was easy. Even though I had my mind made up for that, I wasn’t going to be tempted by any type of reenlistment bonus. Flash forward a couple of months or less, it was a month in between when I was able to leave the military on terminal leave. I was then on a college campus and I’m one of 28,000 undergrads on a college campus.
You’re looking around and you’re thinking, “Who are my people? Where’s my tribe?” That also was a formative experience for me. It’s one that I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on about my own transition, and that ties into the work that we do with the Warrior-Scholar Project. The Warrior-Scholar Project is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. We’ve been around for many years and the intent of it is to equip enlisted service members and veterans for success in higher education and beyond.
College plays this pivotal role in the lives of so many people and veterans have access to tremendous education benefits. Our goal is to be able to help them leverage those benefits to the maximum impact and not only get out, “I don’t know who my people are. I don’t know where my tribe is, therefore I’m going to go to school and figure things out.”
Have some intentionality. How do you make sure that you leverage your degrees and you leverage those benefits? So much of what we see in terms of success on campus and beyond comes down to the community. The group of people that you associate yourself with. If you have a community, you are much more likely to succeed in the transition.
It’s a very community-driven organization that we’re a part of and I would love to take credit for founding it. I wish I could put founder on my title. I came in shortly after the founding. I volunteered with the organization and worked part-time with it for a number of years before coming on board full-time a few years ago. Now, this is my full-time work.
Roughly, what would be the size of the community itself?
It depends on which community we’re talking about. It depends on what number you look at, but there are 150,000 to 200,000 people that are leaving the service each year. There’s this enormous group of people every year, and that’s true. That’s pretty consistent, whether we’re in a time of active engagements abroad or even post-Iraq and Afghanistan withdrawals. Even in “peacetime,” the military still has this enormous force.
The community consistently grows. If we’re thinking about the veteran community, that is one that every year there is this addition of 150,000 to 200,000 folks into this community. Within WSP, the Warrior-Scholar Project, we’ve had about 2,300 people that have gone through our programs. 2,000 of them or so have gone through our flagship academic boot camps, and a few hundred through these other workshops that we offer. We’ll serve about 800 people including our new folks that are coming in, and also additional alumni services that we offer.
There’s an enormous veteran community and there’s the WSP community of alumni. The third way that you can slice this is through the campus community. We have relationships with twenty-some-odd campuses throughout the country and where our alumni are studying, there’s a robust veterans group that exists. They have their own community or tribe of student veterans that are pursuing studies along with them. Others are at schools that are hopefully growing, but in many cases, a small veteran community.
That’s a fairly large community. I speak to folks who have 20 or 30 people in their community and also, many who have more. It’s a nice size community. I realize you’re not the founder, but you can probably give us some great insights into the management of the communities. How often do you communicate with the members and do you consider a member someone who’s already graduated college? Are they still part of the community as well?
The primary distinction for us is if you go through an academic boot camp, which is the flagship offering of WSP. A quick note on that. With academic boot camps, we are taking folks that are not necessarily students at that institution. I’ll use the one in closest proximity to me geographically here, the University of Chicago. We take fifteen veterans or enlisted service members. They’re all enlisted as opposed to commissioned. They could still be on active duty, they could be reservists, or they could have already separated from service. We put them through a rigorous 1 or 2-week academic boot camp on the physical campus at the University of Chicago.
The intent here is that you’re demystifying what the college experience is like and you are also providing them with the tools to succeed. You throw Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America at them. You say, “This can be incredibly overwhelming.” How do you parse that out into college-level discussion, college-level writing, or college-level reading? You are mentored by fellow student veterans. You’re mentored by faculty from the institution.
For the folks that go through those programs, we offer it in humanities, STEM, and business entrepreneurship. Those are the three disciplines. They are considered alumni. That’s a community of about 2,000 people. We communicate with them in a few different mediums. One of those is we have a monthly newsletter which is full of the following opportunities for alumni services that we offer and also, our partner organizations or other major things.Warrior-Scholar Project offers support in humanities, STEM, and business entrepreneurship. Click To Tweet
Let’s say there are major updates to education benefits, we’ll include a link to what’s happening there. It’s information on that. If there are successes, if our alumni are graduating from school or achieving great success there, we’ll shout out their successes in our alumni newsletter. We have social media channels. We also have an internal Slack workspace that all of our alumni are invited to be a part of.
Right now, we have about 600 folks that are active on that internal channel and that’s the active dynamic chatroom thing. If somebody says, we had somebody right before you and I hopped on, “I’m considering switching to a cybersecurity degree. Who can help me?” Instantly, he has people that can say, “Here’s the resource. Here’s this and that. It’s meant to be something that is reducing those barriers to entry.
I love that you set up the Slack channel. It’s a fantastic way to stay in touch. The other thing I heard is that you are working with associates or affiliate companies to offer services to veterans as well. That’s a very big benefit. That works both ways. For those people, even those who are reading this who might have a service for veterans, it would be great to get in touch with Ryan as well.
Ryan, you mentioned Slack, which also brings up the idea and the question about technology. The usual technology that people use is things like social media. The reason I reacted the way I did to Slack is that it’s a little bit different than other communities. I love Slack because it’s very immersive. I have an options trading group on Slack. I have a group of friends on Slack. I have a mastermind on Slack. What other technology is the company involved in that helps manage the tribe itself?
A couple of words on Slack outside of WSP, and I’ll get to your question about other platforms that we use. The other one that I’m involved with, you mentioned at the top is there’s an organization called the Veterans Leadership Council where we have a volunteer staff for that. I’m the VP of Partnerships for the Veterans Leadership Council. The idea here is to serve as a connection for veterans across a number of different companies.
One way to think about this is so many companies have an ERG, an Employee Resource Group for veterans. Sometimes, they combine it with first responders or law enforcement/There are commonly employee resource groups, but those are often isolated. We think about a community. You can have an internal group. if one employee resource group is thriving, we think about a company like JPMorgan that has this incredibly active employee resource group. They have a council on these things. If there’s another company, a Fortune 500 company that is interested in starting that, they shouldn’t have to start from first principles. There are best practices for building an interactive and engaged employee resource group.
That organization, VLC, started a few years ago out of Chicago as an offshoot of Bunker Labs, which is an excellent non-profit that helps veterans. It acts as an incubator for veterans interested in entrepreneurship and starting their own companies. VLC also operates off of Slack. We have volunteer staff and board that are throughout the country and Slack is the way in which we communicate. I think that it’s a fantastic way.
The other thing is I am a believer in Slack. I’ve been using it for many years, but we had to make a decision for our organization about how we were going to utilize it. To give you some sense of it, for a long time, WSP was very small. Scrappy is the word that I use for it. It’s highly effective, but scrappy. A few people were working full-time around the clock and then you had a group of campuses. It was effective, but we grew from an organization of 5 or 6 people working full-time around the clock to now a team of 23.
You can imagine the ways in which you communicate as a remote organization. You have to have the SOP, the Standard Operating Procedure, in place for how 23 people are communicating remotely because if all you have in Slack is a general channel and a pets channel, it’s going to be mayhem because you’re going to have way too many conversations.
I’m interested in how you identify modes of communication. I think working remotely for us, we were remote even before the pandemic is a forcing function to be thoughtful about communication in a way that you can be a bit more haphazard or lackadaisical about it if you assume, “Everybody’s in an office, therefore everybody’s going to communicate effectively.” I think about this thing a lot, and I’m a big believer in Slack.
The other one for us interestingly increasingly is Salesforce. Like most organizations, we have a CRM. We started using Salesforce in 2016 and had gradual adoption but what we’ve learned is that Salesforce can do everything, but you have to customize it to your needs. As I was saying with Slack, those tools can be active. Engagement can lead to good engagement but you have to be judicious about what channels, who’s talking about what and how are we organizing communication. With Salesforce, it’s that times 100.Salesforce can do everything, but you must customize it to your needs. Click To Tweet
It’s because the capabilities and the things that can be accomplished there can be overwhelming until you spend the resources and do the training and these things to have people understand how to utilize it. I would say we’re growing there. We have some work to do. That’s another major platform of incredible power for us at WSP.
Salesforce is a challenge for a lot of companies. Some people hire Salesforce engineers to maintain and create options inside the product itself. I’m a big believer in software. I’ve started several software companies. In fact, I run one now, but the bottom line is that if it’s hard to use and convoluted, it is a detriment to work.
I’d never go near Salesforce unless I was involved in a much larger organization but that’s only my personal thoughts. Let’s move on here. Talk a little bit about monetization. There’s a business element to this. People have to cover expenses and hopefully, make a profit. How does the company monetize its mission?
As a non-profit, we don’t. In the sense that it’s not something where we’re looking to be able to do. Monetization is not the target for us. To give you a sense of it, whatever our expenses are, we have our reserve but our goal is to be able to raise enough to be able to cover our expenses and ideally, add some to the reserve. At the end of the day, if we end up with a surplus, it’s not to be in a position of inventory money or that type of thing.
If we had excess funds, we’d be thinking about what other programming can we build to be able to expand our reach and refine our programming. Having said that, one of the things that we are increasingly looking at is we are originally built solely on the education piece. Thinking about that next step when somebody transitions and figure out how do I get into college? How do I succeed in college? How do I select the college? How do I select the degree?
Education is a means to an end. It’s not the end in and of itself if you’re thinking about, “I’m an enlisted service member. I’m transitioning out in a few months. I want to go to college.” I shouldn’t be thinking about that next step. I should be thinking about the company that I want to work at. One of the things that we’re thinking about is those forward-thinking companies that are willing to invest in the students at the early stages and not only, “I’ve graduated. There’s a lot of companies that have initiatives to be able to hire veterans.”
That’s great, but what we’re interested in is working with companies that are willing to take the long view and fund. We are non-profits that were entirely funded by individuals and institutional funders like foundations and corporations. We want those companies to be able to essentially help pay for the academic boot camps and develop a relationship with folks earlier on in that pipeline. That is not necessarily monetization in the classic sense, but it’s a way for us to think about who are the end users. How do we help the end users alumni build those bridges to those companies earlier on, as opposed to one piece of the transition?
The short answer is that you rely on donations. How about grants? Do you work to acquire grants as well? This is great information. For anyone out there who’s reading, and wants to think about how a tribe can serve and align with what the US government offers in terms of grants, maybe you could speak for a few minutes about the grant process.
We have no government grants. Our programs are not something that we’re trying to tap into GI Bill benefits. We want students to be able to save those for actual usage when they’re going to school. We haven’t tried to make any inroads there. Our grants are coming from private and public foundations. For example, we have a long-running relationship with the Clark Foundation out of Clark Construction. They are huge on the East Coast. They have been a core institutional funder for us.
I came on board a few years ago as Chief Operations Officer, and I stepped into the CEO role a year later. When I came on board as COO, it was because the Clark Foundation went through full-tilt due diligence on us and gave us a substantial grant to build our capacity. To go from this highly effective but scrappy non-profit, but to be able to build the infrastructure that allows you to succeed at a scale. We continue to have a longstanding relationship with them. Those foundations that are willing to be able to invest in veterans have been incredible for us.
The Bob Woodruff Foundation is a longtime funder of ours. The Diana Davis Spencer Foundation out of Bethesda has been a longtime funder. We were fortunate to get the attention of MacKenzie Scott. We received a jaw-dropping donation from MacKenzie Scott. Whether it’s an individual or private or public foundation, that’s the entirety of our funding. The other important thing is every institution that we work with is a residential model.
I use the U Chicago example, but to give people a frame of reference, we’re at Yale, USC, and Princeton. We’re throughout the country, in Georgetown, in UNC. It’s a mix of public and private institutions. Every institution provides housing, dining, and classrooms in kind for the students to be there. That’s another important part of our funding model. When we do a program, when we run one of these boot camps, the host institution will do their own fundraising to be able to provide that aspect in kind. WSP then raises all these other funds to provide the training, travel, materials, and all of that for the students. It’s a cost-share.
Again, instead of applying for grants to the government, you are applying to foundations and private industries that set aside money to make these types of grants. Is this a good strategy? Would you advise this to others who are reading this?
The other important piece is individuals. I don’t want to lose sight of that. There are a lot of philanthropic individuals that got a sizable portion of our annual contributions in developing relationships. You and I are talking and the vast majority of my time in December is spent on two things. One is on finalizing our budget and working with that with the board and our staff. Two is making sure that all of our major institutional funders and individuals know where we are and checking in on people before the year ends to make sure that we get those contributions.
I had a conversation with our team about whether or not we should go through and apply for government grants. There’s the NEH, the National Endowment for the Humanities. We had done a two-year grant with them in the early stages of the organization. There’s also NSF, the National Science Foundation. Government grants are onerous and you quite commonly need to have either a full-time or a part-time person whose job is to not only write that grant but also, to administer it and to report on it.
Other grants are onerous. For example, for the Clark Foundation, it’s not as if we give them a one-pager and they say, “Here’s your grant,” but it is different in scale, type, and kind when we’re talking about government grants. That’s the evaluation for us. As an answer to your question, we’ve determined that the right strategy for us is to not hire people specifically so that we could be in a position for government grants, maybe at a later stage in the organization.
With all grants, and I suspect even more so with the US government, there are requirements. In fact, there are conditions on them issuing that grant to the organization. An alignment of values, for one. If there are values that the issuer has that do not align with the organization itself, that’s a big consideration because the organization wants and needs the money, but it’s not a good idea to bend the values of an existing community, tribe, or organization to get some money.
It’s a difficult process for sure. This has been a fascinating interview for me because, again, we’re talking about a different level of community than we have on some of the other shows, and I enjoy this. I do want to ask you a little bit about the future. With all the interviews that I conduct, there’s always this question about the future. It sounds like you guys are in a good position. You’re doing a very valuable thing. You’re helping veterans do something that they may not be able to do or have the wherewithal to do on their own, but how does your organization grow from here?
A part of it is tied to our previous conversation. Not to go back into everything with grants, but I view things as a three-legged stool. These are the three legs for us. One is the infrastructure, and primarily by infrastructure, I mean the team. Part of infrastructure means, as we were talking about, Salesforce, Slack, etc. but an important component of that is the team.
Nonprofits have this unfortunate reputation of having to underpay people and it’s this churn. People believe in the mission, but they can’t make enough money or they don’t have retirement benefits. For us, that infrastructure piece is important. A concrete example is the cost of living adjustments. Social Security Administration’s cost of living adjustment for 2023 is much bigger than it was in previous years. We undergo this evaluation of, “I want our team. I want that infrastructure.”
A necessary component of growth is for our team not to have this churn where we only have people that are doing this for 1 year or 2 because they believe in it, but they don’t have the benefits to be able to stay there. That infrastructure piece is crucial for growth, but that relates to the financial side. I can say that until I’m blue in the face, but if I can’t convince wealthy individuals or foundations or corporations to invest in WSP include it on the general operating side. Not only in the specific programming.A necessary component of growth is for your team to not experience churn. They may believe your vision, but they don't actually have the benefits to stay there. That’s why the infrastructure piece is crucial for growth. Click To Tweet
The Clark Foundation’s philanthropy was vital for us because they deliberately invested so that we could build that capacity, with an understanding that some of that goes to the less headline news things. Nobody wants to know about the more mundane aspects of an organization like Salesforce. It’s a necessary component for us.
The second component is the financial side. That’s the second leg of the stool. The third one is never losing focus on the programming and the end users. If we had this incredible team and if we had all the funding, but we totally lost sight of the programming or we were scaling just for the sake of scaling, we’re not responsive to user needs and all of these things, we’ve lost our way. All three of those legs of the stool have to grow in tandem.
I love this analogy. It’s simplistic, but it works. As a gut check, where are we in terms of that? For a while, I am very sure based on all the conversations and all the due diligence that we did that one leg of the stool that was not long enough or robust enough was the infrastructure that grew programming in a way. We had some funding to do some things, but we didn’t have the full team structure to be able to execute that.
A big part of our goal was to launch a search, hire a chief programs officer, write a role that we previously didn’t have, and to be able to build that infrastructure piece. Those are the necessary components. The other aspect of this is strategic planning. We are in the process of planning our 2024 to 2028 strategic plan. That is a year-long process for us to put together the five-year strategic plan.
We need alumni to have input. The board is heavily involved. All of our team are involved. You have these things, you have these necessary conditions, but then you think about where we want to be in 2028. That’s a challenging question, but it’s one that we need to be able to answer. Where are we going? If you don’t know where you’re going, any path will get you there.
That’s a great answer and again, it shows the insight that you have into what you’ve done so far and where you need to be. In order to get to the next stage here, it sounds like we need more people to pay attention. If they wanted to reach out to you or understand the mission better, is there a website they can go to?
Warrior-Scholar.org. That is our homepage. If you visit that, you’ll see there are a bunch of different links to the programming that we offer if you’re interested in more details on the boot camps themselves, the graduate school programming, or the alumni services. If you’re interested in supporting WSP, I mentioned the high-wealth individuals, but a huge com component of our donations as well comes from what we refer to as the small-dollar donors, which is this important thing.
This community-based aspect to people that believe in the mission of, “I believe in what WSP is doing and I’m willing to contribute $10, $20, or $50 a month or something like that. If people are interested in supporting them that way, I would also offer and I hope this comes through in the way that I’m answering your questions here, but 1) I love this work. There’s no job I would rather have than this one. I’m extremely privileged to be able to say that genuinely.
2) I’m also interested in the meta-structure of what we’re doing. I didn’t have substantial nonprofit experience. I volunteered and worked part-time for many years with this one, but until I came on board as Chief Operations Officer, I didn’t have an appreciation for all of the things that go into a non-profit. It was trial by fire. The way that we got through that was I reached out to people in my network and said, “You’re a few steps ahead of me in this process. How did you navigate this?”
I am more than happy to work with other people either that are thinking about a non-profit or that are in some stage of trying to think about growth, whether or not it’s specific to veterans. The vast majority of conversations that I have been in the veteran space. One of the important things is veterans shouldn’t isolate themselves. They shouldn’t be so insular to the things that we’re doing. Sometimes, we have this conversation around the model that Warrior-Scholar Project uses for veterans could be applicable not only to military spouses but to anybody with a non-traditional path to college or something like that. I’m happy to have those conversations with anybody.Work with other people who are thinking about a nonprofit or are in some stage of trying to think about growth. Click To Tweet
Ryan’s willing to talk to you. How can they get a hold of you?
We here are about to wrap up and I want to say thank you for showing up. Thank you for what you do as well. As I said, you are very focused on your cause. I’m on your side when it comes to veterans. I’m not a veteran myself. I was disqualified for medical reasons, at the time, but my sympathy and heart are with all of our veterans and all of our armed forces.
Thank you, Ryan. I appreciate you. If you enjoyed this interview, would you be willing to go over to the Apple Podcasts page and leave a comment? Tell us a little bit about what you thought about this conversation. Maybe rate us five stars if you like us. That would be great. Thanks again, Ryan. We’ll talk again soon.
Thanks. It’s much appreciated.
- Veterans Leadership Council
- No Fallen Heroes
- Warrior-Scholar Project
- Clark Foundation
- Bob Woodruff Foundation
- Diana Davis Spencer Foundation
- National Endowment for the Humanities
- National Science Foundation
- Ryan Pavel – LinkedIn
- [email protected]
- Apple Podcasts – The Tribe Builders
About Ryan Pavel
Sales Force 101 – How To Build A Powerful, Successful SalesforceVeterans advocate intent on leveraging background as an enlisted Marine, educator, and attorney to empower veterans to excel post-military service.
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