Mike DeSa joins the show to talk about his very unique entrepreneurial journey in agriculture. We discuss the back story, his international travels and pursuits in Latin America, and the corner of the market he and his team have focused on. It’s a fun and interesting discussion about a unique agricultural entrepreneurship journey.
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#114: A unique agricultural entrepreneurship journey with Mike DeSa
April 21, 2021 • 54:06
Aaron Spatz, Host, America’s Entrepreneur
Mike DeSa, Founder & Managing Director, AGD Consulting
You’re listening to America’s Entrepreneur, the podcast designed to educate, entertain, and inspire you in your personal and professional journey. I’m your host, Aaron Spatz. And on the podcast, I interview entrepreneurs, industry experts and other high-achievers that detailed their personal and professional journeys in business. My goal is to glean their experiences into actionable insights that you can apply to your own journey. If you’re new to the show, we’ve spoken with successful entrepreneurs, Grammy Award-winning artists, bestselling authors, chief executives, and other fascinating minds with unique experiences. We’ve covered topics such as how to achieve breakthrough in business, growing startups, effective leadership techniques, and much more. If you strive for continual self-improvement and enjoy fascinating and insightful conversation, hit the subscribe button. You’ll love it here at America’s Entrepreneur.
So I hope that you’ve had a phenomenal start to your year and as we’re powering down, I can’t believe we’re already midway through Q2. The year continues to roll on. So really, really quick. One, I get consistent feedback from you, and I just want to thank you for your engagement with the show. And so if you have any questions, comments, commentary, anything else that you want to add, drop me a line firstname.lastname@example.org.
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So really, really excited to welcome a fellow brother in arms, fellow jarhead, Mike DeSa. So Mike comes to us from our beloved United States Marine Corps, but he’s also had a really, really interesting career doing a little bit of international work, but more focused in the agricultural space. And so this will be a really, really dynamic, really, really interesting thing conversation. And I got to plug. Before he gets a chance to, I’m going to plug it for him. So he’s a fellow podcaster like myself. He’s got a newer podcast. I would highly encourage you to go check it out, subscribe. The title of it is called Vets In Ag Podcast. Go check it out, subscribe, follow everything that Mike and his team are doing. And I’m sure you’ll find tremendous value in that. So with no further ado, Mike, man, I just want to thank you. Thanks so much for being with me today.
Hey, my pleasure, Aaron, appreciate the offer.
Certainly. So let’s wind the clock back and let’s understand who you were growing up and what were the decisions for you and the things that going through your mind that inspired you, that compelled you to join the US Military?
No, good question. I didn’t grow up on a farm. I grew up out of the San Antonio area, outside the city, but we always had some kind of backyard garden growing up. And since I was 10 or 12, I realized that I wanted to be in the service. I didn’t know what branch or really what the different opportunities were. And I can remember writing a letter to the Marine Corps. There was something about it, as I started to think about it more, that really led to be drawn to that particular service. And I wrote a letter to a recruiter in San Antonio and I said, “Hey, I’d like to join.” Again, I’m 10 or 12 years old.
Oh, that’s awesome.
And they responded. At that point, it looked like it was from a typewriter, but it probably was just from an earlier word processor. And they had said, “Thanks so much for joining. We really appreciate you taking the time to write but you can’t join until you’re 17.” And I can’t remember the recruiter’s name or where exactly it was from in San Antonio, but they signed the bottom and in it, they sent a poster. One of the standard Marine Corps’ motivational posters with a guy and Cammie paint. It’s dark in the background. He’s got a rifle. And that hung on my wall for the next six or seven years. And at that point, that was it for me. I was in the JROTC program at a high school in San Antonio, and lo and behold, the kind of manager or leader of that program was a retired master sergeant. And he just solidified for me what I thought going in was the service that I wanted to be. And he was a former drill instructor. He actually was my first salute. After I left A&M and got commissioned, he came back and did the first salute. So it just gives you some perspective of what he meant to me and my development. But that’s really kind of where it started and didn’t really change much prior to joining the service.
Man, well, it’s phenomenal to see the stories. And again, I could just hear the eyes rolling if you’re Army, Air Force or Navy listening to this right now. So just deal with it for a second. The compelling nature of joining the Marine Corps, and I found that it will hook you at an early age. I’m not going to share the story here, but I mean, I had a very similar experience where I had early interaction with the service and it left an impression on me and it never left. It’s just one of the things that just sticks with you. So it’s neat to see like, okay, here we are 10, 11, 12 years old writing this letter. And they wrote back, which is, I mean, boss move of the recruiter.
It’s pretty shocking.
Well, yeah. But that recruiter had macro vision knowing like, hey, the seeds are planted and I can water this if I’m engaging with him now, right? And so that’s pretty neat. And then to see the relationship built with that master sergeant and then being able to render your first salute, which I think is really, really impactful.
You plugged the podcast earlier and there’s one episode that’s sticking in my mind now that I think is a part of that point that you just made of this particular service hooking you early. I had a gentleman named Benjamin Martin. He runs a winery in the Willamette Valley in Oregon. And he was an amtracker, was a part of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Really great guy, history buff. He’s doing great things with his winery now. But I asked him what about the service, what about the Marine Corps in particular spoke to him? Why was he so interested and why did he ultimately choose that? Because he did a lot of the door window shopping that a lot of folks will do when they’re considering services. I went to this recruiter. I went to that recruiter. I walked in this office.
He said he visited most of the major ones except, I think, the coast guard. And he said all of their approach was they were offering him something. Here’s what we can get you, here’s the education we can provide or here’s how much money you’ll make. And he walked in the Marine Corps office and it was, “We don’t need you. Why do you want to be a part of us? You can’t hack it. You’re not made for this.” And that was the switch for him where he said, “Hell, I can’t.” And it’s funny that I’ve heard that story a couple of times and I can imagine you’ve heard it dozens, but that reminded me of that when you were talking about a service like the Marine Corps getting a hook in early.
Yeah. For sure. I don’t know what it is. It just has a way of finding those types of people.
And it resonates, right? If it hooks you, it hooks you for a reason. There’s something, I think – I don’t know – internal to a Marine, right? Whether it’s some kind of cultural upbringing or whether it’s just a part of who they are that they say, “This speaks to me and this is why.”
Right. Well, we’ll go ahead and move on because we’ve probably lost everybody who was Air Force, Navy. Oh, I forget. Air Force, Navy or Army, sorry, guys. So, Mike, take us through a little bit of your journey. So you commissioned. What was a little bit of your experience in service? But then what I would like to get to then is talk with me through your decision and that transition out.
Yeah. Good question. My undergraduate was at A&M and it was in agricultural engineering. I was in the Corps cadets there, was on scholarship with the Marines, where they paid for school, but I owed them some time and service afterwards. Ended up getting infantry out of the basic school. And my first duty station was with 1st Battalion 9th Marines in Camp Lejeune. And at that point, they had just unfurled their colors again after furling them after the Vietnam War, but they had opened them back up again late 2007 in Ramadi. The battalion had just returned. The first appointment with them was on the 24th MEU out to the Mediterranean. Did some work in Haiti right after the 2008 earthquake. Did some work with foreign forces in training in Jordan, Djibouti and Eastern Africa. The French Foreign Legion had a base there. So we did some work with them. Really only have one stop on the way home, just because of all of the time in Haiti was unexpected and then all the training that we already had lined up. So it was a bit underwhelming in that sense, but very much fulfilling in another.
Was home for about a year and then picked up the company XO spot and did some time in Afghanistan in 2010. We picked up an area of operation that had originally been held by a battalion. So 250 folks coming in to take a large battle space. Really decentralized, very partnership heavy. We had both Afghan police and the Afghan National Army, a host of different department of state folks, but was fortunate enough to bring everybody home. And then spent my last few years teaching essentially at the basic school. Went back to teach there, taught at the Infantry Officer Course for about a year, year and a half. And then left the active duty service in 2014. If I kind of think about this in retrospect, I would say a good year and a half prior to leaving the active duty service, I felt like I was being kind of called to walk a different path, one that was more entrepreneurial in nature. Again, I had always wanted to be a Marine. I expected to make 20 years out of it, but for a number of different reasons that are probably for a different conversation, it just didn’t feel right anymore. And so when I was thinking of…
Happy to talk about that with you right now if you want to.
There were some, I would say, maybe values-based things that weren’t in alignment with where I was. And I originally thought that it was maybe just where I was or it’s hard to pin down. And so I wanted to give it one more go and for those same sort of reasons, it just didn’t feel right anymore, but I think God was calling me in a different direction anyway. And it just so happened that at that point our family was looking to diversify geographically a little outside the US. And we had some investment criteria. We were looking for something that was tangible, that wasn’t correlated with traditional paper or bond markets. We wanted something that had generally an appreciative factor going forward.
My wife actually grew up on a small farm, which is where we are now in East Texas. And my background being an Ag. We never really put the two together as an asset class before being agriculture until we started to think through these criteria that we had. And we said, “Wait a minute, this meets a lot of the metrics that we want as an investment opportunity,” but being that one of those was to look outside or diversify outside of the US. We said, “Okay. Well, let’s start looking at regions of the world that had a lot of these potential, but were perhaps undervalued or difficult to navigate.” And what we found through about a year and a half worth of research was that Latin America, Central and South, met a lot of these criteria. But being who we are, we said, “We need to go see this for ourselves.” And in the early part of 2015, my wife and our three boys – have four now, but at the time, there were three who were four, two and six months – did a six-month, six-country due diligence trip down into Latin America.
Holy cow, man.
So we spent about six or eight weeks in Ecuador and then came south to kind of come back north again. Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Panama. And through that trip, looked at over a hundred different ag assets for possible investment across the value chain, from production to kind of permanent crops, to more typical row crops, to livestock, to technology, to distribution, to co-ops, ultimately settled on a mixed ag project down in the Southern Cone, which we still manage today through a local family that lives there.
But really, that trip for us was twofold. It laid the groundwork for the consulting company that I started in 2016 once we came back, but it also showed our kids that there was more to life than what they had directly experienced, than what was right in their backyard or what was right in front of them. And we wanted to show that to them. My wife and I have always been avid lovers of travel and this was a perfect opportunity to give back, I think, to the family bank where I had drawn so much from in times of deployment and whatnot and needed to put back into that. And so that was part of what this other trip was. But it was so much more valuable in hindsight than I would’ve anticipated both personally and professionally. But it really laid the groundwork for what we’re doing now professionally also.
Wow. Wow. I mean, that’s a tremendous story. And so, I mean, for those out there that got three kids and they were really little, you got no excuses now because Mike just did it.
Mike figured out how to make it happen. Well, so let me make sure I’m connecting the dots here. So you said you separated from the military. The overarching goal of what you’re seeking to accomplish, was it, “Hey, we’ve got a stash of cash that we were wanting to utilize and use proactively in various investments”? Was that the goal? Or were you trying to acquire a business? I’m trying to make sure I understand and then that the listeners understand what was going on right there during that time.
Yeah, no, it’s a good point. It was less about putting a stash of cash to work. And it certainly wasn’t about acquiring an active business. We had previously invested in Ecuador in 2010, 2011. It was more of a land development deal. We fell in love with Ecuador when we first went down there about that time, late 2009, early 2010. We’ve been reading a lot about it. And it was just kind of our foray into the rest of Latin America. And after we divested that investment for a positive return, we said, “Okay. Let’s put a little more of that.” Not all of it, obviously, but some of that back into the region.
And so that’s part of what that trip was to find that using just boots on the ground, tactical, technical diligence and see if we could unearth something. But it was also to lay the groundwork for the business, which when it started in 2016, really had two purposes. The first was to create expeditions or due diligence trips, so to speak, for investors like us that wanted to understand the region. And when we came back, we put all of these together, got the pieces in place, got the itinerary set up, five-to-seven-day trips in four or five different countries where we had visited and we were ready to launch these. The second part of it was more on the advisory side of things. Independent due diligence folks that were interested in defining the market that had new products or needed help building businesses in these region, either from the US into Latin America or from Latin America into the US. And we really worked both of these simultaneously for the better part of a year or so. We even branched out into Columbia and built a trip there with a firm that was building a project in a mixed ag type portfolio.
And so it was something that we wanted to showcase. And really, what we found was that most of the folks that were doing that kind of extended or personal diligence were doing it themselves, right? They were independent enough where they wanted to go and kind of see it for themselves or build their own. But where we found a ton of traction was around the advisory end of things. And that’s really when we said, “Okay. Let’s put this part on hold and let’s really focus on the independent advisory group end type of work.” And that’s where we have grown since then.
Fascinating, fascinating. Okay. So I think I’m getting my head around this. And again, I’m going to back briefly on this, make sure I understand.
Because I know if I have questions, those listening watching will too. The essence of what you’re doing was really it was like an exploratory time where you’re trying to identify business opportunities, and for whatever reason, South America and Latin America have just been a focus in terms of – I won’t recount everything that you said. You said it way better than I could. But all these different criteria that you’re looking for, you found that that was available to you south of here. And so doing that, then you’re like, okay, well, maybe there’s a business to be had out of this. I just don’t know what that might quite look like. And so it can present itself in a number of different ways. And so in the process of trying to explore this specific niche, which happens to be ag, but in Latin America, specifically, then you came to realize, okay, the advisory side of this, there’s a business to be had here in addition to investing and some other things that I’m sure you’re working on, but the advisory/consulting work. And by that, I know you set up – I just wanna make sure I got it right. So you’re advising US-based companies on how to properly enter or invest or interact with Latin America.
Yeah. So here’s a way that I generally phrase it and you tell me if this resonates at all. Our firm is a strategic advisory firm and we work within a few key areas within agriculture, right? Ag tech or ag technology, food, and investment, right? All of the kind of subcomponents of those primary areas are where we tend to focus on within ag. Now there’s technologies that touch lots of different parts of the value chain from what we call crop inputs or the things that go into the ground or into the crop during cultivation. There are technologies and software that help you monitor those things. And then there are hardware and software that help you extract them and process them and package them and get them out to the end customer. So the technology end of this covers lots of different parts of the value chain.
The type of clientele that we generally work with are private equity groups. So groups that have private pockets or that look to put that money to work in various opportunities, businesses, geographies. Asset managers, managers of these different types of farmland projects or companies or groups that are managing other people’s money. We also work with the technology companies, the ag technology companies themselves. And we work with growers or producers. And the kinds of services that we provide would probably best be categorized as independent due diligence, right? We’re an independent firm. We’re not beholden to a particular group. And so that gives us third party credibility, where we can diligence a company or a region for an investor without any kind of bias towards what that diligence may return back to them, right? In an instance where we diligence a company, that also gives the investor a sense of anonymity, because somebody else is looking at them and it doesn’t change the pricing metric. It doesn’t inflate things and allows them to keep their cars a little closer to hold. So that’s an attractive part of that.
The other services, I would say, that we offer are business and product development. So if you have a business that you need to grow either in Latin America or in the US, if you have a product that needs developing, a technology, a piece of software, that’s where we kind of tend to operate when you look at the technology end of things. Strategic partnership work. Over the last five years, we built a fairly robust network within lots of different parts of the ag value chain. And so if you’re a business looking for partnership, that’s another area we operate. And then I think maybe finally is an area around the access to capital, right? Our internal network tends to be more earlier stage capital, venture type funds, high net worth, or retail investors, private investors. We have some partnerships with specialized groups that have access to larger pockets of money, more institutional type capital. And that work tends to be more in the agribusiness, larger in size, larger in scale and scope, et cetera. But that may be in a nutshell kind of summarizes what we’re doing now for the kinds of companies that we do it for. Hopefully that helps.
Yeah, it helps a lot. I mean, you’re doing a lot, man. That’s a lot. That is a lot of different services and a lot of different customers that you are servicing. I mean, there’s a lot there. And so, I mean, you really kind of found your corner and you’re really staking your claim there in terms of, hey, this is where we’re best. And so we’ll go ahead and just shift gears now. But what was the formation of that business like on day one? And how did you get your team assembled or initial revenue, those kinds of questions, I guess.
It takes a lot of preparation ahead of time. Like I had said, we started getting this entrepreneurial bug at least a year and a half or two years ahead of it actually happening. And so we tried to save for the entrepreneurial leanness, so to speak, as early as we could. And that took the form of strict budgets. At that point, we were living on base. We did a lot of our shopping at the commissary. And we had a steady income and we put a lot of that away. Not only to pay for the diligence trip for six months that we went on, but also to have some financial runway when it came time to start the company.
And we knew – we thought, I won’t say we knew, but I’ll say we thought that it was going to take time to build this, right? I had never done this kind of independent consulting work before or advisory work. I had a sense of what I thought it might be, but we tried a lot of things at first. We tried active marketing and paid marketing. We tried written content and thought leadership, so to speak, getting expertise out there for people we thought would be interested in relevant publications. We tried attending conferences and all of those things. Some were successful, some were not, but all of them taught me something.
Good or bad. And through the course of trying those things, you meet people along the way. You expand your professional network. You try to do that as much as you can ahead of time in the service. I started with the service network and tried to build it from there. But you really have a ton of success also when you’re within that network and you can build it through these different exercises of trial and error, so to speak. And through the process of those exercises, you meet people and those people become interested in what you’re doing, and when you can bring them onto your team, you can and you try to do that in the sense and in what capacity that you’re able to at that point in development. And sometimes it’s just a project by project basis. And sometimes it’s more permanent, which is where we are now.
But, man, I would say the thing that I try to communicate and that I’m trying to communicate and an answer to your question is it takes a while, right? Five years now. Yeah, five years now. And we’re finally at a point now where we’re saying, “Okay. This is, I think, the niche we need to be in. These are the services that we can offer.” But you mentioned the podcast. That’s something we started early this year and it’s Veterans In Agriculture. It’s not Latin American or independent due diligence in South America. But we’ve broadened beyond that also, right? We do a lot of work in the developed markets – North America, parts of Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand has a big ag and technology piece to it as well. And so you try to flow where the opportunities take them while at the same time, trying not to get distracted by the new shiny object, right? There are some of those objects that you should go after, but there are some that are just distractions and a discernment to tell which of those is viable and which is not takes a team in a lot of ways.
Man, very, very well said. So one, man, I’m so excited for you. It’s cool. It’s cool hearing your story and just seeing – and I appreciate you being so open about it and just laying it out there. Because there’s a lot of folks – and I’m speaking specifically to the concept of it takes time, right? And so patience is something that I think a lot of us struggle with. Yours truly, right? I will struggle with patience from time to time. But it’s also having a long-term vision of where you want him to go. But also on top of that, and I think you kind of mentioned this a second ago, which was, okay, understanding where we are, where we want to be, but then having the wisdom to understand, you know what, we may want to shift directions here.
And I think, to your point about discerning between shiny object versus true north or core competency or however you want to label it, I think that is probably one of the toughest things that every business faces. And I don’t think it gets talked about quite enough with younger companies. There’s all these like incremental changes. It’s the classic dumb example of, hey, you chart a course for a ship from point A to point B over a thousand miles and if it’s off by one degree, look at how far off it is, right? It’s kind of that same example. And it doesn’t mean the destination is any better or worse, it’s just there’s a lot of decisions that you’re making. Because one, you’re trying a lot of different things. So you’re with a lot of different ideas, but then you’re trying to gain a foothold somewhere. But then also while you’re doing that, not getting distracted with other things. And so talk with me then, and I hope that made sense.
It did. And I’ve got a comment on that on that.
But ask your question.
No, I was just going to ask, and this may tie into your comment. Please don’t forget your comment. But the question I was gonna ask is, well, as you formed your team, how critical has having a team? Whether they’re 1099 retained consultants or W-2 employee, whatever it looks like doesn’t matter. But how important has that been to you in helping steer where you’re gonna go?
Invaluable. It would not have been possible without level, experienced, guided heads that have surrounded me in the last five years. My family and wife included. It’s easy when you first start and it’s in something that you haven’t done before to think that your idea is the right idea. Or that something you’re trying has never been tried before. Or that this is really the new thing that you need to move into. But to have the ability to bounce that off of at least somebody else and say, “Is this real? Does this make sense? Here’s the factors. Here’s what I’m thinking. But is this right?” Or not even is this right, but is this reasonable? And that is crucial to entrepreneurship. There are entire networks and entire companies built on building networks and mentors for veterans. American Corporate Partners, Bunker Labs, Patriot Boot Camp, Dog Tag Incorporated. I mean, there are lots of these that help veterans get these idea-sounding boards in terms of mentors and people together and around them that are out there. That’s their whole purpose because it’s recognized how valuable that is.
But it’s interesting that you mentioned the challenge with – and this is the comment that I wanted to make to you. But it it’s interesting you mentioned the challenge of finding the right path, so to speak, or moving down the right area. That’s what, in my mind, I think, makes the veteran in particular so well suited for entrepreneurship, and in my mind, suited for entrepreneurship or work in agriculture, right? Think for a second about agriculture. It is driven by many different factors – weather, temperature, humidity, climate, soil, water, what it is that you’re growing on it, the technology that’s moving over it. So this ability to be able to operate in an environment that’s influenced by lots of different ever-changing factors, right? Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?
And so the other factor here, I think, is the ability to execute in a decentralized manner, right? There are lots of different people and things that support agriculture. Just like there are lots of different people and things and opportunities that a veteran has to deal with in a decentralized or counter-insurgency environment. The learned and oftentimes the hard way learned ability to triage and solve the most pressing problems first. That is a skill that almost nobody, I think, is as good at as the veteran. So when you take them out of that environment or when they transition out of that environment and they’re thinking about where they want to go, in my mind, I think agriculture for a lot of those particular reasons are incredibly well-suited for the veteran.
And I think the other thing that comes up in a lot of the conversations that I have on a podcast is this sense of servitude that the veteran experiences or that they have in the military. They’re a part of something bigger than themselves. And when they separate, a lot of times they lose that, right? That camaraderie goes away. That sense of what you’re doing is a part of something bigger, it’s not there anymore. And so they find themselves awash in a lack of purpose, right? And they try lots of different things that gives them some value because it helps them know what they don’t want to do. But in a lot of ways, when they settle on ag, they say, “Oh, this is part of what I was missing. I’m a part of something bigger than myself.” It’s a service to others or the world, really. Feeding people and being a part of the technology and the business and the capital that helps all of those things occur is a huge sense of purpose to the veteran.
And in my mind, and really the reason for the podcast is that there’s more to it than just production, right? There’s more to agriculture than just farming, right? There’s all of these things that I mentioned beforehand and there’s all of these reasons why I think the veteran is good at that. A lot of the attention now gets paid to that one part of it for me, right? And there’s a lot of reasons for that. There are physical and mental health benefits to working the soil and being a part of something like that outdoors. And I’m not at all trying to take away from that because I think that’s incredibly important. I live on a farm in Northeast, Texas myself. And so it’s something that we’re very much involved in and understand the value of.
But what I’m hoping to do is showcase to agribusinesses – the Cargill’s, the John Deere’s, the Nestle’s – that if you’re considering hiring a veteran, here’s why. Here’s all of these sort of soft intangible skills that I think make them really well suited for your particular business. But it’s also to show the veteran that, hey, wait a minute, there’s more to agriculture than just farming. There’s technology, there’s business, there’s innovation, there’s entrepreneurship. And I’m hoping that this show will highlight that. Not just to the veteran, but also to somebody that may be interested in hiring a veteran.
Hundred percent. I mean, very, very well said. I mean, man, this is amazing. And I think you really struck a chord there with the veterans community as it relates to purpose. And this is the one thing a lot of people talk about have a hard time articulating, have a hard time really getting their head around. I think it’s the number one issue that folks have after they’ve separated and they’re stumbling along trying a bunch of different things, right? I mean, we don’t even have – I mean, we could go story after story for story about example of all that playing out in so many people’s lives, mine included, right? There’s a ton of people that deal with that as they’re trying to navigate their post-military journey because it’s something that’s gone.
And I think as you’re speaking about the connection to purpose and the connection to greater good and something bigger than yourself, there something as you’re saying that made me think, well, there is a way. It may be slightly indirect. It may be a little bit creative, but there’s probably a case to be made, not just in agriculture, but in literature about every everything that we do in terms of careers, jobs, however you want to title that. But if you can connect it – and I think the point I’m trying so horribly here to make is you have to connect it to a higher purpose, right? You need to be able to connect the work that you’re doing to something greater than yourself.
And I think that’s an itch that a lot of veterans are trying to address. And it can really be disheartening when you enter corporate America or maybe you’re trying to run your own start up or you’re joining a small team, whatever the case may be, and not a lot of other people share that same passion for benefiting greater good. They’re passionate people. They’re great people. They’re more focused on the here and now, the tactical level and we’ve been bred to think of it from tactical, operational, strategic level, right? And it’s like all the way up. What’s your thought?
I think the problem – and this is just from similar conversations – is twofold. I think the veteran naturally in my experience is a generally humble person, right? They have trouble talking about their accomplishments, the things they do well. One thing I have found that helps that is just through story. And I don’t know if that’s the same thing for you or not, but if you can get a veteran talking about something that they experienced that was impactful for them or that they hold onto today, or that has helped shape them into the kind of person they are. And if you’re listening for the right things, in that story you can gather some of the softer, more intangible skills that may tell you where they may find that sense of purpose, whether it’s an ag or whether it’s in any other kind of business.
The other problem that I’ve seen is that hiring organizations, and this is not a generalization, but some of them don’t understand the holistic set of skills that the veteran can bring, right? They think if you did supply in the military then you should do supply in the private sector. If you did logistics then you should do logistics. They get pigeonholed into the same kind of career that they did in the service without any real unpacking of what else beyond those technical skills did they learn or that maybe applicable in this. So I see that struggle to match the sense of purpose between the profession and the veteran as kind of an issue on both sides, right? It’s the veteran having trouble telling the story, but it’s also the hiring organization, either not knowing what questions to ask, not knowing that veterans struggle with humility and telling their own story, but it’s also knowing what to listen for within that story that can help place them in a spot that they find purpose.
Well, great point. And I will throw something back at you on that because I think what you’re saying there really should be an eye-opener to people because you’re so right. Minus combat arms. But most other roles within the military, there’s generally a one-to-one translation on the outside world, even in combat arms, right? It’s all the typical places that you would expect to see someone without a background in in a specific field. And I think you kind of hit on something here that I think is really worth talking about for just a quick second.
It may be important, I think it may be critical that veterans understand how to talk about their service, to your point about the story, but being able to translate it on their own. Because for companies that have a difficult time hiring veterans, they just think we’re all former drill instructors and we’re gonna just flip tables over and yell at people, if that stigma already exists, then it really is on us to make sure that we are communicating that message. And so putting more effort and energy into, okay, I might’ve been an ordinance officer in the US Air Force, or I may have been a diesel mechanic in the US Army, whatever that may look like, but being able to take a lot of the things you’re saying earlier, all the intangible soft skills, the responsibility level, the amount of trust and the amount of responsibility we put on people at such a young age, but being able to translate that without a civilian background. And I think that’s what’s so hard, right? You don’t have the civilian background to maybe completely appreciate what an employer is looking for. Therefore, it’s harder to communicate that story, to your very point.
But then also on the corporation side of it, understanding, okay, just because they did X, Y, and Z doesn’t mean that that’s exactly what they need to go. And there are some very, very wise organizations out there that they are specifically targeting first-term enlistment people, junior military officers, any member of cross sections of the Defense Department. They understand that there’s a specific skill set and they’re leveraging that. And they don’t care where you come from. Like, hey, we’ll teach you the stuff. You’ve got all the basic soft skills and some of the intangibles that are very, very hard to teach. Let us teach you, right?
That’s right. Yeah. And it’s Brian Grundthner, who was a former Army Psychological Operations enlisted guy that I had on the show a couple of weeks ago. He said it really well. He said it’s an iterative. It’s an iterative process. Being better at interviewing, being better at a resume, being better at networking. Just like you learned to shoot or the fundamentals of movement and communication comes through repetition and practice, right? So why wouldn’t it be any different in this situation where you’re not comfortable talking about or communicating your story or your skills or writing those down. You just have to try and try again and get a lot of nos. But the good thing is that you’re a service member. So whether that’s a no at first or whether it’s a no after a hundred, you’re going to push through it and you’re going to find a way to get it done because that’s who you are and that’s how you operate.
The other thing that came to mind as you were talking about just sort of helping match these two, and it wasn’t a point I had realized until I had kind of got into this a little. There is a disparity between the network of an officer coming out of the service and a disparity between the network that the enlisted service member has coming out, right? The officer has a college network that they can tap into to begin to build that private sector, and a lot of times the enlisted service members doesn’t. And so when they separate the enlisted guy or gal tend to go back where they came from, right? In a lot of cases, that’s rural areas or it’s outside of cities and hiring organizations – if they’re in rural communities – struggle to link up with these guys and gals and to find them where they are.
And so I think Cargill has done a really fantastic job of this. They have these community outreach initiatives where they set up these networking events and agriculture is very rural and they have lots of different dealerships that’s very decentralized, but they set these networking events up where veterans are, right? And if you’re looking at the enlisted community, then that’s where you have to go in these more rural, small town areas and their approach is less of ‘I’m going to grab the best talent for me’ and more of ‘I want the veteran to be where they’re going to be the most successful’. Whether that’s at Cargill or it’s Land O’Lakes, it doesn’t matter as long as the veteran is in a position at the end of the day where they find that sense of purpose. Whether it’s with them or not, it’s a win, right? I just thought that was a really unique approach that that they communicated of how they look at hiring veterans. Go where they are and it’s the best situation for the veteran. That is the ultimate goal. It’ll all iron out in the wash and through averages in terms of getting people to actually come at Cargill. But in my mind, that’s the right way to look at this.
Yeah. Well, I mean, that’s a fascinating observation. Because I mean, to your point about the difference in the background of officer versus the enlisted side, and that it’s very unfortunate. It angers me that that’s the case. Because I mean, a lot of folks I served with. I’m good friends with some of the people that I served with. Solid people. And why there’s this disparity on the outside? It’s frustrating because, hey, we all saw the same stuff. We did a lot of the same things and we all played a role, right? There’s a different role for each teammate in this experience that we call the US military. So having opportunities for people to continue to advance and continue to pursue different careers and just growth and all these other things, I think, is so, so important. And I’m not gonna pretend to have the answers. It’s just I appreciate you bringing it up.
Are you familiar with the DoD SkillBridge program?
I am, yeah.
Yeah. In my mind, one of the reasons, I hope and I think that program will be generally successful is because it reaches into the transition process super early, right? Six months in advance, no risk to the veteran or the company themselves. I talked to Chris Thorne who used to be with HireMilitary not too long ago, but he had some staggering statistics about the kinds of employment retention that happened after a program like that versus one that doesn’t. And I’m going to butcher these numbers. So Chris, if you listen to this, fix me. But it was something less than a 50% or right at 50% of a veteran leaves that first job after they transitioned. It doesn’t stick.
The retention rate following the DoD SkillBridge program, where they do six months of an internship at a company. It’s essentially a temporary assignment of duty prior to leaving the services. Somewhere north of 85%, they stay at that job, which means two things in my mind. The veteran found purpose and the hiring organization recognized there may be more intangible skills, right? Which is where the disparity was happening – I think was part of the disparity was happening. And so I think these kinds of programs that put these two entities in touch for longer periods of time sooner than the decision point that has to be made, the more successful they’re going to be. Just one thought.
Yeah. No, I think it’s a solid thing. And we’ve got data to show that too, right? I mean, the numbers are painting a really, really clear story there. And I look at the time and I look up and here we are. It’s like time flies by. This could definitely turn into – I feel like you and I could go for hours, probably two-or-three-hour easy conversation. But yeah, we are up against the clock, man, but this has been an absolute blast. What’s the best way for people to get in touch with you if they want to learn more about you and the things that you’re doing through AGD Consulting?
Sure. Our website is agdconsult.com. We also have the podcast that you mentioned, Vets In Ag. You can find that on our website or you can find it through most of the major podcast players – Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, et cetera. So check us out there. I’m also on LinkedIn.
Got it. Yep, Michael J. DeSa on LinkedIn and I threw the website up there for you.
I see that. Thank you.
Yes. And then definitely go follow, go subscribe and listen to the Vets In Ag Podcast. I think it’s terrific. And Mike, I really do, I appreciate you spending some more time with me. This has been a true blast. Thanks for sharing some of the journeys and the story. I know there’s so much more there that we could have unpacked. I mean, really, there’s so much that I’m like, oh my gosh, we’re running out of time. It’s crazy. There’s so much more there. Maybe we’ll have to sit down and do a part two at some point. I’d love to.
I’d love to pick up the story and kind of go a whole – we can go down a whole another series of rabbit trails, man. So this is awesome. Again, I just want to thank you. This has been a true blast. Thanks so much.
My pleasure, Aaron. Thank you for the invitation and for what you’re doing for the veteran community. I think that the more we can shed light on not my story, but the story of your hundred plus other guests, the better it will be to bridge these two gaps in communities, I think.
A hundred percent.
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