S2E5 – Elana Duffy: From IEDs to non-profit and data startup. Had a lot of fun speaking with Elana Duffy. She’s an Army veteran and shares her story of getting college degrees, enlisting, working in the intel field, getting blown up in Iraq, and her eventual medical retirement from the Army, leading her to where she is today in the process of getting her startup moving. It was a true delight to have her on the show!
#22: From IEDs to non-profit and data startup with Elana Duffy
June 24, 2020 • 47:21
Aaron Spatz, Host, America’s Entrepreneur
Elana Duffy, Founder and CEO, Pathfinder Labs
I’m Aaron Spatz and this is The Veterans Business Podcast. A podcast centered around the stories of US military veterans and their adventures in the business world following their time in service, its stories of challenges and obstacles and an inside look at how veterans find their life’s work, their purpose, and their post-military lives.
Thank you so much for tuning in to The Veterans Business Podcast. We are so excited to welcome this week Elana Duffy. Elena is a US Army veteran. She spent nearly ten years of service at a very outstanding and very interesting time when she was in the Army. We’ll dig more into that gear shortly. And since then, she’s ventured out into the civilian workspace and even into the entrepreneurial side of life in that whole journey, in that process. So we’re going to get some really interesting insights and get to hear her story. And so with that, Elana, welcome to The Veterans Business Podcast.
Thanks. Awesome. Great to be here. And you know, semper fi with the Marine things.
Yeah. You know, it’s one thing to have Army people. We will sometimes refer to you as who was, you know? I don’t want to start a fight or anything here. And actually in all seriousness, I’d had the opportunity to train alongside Army going through artillery school. And so there’s a lot of joint force lessons learned there, which is a lot of fun. But thank you for being here. I’d just love to hear a little bit more of like your backstory. So walk us through your decision to even join the Army. What did that look like for you? And just share with us a little bit about that path.
Awesome. So I was a bit of an unconventional participant in the second, third, and fourth grade wars. I don’t know what we’re calling them now. I was an engineer. I had gotten a bachelor’s and a master’s in engineering from a good and rather expensive university. I got myself a job coming out of that in the middle of a recession in 2002. And I was sitting at my desk, staring at blueprints, calculating the linear feet of dry wall and said, “When I was growing up, I wanted to be an astronaut. This is a little different,” and went into my boss’s office, said, “I think I’m going to go and do the military thing that I’ve been talking about for years and years.” And he laughed at me. So I called the recruiter and I left in April of 2003 for basic training.
First, I selected the Army because the Army was the only ones who if you enlisted, they would allow you to choose your job. And so the other forces, I’m sure they’ll let you choose a category of jobs or something else, but the Army was the only one saying, “No, you can actually pick your job.” So I picked to become what is now a human intelligence collector. At the time, it was a counterintelligence agent and I co-listed as an interrogator. Nothing to do with engineering or that very expensive pair of degrees that are hanging on my wall but I didn’t regret a day of it. I chose to enlist instead of going direct to the officer track. And I had served maybe a year or two as enlisted and I was like, I won’t go commission. Most I’ll do as a warrant. And yeah, no regrets.
Wow. That’s fantastic. And I mean, no doubt. So you’ve gone through all this schooling of an engineer, the whole engineering side of things. And then you just hit a moment where you’re just like, okay, I’m done with all this, got to make a change. So you made the change. And power to you for electing to go like, man, I want to go do something that I really, really want to do. Because you’re dead-on. I’m in the officer side and I know every branch. The military is only slightly different, but it’s basically, you know, air, ground, legal, medical. It’s pretty, pretty wide categories. And that’s pretty neat that you’re able to really dial into what that was. I mean, obviously given the sensitivity of what you did, but could you share with us a little bit about – just give us a sense of some of the things that you were able to do?
Oh, yeah. I mean, one of the main reasons that I picked the job that I did is because I wanted to make a tangible difference. I wanted to be on the ground operating, doing something, using problem solving skills but doing it from a point where I could see the results of what I was doing. And in 2002, 2003, it was limited to what women could do that was kind of a ground-pounding job. And this one seemed like it had kind of all of the things. It had elements of psychology and dealing with people and figuring out why people were doing the things that they were doing. It had a lot of problems solving. It had a lot of split decision-making. And even as a young E4 touring around Afghanistan, where I was on the ground in Afghanistan, it was like nine months or something after I left for boot camp. And I hadn’t been at my unit. Maybe two months at my unit.
Left for Afghanistan. We came back in four and a half or so months later. We turned around and went to Iraq. And the whole time, I was on tactical teams, finding the bad guys with bombs theoretically before the bombs went off. And I’ll tell you, it was one of the most rewarding things that you can do to be able to walk into an infantry commander’s office right when you get back from an eight-hour mission and be like, “The weapons cache is here, here, and here. Tonight or tomorrow night, we can go and round up this guy or this guy.” And you could see the difference that it made in terms of just the security and the safety of the area.
So it was very, very high stress, but it was great. The infantry guys that I worked with, and actually there was a field artillery unit that we worked with in Afghanistan. Everybody was awesome. And because we got to be – it’s almost like operating as one of the SF teams. We ended up getting dumped into an area and having to be a little scrappy to figure out like, “Oh, our unit didn’t give us any trucks. So I guess we’re going to have to figure out who’s got some of those and add on out with them.” “Do you guys mind dropping us off in this town? We’re like, I don’t know, half an hour, and you can come along, we don’t care.
Wow. That’s crazy. That’s crazy.
Yes. Happy Women Veterans Day, by the way.
Yes, absolutely. And it’s very fitting. Obviously, thank you for your service. And I think it’s a very clever way that you were able to find yourself to the tip of the spear literally because what you were doing – I mean, I can’t imagine the level of pride and just purpose that you felt knowing that here’s all the actionable intel that we got during our timeout and you’re able to give it to somebody and they can do something with it and it actually impact and save lives and make a real difference.
Yeah. It’s an incredible job if you can do it. I still miss it every day. I really do.
So I’m one of those people who I definitely would have stayed in if the Army would have let me.
Okay. That was my next question. Talk us through your journey outward.
So in Iraq, in 2005, I was actually hit by a roadside bomb that, you know, I had mentioned where it was going to be, but actually it was part of a string of three. The route clearance guys had gone out and they found two of them, but the third one hadn’t been dropped yet. And so when we went out a couple hours later, the third one went off. It hit just in front of our truck. I got blown backwards. I had a brain hemorrhage. But when you start talking to an interrogator who is worried that they’re kind of going crazy, and you’re like, “Well, we don’t know if we have to pull you off the road. So we’re going to send you to psych to do an eval.” It’s not like we don’t know what to say.
So I didn’t know anybody’s name. I couldn’t walk in a straight line. The guys that I was reading their name tapes when they walked up to, they were like, “You okay?” I was bleeding out of both my ears and no idea what was going on. And they were like, “You okay?” And I would read their names off their name tapes. And I worked with at that point with a bunch of guys out of Samoa. And if you have ever seen some of these Samoan names, it was not a good day. But yeah, we pulled up to a house and I thought we were just manning a checkpoint there. And my partner who had been in the truck behind me comes over and was like, “You all set?” And I was like, “What are we doing? Checkpoint here?” And he was like, “No, this is your guy that you’ve been talking to class like three months.” And I was like, “Oh, cool. Though I don’t have any idea what’s going on.” So that’s when he figured out something wrong.
When they finally figured out – because it was 2005, nobody was studying brain injuries that point. So it wasn’t until about 2008 that they finally did an MRI because I was having migraines. I was losing my vision. I had no idea what was up. I had actually broken my ankle at some point within there as well. And then the brain injury caused neuropathy and all of these other issues. So I kept retearing the ligaments in my ankle. I was a mess. But still just kind of powering on through.
And so 2008, they finally did an MRI and we’re like, “Oh, you need to go to Walter Reed. If you bang your head, you’ll die because you had a bleed in your brain.” And I was like, “Oh, that’s cool. That’s good to know. So how about me learning how to snowboard without a helmet two months ago, was that a bad idea?” And they were like, “Yeah. You need to go to Walter Reed now before you do something else stupid.”
And still found myself skirting medical evaluation boards but was still having enough of the side effects. I assessed into a special mission type of unit and was operating there, volunteered to deploy and went into one of the doctor’s offices to get my pre-deployment physical and approvals. And he was like, “Oh, we were definitely supposed to put you out of the military a couple of years ago. What are you still doing here?” And I was like, “Well, nobody told me to go home. So here I am. Can I just back out of your office nice and slow and pretend like we didn’t have this conversation?” I was like, “I came here to try to deploy. And you’re telling me that I got to go through a med board process now.” So, finally, in 2012, they caught up to all of my dodging and ducking and dodging and diving and dodging and they handed me my enemy, my DD 214, with retired and sent me home.
And yeah. I mean, they retired me. They did me a solid on that one. But came back to New York City near where I’d grown up and started trying to figure things out.
Wow. Well, thank you for sharing that. And I mean, obviously, thank you. I mean, I just can’t imagine all the things that you went through. I mean, there’s a lot – I mean, especially at the beginning, right? When TBI and all these other things were not even hardly a mention of any type of discussion, but you were on the front end of that. And yeah, I can’t imagine. And just real quick and then we’ll move on. But the example you gave when you guys rolled up to this house and you were supposed to go out and take care of this source that you’re working with, how long had that been between the injury where you’re bleeding out of both the ears to that stop? Was that the same day? Or was that like a couple of weeks later?
Yeah. That was the same day. I was like maybe two to three hours later. We had the quick reaction force come to secure the areas that we could move on. A guy had some shrapnel in his hand, but it was like, “No, I can keep going.” I was like, “Ah, it’s probably just pop your drums.”
Fake it till you make it. So because my first reaction was, “Oh, cool. I’m losing my mind. I don’t have any idea what’s going on.” Well, until I can figure it out, like, let’s do this. And it turned out that I had had a pretty massive brain hemorrhage. And yeah, I mean, even by the time I got out in 2012, they were still not the military medical and VA were not giving ratings for TBI. So I had to get all of the symptoms listed out instead. So you know, the struggle continues, but if they just wanted to give me something to do, I think. When I got out, they were like, “Oh, you can figure this out. Take a couple more years.”
But I mean, no hard feelings. They just weren’t looking at it. It was not on their radar.
Yeah. Wow. Well, I mean, again, thank you. Thanks for sharing that. I would love to kind of then skip forward. So share with us now, you know, you shared you’d got out, you got medically retired out of the Army and come back to New York. You’re working in New York and then, you know, I see on your history here, you’ve had the chance to co-found and work with Present Tense and then obviously you founded Pathfinder. And so take us along the journey of those two ventures. How did you get to that point? And share with us a little bit about that.
Yes. Actually, since I had no idea what to do when I got out, I think like the vast majority of military and even their families, I had no idea what I was going to do. So I happened to get out. I was doing all of my transition stuff right when Hurricane Sandy hit my home area of New York and New Jersey. And so I was coming back all the time every weekend because by then they had moved me to closer to Walter Reed. So I was coming home almost every weekend to help friends and do stuff with Sandy recovery and actually helped found a nonprofit with a couple other folks just to help raise funds for disaster relief and disaster response.
But actually through all of that disaster work, I met up with someone who was civilian retiring out he just wanted to kind of take a break. He was a consultant. He was a management consultant at a major firm. And he was like, “I’m exhausted, I’m tired. I want to start this company that helps other business, business owners and stuff like that, write books or write white papers or create content that they need. I see that in your engineering background, you have operations research and industrial engineering experience and operations management and operations engineering. So can you help me out?”
And so that’s how Present Tense came to be. It was just a chance fixing a roof in Moore, Oklahoma, talking to some of the other people that were out there volunteering. And so we started that company. He’s actually still going with it. I did that for about two years and started – because the more heavily involved you get in the community, the more you start running into other veterans who are like, “Oh, well, what places have you been? What have you done? What’s helped you out?”
And I was like, you know, we have this series of tubes called the internet. I’m really super surprised that I’m constantly getting emails or phone calls or text messages being like, “Hey, what’s the difference between these two mental health organizations? Do I want to do this volunteer opportunity or do I want to do this one?” And the scary thing that was happening is that people who were going to kind of the wrong fit were finding that they not only wouldn’t go back to that organization for help, they wouldn’t go to anything similar. So figuring out where someone would fit properly seems to be a super important factor in whether or not a person was going to successfully integrate into their community or get the right services.
And so I dredged up all of that old – especially the data engineering parts of operations research and started looking into and I partnered up with another vet who had just gotten a degree, his master’s in data science, and that’s how Pathfinder.VET or Pathfinder Labs was born. And we just want to give everybody the opportunity to give feedback to the services in their neighborhood. And then we use AI to help the organizations and services become better. And if I talk too much about that, it’ll get super nerdy, so I’ll stop there.
No, it’s all good.
I’m a straight up nerd through and through. I try to hide it sometimes, but I’m not good at it.
No, I think that it’s awesome. What were some of the early – as it was getting formed and founded, you know, what was the product? So it’s primarily a platform. Is it a free resource for people to access or how does that work?
Yeah. So it’s free for veterans, family members, anyone who needs to search for a resource. And it’s a standard service that similar to something like a Yelp or Glassdoor or something like that.
And then because really the bread and butter is that we ask for and we hope that more veterans and family members will leave a little bit of feedback after they use a service or a resource. And then what we do is we partner up with the resource at this to generate analytic reports and all of these things that actually show what their real impact is, not just like a “Oh, you got all four-star ratings. So you’re doing great.”
We use natural language processing and we use all of these things so that we can make the reviews completely anonymous and yet we were able to tell one of our clients, “Hey, over 50% of the people who are participating in your programs are saying that nothing is wrong. There’s nothing stopping them from doing something in the future with you. But through using the AI, we were actually able to tell male veterans were looking for some sort of achievement goal, like a certificate or something like that. Whereas the women veterans were really looking for building a closer network of other women veterans and they were hoping to be able to do that with you guys. So if you start tailoring your programs that way, you’ll be able to get more of them out and get them coming back and basically give a better service.”
And then they’re able to go and they’re able to fundraise on that. And then you know that the donation dollars and foundation dollars are all going to people that are genuinely trying to improve and build programs that are going to have a better impact on the community. And at the same time, part of the free service that we do to kind of complete that feedback loop is we take individual series of say reviews or something and we’re able to say, “Hey, people who are just like you personality wise or motivation wise and also like you in terms of their discharge status or the branch of service and all these other similarities, they’re doing really well at this particular organization or they tend to do pretty well at the VA or they tend to do pretty well with this university student group.” So we’re able to get people going back to that whole first encounter being a positive encounter. We’re able to help people figure out what that first encounter should be.
So it has been quite a journey. Especially getting people to sit down and write a five-minute review. Let me tell you. I swear to God, I don’t even know if my friends… they’re like, “Oh, please do not send me another email about like, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You’ve got five minutes? Cool.” But we’re getting more and more on their own of where people are participating in the platform by themselves.
That’s cool. That’s really neat in how you can use the data science, data analytics on the backend. Really, yeah. I mean, it’s pretty smart play because, really, the companies that are going to kind of embrace that, that service that you’re offering to them. I mean, it’s going to be a positive impact because you’re giving them real intel on what’s going on, right? I mean, that’s the big draw, right?
Yeah. Because if you’ve never done a personality test for getting a job or something and you’re like, well, what type of candidate do they want to see? Should I say that I’m super cooperative even though I hate people? Yes. But we’re able to actually go through it and be like, “Well, you know, the way you write, you’re probably not a huge fan of people. So you might want to consider something a little different.” And all of that is personal. We don’t share it. We don’t sell that data. So let me tell you, figuring out a business model, that is… ugh.
Yeah. So, has that been one of the bigger challenges for the company? Just kind of solidifying a business model of pricing structure and just your plan on marketing it and selling it?
Oh, yeah. Especially with our primary client being nonprofits who in a good year are not always keen on being able to invest in something like data analysis. It’s been a struggle to figure out a pricing model that most nonprofits can afford or because we want to be able to serve everybody from the huge multimillion dollar nonprofits down to two people who train 12 service dogs per year and we want to be able to help all of them figure out how to make more of an impact in the entire military and veteran communities.
So finding a business model, figuring out how to get engineers, who did programming any time in the decade that I was in the military, to be able to work for next to nothing. I mean, I was paying people out of my disability for a long time. Just write it up as a loan. And being able to – just because I was, like, “Well, I’m not going to have you guys work for free.” A lot of the people that I bring in are veterans or family members or first-generation immigrants who are just brilliant in some of the engineering schools.
And you know, pandemics don’t help when the donor dollars are stopping. So, yeah, I tell people all the time, I’m like, “Don’t start a company unless you know what you’re doing. Know what you’re getting into.” But just like with the Army, I mean, never looked back. When it works, it works great. And it’s worth the stress and heartache and teeth pulling and conceding to engineer demands when I’m like, “Well, given that you’re working for peanuts,” but I mean, building up that network is so important. Just building up working with organizations like Operation Code to say like, “Hey, does anybody need some experience who has knowledge of this and this programming language or working with an organization like Bunker Labs who is ready and able to help veterans who are entrepreneurs in forming partnerships?” Some of the best partnerships that I’ve made come from networking with the rest of the veterans community.
Yeah, for sure. I mean, the help and the resources are there, the people are there, it’s just a matter of everybody finding each other.
And there being just a great mutual benefit. And you had already kind of started to answer the question before I even had a chance to ask it. So I’ll attribute it to your CIA background. But, I mean, what advice would you have kind of – because your road has been very unique in the way that you’ve gotten there. But what advice would you have for those that are contemplating starting their own business or things that they’re thinking about doing in the veteran space?
Surround yourself with people that are smarter than you and learn everything you can from them. It’s the same way that you would build a team anywhere. Find people that are great at what they’re doing and who care about the mission the same way that you do. And the adage of hire slow, fire quick is 100% true. And remember that not all people are good people. But when you figure it out, it’s not personal. They’re probably just not a good person. Don’t take it personally, just move on. Get rid of it, move on. Same thing goes for clients, resources. There’s got to be an amount of resilience. It’s not going to work if all you’re doing is saying, “but I’m a veteran” or “but I’m a woman” or “I’m an amputee” or “but I’m…” Oh, yeah, yeah. It’s not going to work for you. You’ve got to build a team and they’ve got to be passionate and they’ve got to know what they’re doing.
And no, I love that.
You got to be open to learn.
Yeah. And I love what you just said. So, really, what you’re getting at there at the very end was just dropping all the labels and the excuses, and you know, let’s form the best team, the best people on our own merit. Let’s be great. And you know, I mean, I could see situations where people are wanting to get hired and they play a card. Or you’re trying to do a business deal and you play a card. And you’re saying, it’s like, no, we’ve got to do a great job or the person’s going to be a great fit for the team. And we’ve got to have a great product, bottom line.
Yeah, exactly. I mean, it’s funny because people have said to me, they’re like, “I don’t get it. You are a woman, you’re a veteran, you’re an amputee, you know, and you have an Ivy League engineering background. How are people not like flooding your gates?” And especially a couple of years ago, I was like, “Well, we don’t have the system properly built yet.” So even when people would walk up to me and say like, “Hey, we want to work with you”, we’re not there yet. Give me another month because we’re building this thing. We want to make sure that this is going to do everything that we say it’s going to do. And I’m not going to go out there and sell something and then be like, “Oh, by the way, give me a million dollars in two years to build it.” I’m going to say, “No. I’ve put together this team that has slept on couches for the last two years so that we can build something awesome that’s not being done elsewhere.”
Yeah. Well, what resources do you need? So, we are middle of the year 2020. And so if anybody watching this – and I’m thinking for you from either a customer standpoint, a client standpoint, or a team teammate standpoint, what are some things that you’re looking for in any or all of those categories?
Veterans to tell me what services are missing from our platforms. Veterans to ripe reviews of services they’ve used. And as nonprofits or even for-profits with programs and services that are looking to work in the military and veteran communities, get in touch with me and we’ll figure out how you can make it better. Our analytics are up and running. We are full system operational and we’re still adding stuff every day.
So we want to have every resource no matter how big or how small listed. So that just in case somebody would fit there perfectly, that they will be able to find it six months before they even get out of the service.
Yeah. That’s awesome. Well, I’d love to give this last segment back to you. I mean, if there’s any parting shots and parting words of wisdom or any other observations or things that you’d like to pass on, I’ll turn this over back to you.
Yeah, I know, right?
Inspire. I did go to business school, but I still can’t do the synergy talk.
It’s all good. It’s all good.
Yeah. No, I mean, I think it’s awesome that people have great ideas that they’re willing to go out there and put themselves out there and do it. Stick to it, find a way to stick to it. Make partners go and don’t quit your day job until you know that you’ll be able to eat tomorrow. No one’s going to hand it to you and no one should. You’ve got to still work for it. And because you know what, it’s going to be more rewarding on the back end anyway, that you know that you built that and you’ve got it because it’s awesome. And you know, I’m always looking for partners and other startups and stuff like that to work with or list or do whatever else. So I’m always happy to make new friends.
Well, for sure. Well, it’s a great community and there’s tons of people out there. We all just got to find each other. But no, Elana, I just want to thank you for taking time out of your day and thanks for joining the show and really just thanks for sharing. That’s for sharing your story and for some of your insights and just for spending time with me. Thank you.
Well, thank you. Thanks for doing this and for helping to keep all of the veteran entrepreneurs out there on track.
What a fun episode. And I just love hearing a lot of story of just how – man, all of the things that she’s been through. So, you know, getting blown up in Iraq, but all of the different things that come after that and the impact that’s had on her. Some of the things that we talked about there towards the latter half of the interview related to business. And I could not agree with her more about how important it is that you got to have a plan, you’ve got to have an idea of what you’re doing and then go freaking do it.
Don’t quit your day job at first. I mostly agree with that. If you are still trying to figure out what you’re doing and what your business model looks like and what all that requires then work on that at night and work at that on the side, prove that it works, prove that it’s sustainable, it’s revenue generating, that is profitable before you take the leap in order to do a full time. Or, I mean, but everybody’s got different stories, right? We could go all day with different situations and different stories that people have gone through as to why or how they got started in their business, but certainly, really, really solid advice.
And again, if you’re in the New York area, I would encourage you to look her up, get connected. Hopefully by the time that you do that, you’d be able to actually go outside and do that. And then if you’re a veteran and either want to partner with her as a company or potential teammates, whatever that looks like, seriously, I would encourage you to reach out to her and see how you can help and see how we can all contribute those veterans community.
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