From Battlefront to Boardroom

August 31, 2011

Leaders in commerce and warfare share a common vocabulary—words like strategy, tactics, dominance, conflict and victory. Success in the military provides young people with leadership and management experience that can contribute to success in business. But the transition from waging war to conducting commerce is not always easy.

Fortunately for over 1,500 veterans of America's recent conflicts, banker Sid Goodfriend felt after the attacks of 9/11 an ever-increasing debt to the young men and women he saw protecting our country in time of peril. So after a quarter-century on Wall Street, Mr. Goodfriend retired and in 2007 started repaying that debt.

He founded a nonprofit called American Corporate Partners (ACP), a mentoring program that helps veterans successfully jump from military careers into business. Senior executives in 27 companies—from Alcoa to Verizon—and three universities (Texas, Kansas State and Harvard) are paired with recently returned veterans for career counseling, mentoring and encouragement. This takes place in monthly one-on-one meetings between mentors and protégés and in regular events for networking and career development.

ACP also offers e-mentoring for protégés who live more than 100 miles outside a city with a participating company, relying on videoconferences, telephone calls and emails.

ACP is neither a federal jobs program nor a large organization of paid professionals. Mr. Goodfriend and its corporate partners fund ACP. It doesn't accept other donations. All of its mentors are successful men and women who give their time and talents to help build a bridge to civilian life for those serving in the military.

One such warrior is Chris O'Connor. Motivated by the events of 9/11 and inspired by the Marine service of his three uncles, Mr. O'Connor enlisted in 2003—only two months after high school. Handy with computers and technology, he not only made corporal at 19, but also went through the Marines' tough technical training to become an avionics repair specialist. It was a skill that came in handy in Iraq in 2007, where he was responsible for keeping the complicated electronics of his helicopter unit's choppers in tip-top shape. People's lives depended upon it.

Now Mr. O'Connor finds himself in a much different environment, seeking an undergraduate degree in economics at Columbia University. To navigate this new battleground of ideas, exams and research papers, ACP paired him with Jeremy Rabinowitz, an IBM finance analyst who earned his MBA at Columbia.

Mr. Rabinowitz is Mr. O'Connor's personal counselor, helping him succeed in college, recognize available opportunities, better understand his skills, and settle on a post-military career.

ACP has also made a big difference for Peggy Laneri, who spent 22 years in the Army on active duty or in the reserves. She knew what her extensive military career in engineering and logistics had prepared her for: becoming an executive coach. With the support of Harvard President Drew Faust, Ms. Laneri was paired with ACP volunteer Melissa Brown, director of human resources for Harvard's Center for Workplace Development. The women immediately clicked, and Ms. Laneri is effusive in praise for her mentor, crediting Ms. Brown with offering critical advice, making important introductions, and providing essential assistance to Ms. Laneri's entrepreneurial adventure.

ACP serves a diverse group of returned vets. Nearly 70% are former enlisted personnel, nearly half are non-white, and they average 35 years in age. ACP now has more applicants than it has mentors and is seeking additional corporate members and more mentors.

Among the notable ACP mentors are Barclays CEO Bob Diamond, John Mack of Morgan Stanley, and Doug Conant of Campbell's. Each agreed to be involved with his or her protégé for a year, set mutual goals and expectations, have at least a dozen meetings, and open the doors to a new world.

ACP is a quintessentially American project. No government ordered it into being. It is, rather, the creation of one person in possession of a vision and a deep, abiding faith in the goodness of America.

The great British statesman Edmund Burke spoke of "the little platoon we belong to in society." Sid Goodfriend and his ACP volunteers have provided their version of a little platoon to help those who themselves—in platoons, brigades, air wings and fleets scattered all across the globe—have stood as America's sentries on distant battlefronts.

This article originally appeared on on Wednesday, August 31, 2011.

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