In honor of Veterans Day, we are spotlighting a story published last year on a 9-year-old program at CU Denver dedicated to the professional development of veteran and military students.
Nov. 11 is Veteran’s Day, which makes it an ideal time to highlight a CU Denver resource for military-connected students. The 2019-2020 school year marked the 8th anniversary of Boots to Suits, a professional development program offered by the University of Colorado Denver’s Office of Veteran & Military Student Services, in collaboration with the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and Brooks Brothers. The idea is simple: military and veteran students are matched with local mentors to help them transition from college life to business life. In other words, the mentees go from military boots to business suits.
While the transition from college to career presents challenges for all graduates, military and veteran students face unique difficulties. Tiffany Baker-Strothkamp, Transition & Support Coordinator in CU Denver’s Veteran & Military Student Services, puts it simply: “You spend a lot of time being trained to be a soldier, not a lot of time training about reintegrating into society.”
Military world is all-encompassing
Richard Lewis, founder and CEO of RTL Networks, looks comfortable in a suit. He has a firm handshake, a deep voice, and a calm demeanor. His technology company recently won the Ernst and Young 2019 Entrepreneur of The Year award for the Mountain Desert Region. In short, he is a successful businessman.
It’s hard to imagine that Lewis had to work hard to understand corporate culture, but he did. After spending 14 years in the Air Force, the former officer remembers just how foreign the business world seemed. He recalls talking with his cousins at a family cookout: “They were talking about the companies where they worked going through mergers or layoffs, and I’m just sitting there with my barbecue sandwich, like a deer in headlights. I had no idea what they were talking about.”
Lewis didn’t understand business, and his cousins didn’t understand the military. “When I had things to say about my job, it was fascinating to them,” he said. Why was he on an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf? Wasn’t he in the Air Force? Lewis explained that “a lot of our software systems are used in the joint environment.” But instead of providing clarity, many of Lewis’ responses only generated more questions: “What’s a joint environment?” his cousins asked. “The two worlds are pretty separate,” Lewis said.
Tyler Heath (BA ’12) enlisted in the Army immediately after graduating from high school. He was living in Virginia, and he remembers when the Pentagon was hit during the 9/11 terrorist attack. “It affected my thought process with what I wanted to do,” Heath said. He joined the infantry, “the people who basically are the ground troops actively fighting in wars.”
Heath is soft-spoken and polite. It’s hard to believe that he spent roughly 20 months of his four years of active duty in Iraq. “You remember the Surge in Baghdad in ’08?” he asks. “It was nasty, to say the least.” It’s difficult to imagine him being aggressive or jumping out of an airplane or shooting a rifle, but he did all that and much more as part of his job in the military. “I just honestly can’t believe I even did it,” he said, remembering his time in the Iraq War.
From soldier to civilian
Lewis and Heath were eventually paired as mentor and mentee during the first year of the Boots to Suits program. Lewis remembers exactly how he got involved. At the time, he was serving on the board of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce when another board member asked him to become a mentor. Lewis chose to participate precisely because he wanted to offer the very guidance he had not received when he transitioned from military life. After four years at the Air Force Academy and ten years in active duty, Lewis was on the brink of a big life change. “I left for the Academy 14 days after graduating high school and for the first time in my adult life, I’m looking at civilian life, and it was a very frightening prospect,” he said.
Lewis thinks it’s important to explain that people in the military do not consider themselves civilians. There is a clear distinction between the two populations—and the worlds they inhabit. “In the military, we think and speak of civilians all the time as those who we protect,” Lewis said.
Tyler Heath doesn’t remember how he first heard about Boots to Suits but he does remember the difficulty he had integrating into civilian life. Like Lewis, Heath did not see himself as a civilian—he still viewed civilians in opposition to the military. “You do it so that others don’t have to,” he said.
As one of the first mentees to participate, Heath was hoping for career guidance, mentorship, and networking opportunities. “At that point, I began worrying about what everyone worries about … what am I going to do next?” Because he was planning to work in IT, Heath was paired with Lewis, whose company is a technology solutions provider. Lewis, who had previously and successfully transitioned from military to corporate life, helped Heath shift his identity from soldier to civilian.
How do you list Surge on a resume?
Although it’s difficult for some people to imagine (civilians, mostly), Lewis was apprehensive about entering non-military life: “You hear horror stories about corporate America,” he said. “What is a merger? What does a ‘salesperson’ or a ‘marketing manager’ do? Everything was different, and I didn’t know the rules.”
For veterans, the issue of military life versus civilian life comes up often. Veterans have a lot of experience in many different areas, but it’s difficult to put that experience on paper. “How do you translate tactical actions into a resume without sounding like a crazy veteran?” Heath asks.
Another issue is that various strengths people often list on resumes mean something totally different for veterans—for example, teamwork. “You can say I’m a team player but that doesn’t differentiate you from anyone else,” Heath said. However, for people in the military, being a team player could mean the difference between life and death.
Veterans need to learn how to market their skills, points out Lewis: “One of the big challenges is communicating what they’ve done in the military in terms that corporate America or hiring managers can digest.” This is something that Boots to Suits does rather well. The program includes resume training from both Veteran & Military Student Services and the assigned professional mentors.
Baker-Strothkamp said that veterans “are overqualified for entry-level positions,” but they need extra help explaining how the skills they acquired in the military will work in their intended careers. “What did you do in the military that translates into your future career field?” she asks. A good resume can highlight the veteran’s strengths as a job candidate—without alienating the civilians who might be making hiring decisions.
Boots to Suits also includes mock interviews, which help military and veteran students talk about themselves. “In the military, we talk in terms of team all the time,” Lewis said. “However, hiring managers will often ask ‘what did you do?’” Veterans looking for work don’t necessarily want to answer that question because “1. They’re humble and they’re not looking to extract glory out of every situation and 2. They work as part of a unit,” he said.
Uniform for corporate America
Providing a suit for the veterans is an important part of the Boots to Suits program. Brooks Brothers provides a discounted suit, including custom tailoring, for every mentee in the program. Men receive jackets and dress pants, and women receive jackets and dress pants or skirts. Baker-Strothkamp said it helps the veterans “really look the part.”
Lewis and Heath think back to their shopping trip with a mixture of amusement and gratitude. When Heath was shopping for his suit, Lewis proved to be a big help. “Seeing Richard, who is clearly a man who wears a suit a lot,” helped Heath. “It was my first suit,” he said. “I had no idea what I was doing … I don’t have a flair for fashion.”
It was something of an adventure for Lewis because it reminded him of his own past. “The military told me what to wear every day just about for 14 years,” he said. Lewis knew that Heath’s experience choosing a suit and getting fitted was symbolic of Heath’s evolution. “I was honored to have the opportunity to help Tyler, to pick out something that he liked as a uniform for corporate America,” Lewis said.
Why should you hire a veteran?
If the transition from military life to civilian life is so challenging, potential employers may be asking themselves why they should hire a veteran.
As CEO of his tech company, Lewis is in the position of doing the hiring, and he believes veterans offer unique benefits, such as “the ability to think fast, to assess situations very quickly under high-stress situations and care for their co-workers throughout the process.” If that isn’t enough to recommend veterans, hiring managers and committees should know that leadership and loyalty are also skills typically gained in the military. For good measure, Lewis stressed that “responsibility for other people and assets is very high. As a freshly minted officer, right after graduating college, I had responsibility for staff and IT systems valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce agrees with Lewis. “We helped launch the Boots to Suits program in 2011 because we are committed to connecting veterans to business leaders and transition that talent to jobs in Colorado. The experience and leadership skills of our veterans make them invaluable additions to our companies,” said Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
For his part, Heath thinks one of the biggest lessons he learned in the military is “being able to admit you don’t know the answer.” If you don’t know the answer, then you reach a conclusion by getting the best information, which often comes from someone else. “In the civilian world, you need to have the answer,” he said, “even if you don’t know the answer.”
Boots to Suits increases services and participants
Baker-Strothkamp was interested in working at CU Denver specifically because of Boots to Suits. The former Army Automated Logistics Specialist said, “CU Denver was definitely one of the first universities to do something like Boots to Suits. It’s very much a holistic approach because we try to encompass everything in a short amount of time.”
Boots to Suits continues to include the Professional Development Program in which Lewis and Heath participated as mentor and mentee. But it also offers other services meant to help veterans transition from the military to college and from college to career. Peer-to-peer mentors, mental health resources, tutoring, and scholarships help military students achieve academic success. The peer-to-peer mentors show new students how to navigate college life, while the tutoring helps them tackle difficult subjects. Some veterans return to school a long time after graduating high school, “anywhere from 3 – 23 years,” according to Baker-Strothkamp. Next semester, she hopes to add faculty and staff training to Boots to Suits to teach them the specific issues that military-connected students often face.
This year, Baker-Strothkamp already has a lot to celebrate—this is the biggest group to date participating in the Boots to Suits Professional Development Program. There are 34 students from both CU Denver and CU Anschutz representing 19 different majors. Mentees cross all educational levels, from undergraduate sophomores to doctoral candidates. Additionally, the mentors are the most diverse group in the history of the program, representing more than 25 local businesses.
This group of students will attend eight workshops, complete ten hours of community service, attend six mentor meetings, undergo a mock interview, and complete a program through the CU Denver Career Center known as Launch! The 2019-2020 school year will culminate with the Annual Salute on April 30, 2020 at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Original Boots to Suits participants reconnect after eight years
Lewis and Heath reconnected recently for a photo shoot to commemorate the inaugural Boots to Suits participants. They had the opportunity to discuss the second phase of Heath’s career, since Heath recently earned an MBA while working full time as an IT administrator. “It was the most intensive amount of time management I ever did in my whole life,” Heath said. Luckily, the military taught him to work hard.
Both Lewis and Heath agree that in the military, you keep working until the mission is accomplished. “You can depend on a veteran to work until the job is done—and done right,” Lewis said.