From battlefields to boardrooms: New CEO of foundation to help Navy SEALs eyes expansion

As seen in the Virginian-Pilot

By Brock Vergakis 
Staff writer

Mar 20, 2019 Updated Mar 20, 2019

It was just a few years ago that a San Diego-based foundation designed to help Navy SEALs transition into the civilian workforce started offering classes in Virginia Beach.

Now the entire foundation is led by someone here.

The Honor Foundation tapped a former Virginia Beach-based SEAL last month to be its CEO, the first change in leadership since the organization was founded in 2012.

Matt Stevens, who was a SEAL for 26 years, said his goal is to bring the unique three-month program that teaches resume writing, networking, self-assessment skills and more to special operators in every branch of service. A major focus of the program is helping special operators show how their leadership, planning and teamwork apply to the business world.

The program offers executive-level education from faculty at top-tier schools like the University of Virginia, mentorships from local business leaders and a nationwide professional network. The students — who can still be in the Navy or recently discharged — go through mock interviews, give presentations on company strengths and weaknesses, and gain an appreciation for entrepreneurship challenges. 

When Stevens left the Navy, he was selected for The Honor Foundation’s inaugural East Coast class in 2016, which helped lead to a job with a company in Boston that made drones. He said his experience with the foundation was invaluable, and he volunteered to serve as an adviser to give back. He said he hopes his new role will allow him to spend more time with his family in Virginia Beach after traveling to Boston about once a month for his old job.

“My family had voted. We weren’t going to move,” he said.

Since its launch, the foundation has opened campuses in Virginia Beach at Tidewater Community College and near Camp Lejeune, N.C.  It’s also offering an online program for special operators around the world. The foundation has more than 400 graduates so far. 

“We want to be able to provide the opportunity for every person within the special operations community to attend the course. There’s 70,000-ish in the SOF community,” Stevens said. “We have to do it in a very methodical way.”

To expand, the foundation will need to rely on financial donations and volunteers from the corporate world. Stevens invites business leaders to come see for themselves the faculty and the students, who come to class in business attire. 

“Spend some time here. Seeing is believing. Become a mentor or coach,” he said in an interview at TCC. “But also hire the talent, because a lot of guys have grown roots here and want to stay in the Hampton Roads community. … I think the natural inclination is to look elsewhere. But I think it’s really important for us to keep talented individuals here.”

And they’re not all SEALs. 

Ted Handler was one of the first Marines to be chosen for that service’s recently created special operations force, the Marine Raiders. After working in joint special operations in Africa and elsewhere, he was ultimately assigned to work with Naval Special Warfare Development Group at Dam Neck, where he spent the last five years of his 22-year military career. 

But once he got out, he and his wife didn’t want to leave Virginia Beach. The feeling of community and genuine friendliness they experienced here was unlike anywhere else in the world they had been.

“The Virginia Beach community hit home with us like, ‘Wow,  this is what friendly people are like. They actually aren’t looking to get something out of it,’ ” Handler said. “They just know what we’ve been through because it really is a military town to some degree.”  

The only problem: That limited where he could job hunt.

“It was immensely stressful,” he said. “As you’re older you have responsibilities, different expectations. You’re not as flexible.”

But the Honor Foundation helped connect Handler with local business leaders. He’s now a senior manager at Stihl, Inc. in charge of overall business process improvement.  He  reports directly to company president Bjoern Fischer.

Even though Handler had prior business experience — after he graduated from college and again after his first four-year tour of duty — he said the experience he gained at The Honor Foundation was vital. The first time he left the military, he said, he was “wildly unprepared.” He didn’t know how to find meaning in his work and ultimately rejoined the Marines on active duty after 9/11, when he lost friends at the World Trade Center and nearly lost family members, too. 

When he left the Marines this time, he said, he was ready.

“It was a phenomenal program. It hands down prepared me for the challenges of the civilian community,” Handler said. “I haven’t seen anything else like it. And I think if the military was really smart they would be doing it this way for everybody.”