The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum: A Civilian’s Perspective

Our Star-Tides network member Jesse Levin, from Team Rubicon and, offers a very interesting perspective of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum – an independent, not-for-profit group of emerging defense leaders that strive to solve national security problems from the bottom-up by exposing defense professionals to the techniques and experiences of civilian innovators and social entrepreneurs:

“The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum(DEF) hosted its second conference in Chicago in October 2014. The initiative, founded by two veterans, Ben Kohlmann and Micah Murphey is a hybrid, which nearly defies categorization. Not the typical defense conference, it was more a loosely structured forum that attracted top, forward-thinking, solution focused minds from both the DoD and civilian sector to cross-pollinate and share best practices.

The main focus of the event was to encourage conversation and to stimulate ideas about issues across disparate disciplines to foster innovative thinking and the potential for the implementation of ideas explored. The synergies created by those in attendance and topics covered were refreshingly productive and resembled a micro Summit Series conference with a DoD spin. Senior military leaders presented case studies rooted in historical precedent and time was allowed for “un-conferencing” providing participants a platform to present on a vast array of relevant issues.

DEF’s cross-sector and multidisciplinary practices have enabled a culture that’s purpose is to explore the synergies of innovation within the DoD and the private sector. DEF is similar to the Joint Integrated Field Exercises (JIFX) hosted by the National Defense University and the Naval Post Graduate School. The JIFX forum provides a venue for the DoD, first response, and not-for-profit communities to collaborate. While the exercises serve to refine products, joint response modalities etc., the real benefit, is the diverse and powerful cohort it unites. Like JIFX, DEF attracts a similar demographic of stakeholders.

The vast majority of attendees at DEF were in positions of leadership both within the DoD and the private sector. DEF accomplished the creation of what we can refer to as a rapid full stack innovation environment. Representatives converged from the defense and entrepreneurial ecosystems from enlisted personnel, to policy makers and from officers to defense contractors and civilian subject matter experts. These individuals gathered in an environment where the most pervasive traits were optimism, humor and a desire to affect positive change. Having these creative minds and stakeholders together in such an informal and positive environment eradicated the more typical siloing of perspective and information sharing. In affect, DEF successfully created an atmosphere that both greatly encouraged idea sharing across sectors, rank and branch as well as the civilian military divide.

There is a worthwhile piece in the January 2014 Harvard Business Review by Dan McGinn, entitled Build a Quick and Nimble Culture, for some reading on building “cultures of innovation.” (

There was an equal focus throughout the event on innovating within the DoD community as well as outside of it. The opportunity for members of the DoD ecosystem to interface with civilians to discuss and share best practices, from business to leadership methodologies, is important and does not occur often enough. This is an arena and a dynamic DEF is playing a role in changing. The DEF community has an incredibly strong base and will undoubtedly grow to be a key player in sparking innovation both within and outside the DoD. The community and forum is serving as a conduit to ensure lessons learned, in the post OEF / OIF era are acted on, and put to good use. DEF has launched the DEF Agora series to help ensure that momentum from the DEF conference is perpetuated. These are mini DEF meetings hosted across the country by members of the community to both continue the conversation and to provide support for those taking action.

There are numerous initiatives exploring innovation in general, however, there are few that focus on the sharing of best practices between civil / military communities that are as approachable, inclusive and accessible as DEF. Today’s military veterans are among the greatest untapped economic assets this nation has. The positive impact potential this demographic harbors is staggering and as a country we have not come close to identifying how best to unleash and empower all of this latent economic, innovative potential both within and outside of the DoD. DEF will play an important role in helping to ensure to fully maximize the potential of our veteran community.”


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