During her first week in the Stanford Ignite – Post-9/11 Veterans program, Justine Evirs wrote in her journal, “I haven’t been challenged this way in a long time.”
As an enlisted Navy veteran and a first-generation college student, she was intimidated by others in her Stanford class: Many of her team cohorts had left the military as high-ranking officers and had attended elite colleges.
But she remembered how much she’d been able to help other veterans acclimate to civilian life. “My superpower is empathy,” she says.
Evirs built a career in helping veterans after her service in the Navy. For instance, at the College of San Mateo in California, she revamped a veterans program so that it was able to support 300 people. She introduced veterans to faculty members and clubs and taught them how to navigate their benefits. She’s also the volunteer director for Bunker Labs, which connects entrepreneurial veterans in the San Francisco area with Silicon Valley investors and entrepreneurs.
By anyone else’s standards, Evirs has been successful. But, she says: “I was really tired of the negative stereotypes — drug addiction, PTSD, poor little veterans — I kept hearing. I wanted to do something to change the narrative.”
As she considered her options, a friend encouraged her to apply to Stanford Ignite – Post-9/11 Veterans, a condensed four-week version of the nine-week Ignite program that’s designed to give veterans the business tools to succeed in entrepreneurial ventures.
Now halfway through the program, Evirs is bringing her experience to the table, and she’s finding herself transformed. “I’ve never been exposed to this level of education before,” she says.
The very things that had made her feel that she was less than the others — such as attending a for-profit university, which left her with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and struggling to find a job after graduation — were the factors that helped her contribute real-life perspective to the team. As the team members tried to work through the details of their business idea, she cracked open the discussion by being vulnerable.
And when she started to feel defensive, as the ideas flew and different people in the room tried to take control, she reminded herself of what makes veterans different.
“We’re able to say: ‘No one died. Let’s bring it back to the task at hand.’ ”
Veterans, she knows, have earned their perspective young — and that’s a gift of great value in the business world, too.
Photos by ToniBird Photography