David Cooper: “It’s How You Get There”

A Navy SEAL turned businessman discusses teamwork, design thinking, and strategy.

April 12, 2016

| by Erika Brown Ekiel
parachuting man

Can the military culture be applied to running a company? | Reuters/Joe Skipper

After growing up in a small town in Eastern Pennsylvania, David Cooper joined the U.S. Navy SEALs in 1986 to see the world. He was planning to retire from the military in 2001 to sign up for medical school when the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists on September 11, 2001. He stayed in the SEALs and spent the next 10 years in various war zones fulfilling what he sees as both an obligation and a privilege. Now he is cofounder and president of Karakoram Group, a consultancy in Virginia Beach, Virginia that specializes in solving complex risk management problems.


David Cooper

The Karakoram is one of the largest and most rugged mountain ranges in the world, and spans the borders between Pakistan, India, and China. Besides serving as a SEAL for 25 years, Cooper was also a senior operator in the elite Naval Special Warfare Development Group, leading special operations missions in counterterrorism and antiterrorism. He completed the Stanford Graduate School of Business Ignite program in 2014.

In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?

Fuse design thinking, strategy, and leadership to drive performance and improve security.

Why now?

People are really concerned about security — both cyber security and physical security. The demand signal is that people see the news. The World Economic Forum’s annual Global Risks Report is a comprehensive assessment of what we are facing. Globalization does a number of good things, but increased connectivity can lead to a number of things that aren’t good.

Wars are going down; murders are going down. But the use of terror tactics is going up; mass shootings are going up. People are concerned about Islamic terrorism, but that’s media spin. Homegrown criminals and terrorists are copying those tactics. We have seen when an employee is mad at another employee, they might use terror tactics.

We bring design thinking, strategy, and leadership together to improve security as well as culture. At many companies, the first people to greet customers are the security guards. If we can improve security and employee engagement, we also bump up customer satisfaction numbers and help the business perform better as a whole.

We just finished working with a major hospital. Some people want to arm their security guards. They talk about safety and the Second Amendment. That is not design thinking. We found that 23% of all shootings inside hospitals happen when security guards have their guns taken from them. There is a big demand to solve these problems with new innovations.

How do you describe your primary target audience?

We tend to work with banks, resorts — organizations that are always trying to optimize their performance.

What are your biggest challenges right now in building your business?

Scaling. Not everyone has learned this type of thinking or has a desire to learn this. My cofounders have similar military backgrounds. We like the culture from our previous lives. There is a lot of training and learning and experience that goes into that.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Steve Wynn of Wynn Resorts. He said for every entrepreneur, there will be a time when things get bleak and dark. That’s when you decide what you’re made of. We understand that, coming from where we have been.

What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?

As a team, our best ideas come to us when we are mountain biking hard or climbing hard.
David Cooper

Really good people can be very biased. The first time it jumped out at me was in the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. We got wind of a convoy moving toward the Pakistani border that might be carrying a high-value target. We had an airplane above with a great camera system and watched the feed in real time. The convoy stopped and some of the people got out. One of the men was wearing white robes, was taller than everyone else, and the others were deferential to him. The people watching the video instantly jumped to: “This is the guy.” I was pleading to let us get on the ground and figure it out. They dropped a bomb on the convoy. It turned out not to be him. These were really good people making the decision. Many decisions are anchored in bias. I try to disconfirm my bias like a scientist. If it holds up, maybe you are onto something.

What inspires you?

As a team, our best ideas come to us when we are mountain biking hard or climbing hard. We have not given up that aspect of our lives. A hard workout is cathartic. It’s an incubator for ideas.

What is your greatest achievement?

Personally: Convincing my wife to marry me; mentoring young boys who lost their fathers; ethical performance; giving back by teaching a course at the SEALs on small-unit tactics.

Professionally: There is nothing I have ever achieved in the SEALs that I did alone. I have a Silver Star, half a dozen Bronze Stars. Even the Trident. I didn’t earn any of those medals on my own. I always had teammates to my left and right. Everyone falls down. There was always a teammate to help me back up. And when they faltered, I helped them back up. That still resonates today. It’s not reaching the top of El Capitan, it’s how you get there.

What do you consider your biggest failure?

We had a high-profile mission. The commander wanted to use a new technology that had not been tested. I said no. It created a fight. I lost the argument. We almost lost the mission. Every leader must critique himself or herself. Looking back, I instantly put him in a position where he had to compete with me. If I had just used conflict management skills and voiced it in another way, we might have had a different outcome.

What values are important to you in business?

Wisdom, temperance, courage, justice, compassion, discipline, benevolence.

What impact would you like to have on the world?

I want to be a good citizen, father, and husband. It’s a constant struggle to improve.

What was your first paying job?

I was a busboy in a Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant. I learned that in life you are going to do some things that aren’t fun in and of themselves, that sometimes there is no meaning in the task itself, but you have to make it fun, you have to lend it meaning.

What is the best business book you have read?

Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

What businessperson do you most admire?

Ben Franklin was a businessman as well as a philosopher, statesman, and inventor. I’d be happy being just a philosopher and businessman.

What do you think is the greatest innovation in recent history?

The Human Genome Project.

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