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Karen Ross’ voice is very telling.
It’s loud, almost booming. Linguists might refer to it as “orotund” in an effort to capture its simultaneous clarity. And it gives away her Long Island roots. The New York native’s “O’s” are pronounced as “aw’s.” Her words are delivered at a machine-gun pace suggestive of a quick thinker with an assertive personality.
It’s the kind of voice that is capable of capturing attention and instilling confidence, which is just what Ross has done since she entered the technology industry in the late 1980s.
Back then there were even fewer women in a field saturated with men. Ross was not intimidated. As her voice suggests, she wasn’t going to sit back and wait for someone to notice her. She was going to speak up.
“I’ve always been the type of person to get things done when no one else is acting,” Ross said. “I always say, ‘Don’t wait, just do it.’ Back then there were not a lot of women taking chances. The biggest question I faced was how I was going to be heard above the noise.”
The answer: Keep talking.
Her loquaciousness is how she’s currently helping the nation’s military veterans find jobs. But unlike the dozens of charitable organizations claiming to do the same, Ross didn’t wait for government handouts and private grants to fund her efforts. When she wants something done, she works for it — now. And she expects the veterans who enlist in her program to do the same.
Ross is confident the strategy will work because it has before.
‘The thing for me is integrity, commitment and dedication above all.’
—Karen Ross, Sharp Decisions Inc.
To find her niche in the burgeoning technology industry of the late ’80s, Ross picked the brains of university presidents, engineers and technology school professors during countless hours of interviews. Taking the time tounderstand the perspective of those whose research was driving the tech industry allowed Ross to identify a need that wasn’t being met and build a company dedicated to the solution.
In 1990, Ross founded Sharp Decisions Inc., a technology consulting firm headquartered in New York. The company’s original focus was serving the technology needs of the financial services industry. Since then it has expanded across other industries and currently has 400 employees in six offices in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Sharp Decisions is a certified woman-owned business with yearly revenue “in excess of $60 million.”
Ross, the company’s president and CEO, is still working to solve industry problems 24 years later. So when conversations about the present technology needs of Silicon Valley intersected with data regarding the high unemployment rate among military veterans, she saw the opportunity to use real talent to fill yet another industry need.
It resulted in the Vocation Education Training for Service members program. Launched in March 2013, VETS seeks to hire tech-savvy, post-9/11 U.S. Armed Forces veterans as salaried and benefited employees while putting them through technology training to make their skills relevant to the jobs available. Sharp then helps with job placement after training is completed, but the veterans remain Sharp employees.
Though some in the industry want to praise Ross’ efforts as heartfelt and exemplary of a worthwhile diversity initiative, she is quick to correct them. This isn’t charity; it’s good business.
Viable Talent Pool
Ross has no direct ties to the military. No one in her family ever served; no one close to her ever died in combat. When she was presented with the number of veterans who return from serving their country only to face unemployment, logic convinced her that she neededto do something.
“People like to talk about immigration issues, but we’ve got our own issues,” Ross said. “We have our own kids to worry about. Why can’t we take care of our own?”
A 2011 Pew Research Institute study into the transition from military to civilian life fueled Ross’ cause. The study sought to answer the question of why the transition is more difficult for some veterans than others.
Compared with veterans of other wars, those who enlisted after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have a significantly more difficult time re-entering civilian life and consequently the workforce. Of those who served in the past 10 years, 44 percent reported experiencing difficulty readjusting, while 27 percent of veterans of any other war reported having trouble re-entering civilian life, according to Pew.
This increased difficulty is represented in a veteran unemployment rate that hovered at 9 percent in 2013 compared with about 7.3 percent overall. Recently, however, that rate has been trending downward.
In fact, the September unemployment rate for veterans, the most recent data available, hit 4.7 percent, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Even in a month when employers added 248,000 jobs overall, a burst of hiring that drove the overall unemployment rate to 5.9 percent, the lowest since July 2008, the veterans figure was still lower.
Ross’ industry knowledge means she is familiar with the military’s advanced technological capabilities. While serving, men and women in the armed forces worked with technologies that in some cases are not yet available to the consumer industry.
“They’ve got the leading edge in every technology,” Ross said.
As a result, Ross places the blame squarely on the shoulders of the companies that are hesitant to hiring veterans.
Because she built Sharp Decisions from the ground up, Ross knows firsthand that a company is more than fitting people into slots in order to perform tasks. It’s about building a culture of people who care about each other as well as about what they do for a living.
“People work for people, they don’t necessarily work for companies,” Ross said. “The thing for me is integrity, commitment and dedication above all.”
Ross’ attitude is the reason that Sharp Decisions’ employees remain with the company an average of 10 years. If she could foster an attractive workplace culture for civilians, she was confident she could do the same for veterans.
“I promised these guys that if they committed to me, then I would commit to them,” Ross said. “That was a level of integrity and commitment that I was going to live by.”
Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
When Ross committed to the idea of helping veterans get jobs, she went all in. She has seven figures of her own money invested in the VETS program and receives no government assistance.
“If you want something done, you have to do it yourself,” Ross said. “Most people hide behind the grant. I’m not waiting for anything. I’m just moving forward knowing that what I’m doing makes all the sense in the world.”
As a result, VETS operates as a for-profit initiative within Sharp Decisions. The company makes money from placing the veterans in entry-level quality-assurance positions within partner companies.
The investment began with research into how to develop the most effective training program for veterans. Just like when she was starting Sharp Decisions, Ross relied on the experts at military centers and veterans hospitals to provide insight into the hurdles that prevent veterans from adequately assimilating into civilian workplace culture.
Those interviews led to what Ross refers to as “the squad approach.”
“We can’t hire these guys one in one area and one in another area because their commonality to the average citizen is zero, except that they are both human,” Ross said. “We train them as a group, and they become almost like family.”
After being vetted on their communications skills because they serve as Sharp Decisions’ representatives when out in the field, the veterans go through a minimum four-week boot camp where they are taught all of the technical skills they will need.
During this time, the veterans are paid a salary and given health benefits by Sharp Decisions.
After they complete training, they are deployed in teams of four to work in the field. This technique mirrors the camaraderie instilled during the veterans’ time in the armed forces.
The veterans are also given a team leader who serves as a liaison between the squad and Sharp Decisions. If a problem arises in the field, or additional training is needed, the company will intervene and provide the squad with any assistance they need, either remotely or at one of Sharp Decisions’ six offices.
The first VETS class began in March 2013, and 16 veterans completed the four-week boot camp. Unfortunately, Ross wasn’t able to secure a partner company to immediately hire the veterans, so per her promise, she continued to pay the veterans and provide health insurance during their period of unemployment.
Finally, in July 2013, the first squad entered the field.
Mortgage company Freddie Mac was one of the first to welcome a squad of VETS trainees. Tim Snyder, the vice president of quality assurance at Freddie Mac, oversaw the program.
Four veterans were hired as part of the company’s software quality testing program where they essentially worked to ensure that the company did not experience its own version of last year’s Healthcare.gov fiasco. The squad of veterans was responsible for maintaining 450 different applications by checking and working to correct errors in their functionality.
As a former military veteran, Snyder appreciated the precision and support of the squad technique.
“They are well-trained, and they know how to lean on each other for support,” Snyder said. “They had gone through the training together, and if they had questions, they went to each other for support. They were more effective than a random group of people that we might have hired because they had that cohesive unit status coming in.”
Snyder was also impressed with the veterans’ level of professionalism, something he said is not typical ofentry-level positions.
It’s just the type of feedback that Ross hopes to receive as a result of her training program. Civilians who filter into quality assurance positions typically have no formal training. The VETS program provides the equivalent of two to three years of on-the-job experience.
“They outperform because they cross-train, they understand the deliverables and they understand what’s needed,” Ross said.
But Ross does deserve some of the credit. Snyder commended the CEO for her hands-on approach to making the program better.
“It was very much an active level of engagement in ensuring that the program is meeting the needs of the company and the needs of the veterans,” Snyder said. “I certainly see her as more involved than any of my normal contact providers who are more of the ‘If there’s something wrong, call me,’ type. Karen’s out there wanting to know what she can do better. Not just what’s wrong.”
To date, the program has placed 50 veterans within companies across the country. Ross’ goal of reaching 200 placements by the end of 2014 likely won’t happen. While these numbers are low in comparison to companies such as Orion International that have been placing veterans into the civilian workforce since 1991, Ross continues to believe in her program’s mission and business value.
“I’m not doing this because I’m a charity. I’m doing this because they are so good at what they do and because as long as they are deployed in a group, it works,” Ross said.
By taking on the expense of training and developing a teaching method that caters to the individual needs of the company, Ross feels she has developed a program that is scalable within any organization. They just have to be willing to try.
“It’s about educating the population,” she said. “You start it yourself. You believe in it yourself. You make it real without anyone handing you nickels and dimes, and then you sell it and watch the success. You put your money where your mouth is.”