Yes, it still stands out to this day. My dad was a Taekwondo master and was very well-respected . I was sparring in a tournament and he told me what he could see that I was always trying to capitalize on the weak side of my opponent. He decided to teach me a lesson and drew a line. He then asked me how to make the line shorter. I said you can cut it. He redrew the line and then he put another one next to it that was much longer. He told me, “What you need to know about fighting and everything in life, is that by making your own line longer, you make the other line shorter by comparison. You don’t have to spend time or energy trying to destroy something. Instead, use that energy to grow yourself and that line will be shorter.” That stuck with me since I was nine years old. When you have that sort of a lesson, it’ll come back to you because it’s so profound and when you take the hard steps to live that way it will bear fruit. They taught me a lot but that’s the one I really hold onto. There will be things that anger you, but remembering that spending the time to cut something apart is an unworthy expenditure of time.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Gonzales. Susan is a serial entrepreneur and combat veteran who serves as a passionate advocate for veteran hires in the workforce. In 2017, she founded SilentProfessionals.org, a career services platform focused on US military combat veterans seeking job placement and career growth in the private security sector. In just over a year since its start, silentprofessionals.org placed over 2,000 combat veterans in jobs all around the world to include corporate security and executive protection roles for executives and ultra-high net worth clients across the US.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I’m the youngest of three children. My parents and two older brothers were born in South Korea and I’m the first one of my entire family tree to be born in the US. We struggled financially but we worked whatever job we could to try and make ends meet. Both my brothers and I have been working since we were little kids. I started working at just 11. We often worked for terrible people who paid us under the table and didn’t always pay what they say they would but we were kids.
My dad didn’t come to America until he was in his thirties and when they arrived, my parents ate just white bread, thinking Americans didn’t eat anything else. When they came here, it was all about how do we incorporate ourselves into this society? People say racism doesn’t exist, but growing up, we saw it a lot. Even though we were Korean, people would call us “Charlie,” a racist jab from the Vietnam War.
We went to an excellent school. Even though we were poor, my parents sacrificed to send us to the best school they could. However, there were no minorities in my school- period. In fact, we had (Ku Klux) Klansmen nearby and they recruited and met just down the road. It was not a good place to be. We grew up fighting all the time; and we didn’t pick the fights. People fought with us.
But I think what shaped me the most (and my brothers) was my parents’ constant sacrifice. They would sacrifice everything, they wouldn’t even eat just to feed us and sometimes we wouldn’t eat but we always knew the value of education. When computers came out, we got one of the first ones and learned to use it. This helped set us up for the future.
Overall, my upbringing makes me more empathetic of what I do have. Sure, we didn’t have a lot growing up but I am fortunate to have a strong family, and we all worked together and sacrificed for each other.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I’m the founder of silentprofessionals.org, a career services website focused on helping veterans find work. I have an online business and we do internet marketing, which means we really look at things differently because we know the internet is constantly changing. When I graduated from West Point in 2003, which wasn’t that long ago, but even then not everyone had a cell phone. It was rare to see people with one all the time. Now, everyone has a smart phone so we’re really in a very new era. Everyone in the world is connected and there’s a lot of potential for so much good.
SilentProfessionals.org is a great example of that. My husband was in private security and contractor work. He has a background like many other people in that field: no degree and he spent a decade or more at war. When he came back to the States, he ended up in a position he had no passion for, making 12 dollars an hour. He tried to make it work for about a year but he realized how miserable he was. He kept getting offers to go back overseas but he’d promised to stay in America for his-then girlfriend.
It wasn’t sustainable though so he tried to compromise with her and looked into security in the US. He’s protected Oprah, a Twitter executive. There is a lot of demand for security and it’s hard to find really good people and connect everyone so this is a prime thing to disrupt and it’s also a great way to show how to use the internet to disrupt something.
It’s been abut a year and SP outranks everyone in every kind of search for these types of jobs. It’s basically just him and me, as a side project, and we’ve helped employ 2,000. If you don’t know what recruiting is like maybe that doesn’t seem impressive, but anyone who does about job placement, we’re very proud of that and we’re only going to improve.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
That goes back to my childhood story. My brother was going to college and we were just so strapped with debt. I still look back and wonder how my parents went through it. We were always very aware of how little money we had but they always fulfilled their commitments; if there was a bill to be paid it was paid and paid on time.
So my brothers went to really great schools but that were really expensive. Culturally, Koreans are all about education. It wouldn’t matter if something bankrupted someone they’re going to send their kids to the best schools that they possibly can. My brother went to Cornell and my other brother went to Carnegie Mellon, which is also expensive. By the time I graduated, West point appealed to me. Koreans admire West Point because in my parent’s generation, they think of West Point as MacArthur and they look at him as a savior, the liberator of Korea. My parents grew up under Japanese occupation and, in fact, the first time they ever saw a blue-eyed American, they actually thought he was a ghost. They’d never seen anything like him. West Point is highly revered in our culture. So I knew they’d admire the education I would get there. They also knew I wouldn’t have to pay for school and I didn’t mind the military service at all. That was more than a worthy sacrifice for what I was getting in return.
I studied foreign languages at West Point: German, Chinese and Russian and received my Bachelors of Science. I graduated in 2003 and 9/11 happened my second year there. That was surreal. Before that, nobody knew we’d be at war. It’d been so long since we literally declared war.
Before we even graduated we were hearing about some of the first casualties of the war; some of them people we’d gone to school with just a year or two ago. That didn’t scare anyone. I don’t think anyone arbitrarily goes to a military academy without understanding what it really mans so nobody was afraid by what it meant but it did take on a new level of seriousness. Everyone was very sober. We’re talking about people who come in at 17- and 18-years-old and they’re being put in charge. If you literally translate it, there’s excitement, but it’s not joyful; it’s a level of stress and responsibility. You don’t think of yourself as a kid but what knowledge do you have of the world? Even if you’re mature, there are some things maturity alone doesn’t help you with. Now, you’re going to lead these people into war and everyone takes that very seriously. In a way, we were looking forward to doing our jobs.
I came in as an intelligence officer and I selected a unit in Fort Drum. I selected them because they had a wonderful reputation for discipline and I knew that was where I wanted to do. They’ve been deployed more than any other unit in the country. I deployed in 2006 to Afghanistan and I was a tactical intelligence officer. I was assigned to essentially be a liaison officer with the joint special operations command. At the time they were like the NAVY seals and the ranger task force.
Our target was Osama Bin Laden because at the time he hadn’t been caught but so much happens during the deployment that was eye-opening. I think a deployment is really a time where you put what you’ve learned to use. It’s not just combat, it’s leadership of people as well.
I was blown away by what I thought it was going to be like versus what really happened. It makes you proud to be associated with these people. Of course, there are bad people everywhere, but so many showed humanity even though they may have lost someone just recently. They shared food and water, despite not knowing when the next supply would come in.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
You can’t really prepare for combat; so many things I thought would happen didn’t and my mind goes to kind of the surprising stuff. I remember I was in Kabul (Afghanistan) and there were a couple places where you leave the front gate and to get to the next base you have to literally walk through the town of Kabul. Not very far but you do walk through the city. I remember seeing these children and a few things struck me.
They were waiting at the gate, asking us excitedly for sunglasses, food, whatever we had. They looked like they were just playing and I remember there was one girl. She looked like the other kids but she stopped when she saw me and she just froze, and then put her hand to her mouth. I wondered: What is she looking at?
I think there are certain things you can say and then some things you see and that’s a story in itself, and for her, her reality is kind of like my parents’. They thought they saw a ghost when they were younger and saw their first American with blue eyes.
What she saw was something kind of like a ghost, which was a woman in the same uniform as the men. We acted as equals and if I had to put myself in the place of seeing something like that for the first time ever, I wouldn’t even know what that kind of thing would do over a lifetime.
I remember those kids made me think of my parents so much and that was unexpected. This is a totally different culture, different time, different era. I never ever expected to think of my parents in a place like Afghanistan but I thought of them because when I grew up we didn’t have friends to play with. We always wore the same clothes and it was a hostile area. Our social time was helping our parents, helping each other and then listening to their stories and their stories are all they really had. They grew up completely in war…and Afghans have done that. They’ve only known war.
It makes me reflect. I really think about the long-lasting effects people have on each other. I’m not in charge of those kids but I do have some authority. You can feel like your stomach is empty but that’s not hunger, so why not share my food and what kind of long-lasting impact does that have on somebody? I’m sure these people have rich histories even though they don’t have a lot. I do; my parents do and yet people don’t look twice. You think about those things, especially in a formal position of leadership. It influences how you lead and it’s a privilege to lead people. Whether you like someone or not, nobody is being forced to do anything.
I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
“Hero” is such an overused word. It’s funny when you hear people call someone a hero for saving a dog. You’re not using the word incorrectly, but we use it for a lot. It’s admirable to save a dog but it’s on a different part of the “hero” spectrum. That’s not to make a judgment on the person but to me, a hero is definitely someone who goes above and beyond.
It’s someone who’s been endowed with something that is not of this world. It’s a strength or something that is beyond human and I saw it many times while in the military. One incident really struck me and he was awarded the medal of honor.
I was an intelligence officer at the time. I don’t want to make it seem cooler than it is. I want to be real about the role. There are things I’m very proud of but for the most part, I got to sit in a relatively safe space. Safety is relative but compared to the people around me, I did most of my work from inside a guarded compound and it was a compound within a compound, so very secure.
What I did get to do is provide support when a mission happens. You literally see what’s happening on the battlefield. It’s happening live and it’s hard to not get emotional while you’re supporting because of the otherworldly strength people exhibit.
In one part of Afghanistan, there was a battle every single day during the time I was there. Actually the movie the Lone Survivor happens in that region. That region has these instances of wind that whip down the mountains. It’s unpredictable; the air is thin so you can’t fly too high. Yet if there was an IED and somebody’s arm went somewhere, they were going to bring every last bit of what they could recover from their remains and bring it back home. Even if that meant losing their own lives. And it wasn’t even something people thought about; it’s just something they would do.
One guy, he lost both of his arms and he was bleeding out. He died from those wounds but he did it in order to provide protection and safety for his brothers and to bring them back even if he wasn’t still alive. People like to talk and say I’d definitely do something like this, but nobody know what’s they’re going to do. It’s easy to talk tough but when you see it happen, and there’s nothing to gain, and you have to pull through such pain and loss, there’s so much where instinct will tell you, ‘you need to stay alive’ but you defy that — that’s definitely the makings of a hero.
Does a person need to be facing a life and death situation to do something heroic or to be called a hero?
I don’t think it has to be in combat but it’s very visible in combat. There are definitely heroes that don’t have a combat story. Maybe you have everything to lose and everything stacked against you but you do something so breathtakingly beyond what’s normal for human capability, whether that’s your will or the dedication to a certain set of ideals, even if everyone is playing dirty. Your spirit is just never won over when most people would’ve crumbled. I don’t think heroes are that common.
I want to be careful how I word this, there are things that seem to make no sense to someone on the outside of the military. The person you’re trying to bring back isn’t alive and you’re going to die from this. It leaves you proud but it’s also bewildering, but in the regular every day life in America, I think there’s a different kind of challenge.
It’s about moral courage. It’s one thing when you have everything to lose and it’s another when you have everything to gain. Sometimes people feel like if I stand up for something, I can lose my livelihood. So you kind of die slowly and I don’t think that’s something to take lightly. Some people can show all of this courage on the battlefield but that doesn’t mean they’ll have the same courage when they have everything to gain.
That’s the holistic hero. There are obviously people who can do both but there are many who can’t. I am always impressed by those who can — they are the heroes. When you do something, and you sacrifice for people, those people will never forget that person. That’s how you make change. It’s not something you forget next year. The person who rescued a kitten, sure, by definition, is a hero but do you even remember their name?
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
I think I can almost pull it all into one thing. When I was at West Point, we had leadership classes to understand unit leadership and relationships. The senior non-commissioned officers (NCOs) would present and one time, they shared an interesting math equation for leadership and I challenge anyone to give me an exception.
In the military, every unit has a tag team with the officer in charge and an NCO, the right hand man. So, if you’re a platoon leader, you have a platoon sergeant if you’re a battalion commander, you have a sergeant major and so these are senior people. If you’re a platoon leader right out of the academy, you’re going to get what is standard E-7 and it goes up to e-10 and that’s Sergeant Major of the Army. There’s only one of those guys so you get a high-up person.
What this NCO said is that this equation can roughly predict a unit’s success. But, first, let’s discuss what’s a bad NCO and what’s a bad officer. A bad NCO doesn’t do the job he’s supposed to. He doesn’t understand his soldiers, their strengths. He has to motivate them to do something they’re not getting paid a lot to do so a good NCO would try to understand them to make them their best. A bad NCO just isn’t skilled at that. And a bad officer? Well, you lead from the front. The interest has to be there to empower and develop the unit. Your job is to think about how everything comes together.
So if you have a a bad NCO and a good officer, you’ll only be successful 25 percent of the time. If you have a good NCO, and a bad officer, the unit will succeed 75 percent of the time. What this is really saying is that yes, you’re important but you’re not even half of the success. You need that really good officer.
Finally, if you have a really good officer, and a really good NCO, no matter who you bring in, your unit will be successful.
Every piece of that equation really exemplifies the key parts of leadership. This isn’t exact science but the concept is 100 percent true. Civilians and corporations may not have this formalized structure but the concept is there. Think about tech start-ups in Silicon Valley, there’s a lot of them and it doesn’t take a lot to see there is often poor leadership. Any failure in your company is on you. That’s how fundamentally we think of things. Even with the worse people, good leadership will make you successful.
Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
You build this formalized habit. I grew up culturally this way but in the military, every day you’re growing yourself as much as you can and be the best you can be. You don’t have the time or liberty to be lazy. Everyone has bad days but you can’t let that bad day be known to people. You’re not like everyone. You’ve been granted the privilege, earned the privilege to lead and you have to keep earning that.
You don’t get a vacation from leading. I’m always suspicious of people who want to be in leadership right away. It makes me you think you may not know what true leadership is. It’s an enormous responsibility. There’s never a day I don’t take my ability and privilege to lead as the most serious responsibility I have.
It’s not about whether you like someone. If you don’t think that person has anything redeeming, you shouldn’t have hired them but I also don’t need someone who’s just like me. I need people who augment what I don’t have. My goal is to always improve the people around me. You should be able to do anything I do, and better. But I’ll tell you, you have your work cut out for you, I work hard and put everything into it.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. Did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?
I didn’t struggle in the way people traditionally talk about when it comes to a military transition and I always think that’s how if I had to characterize this discussion, it’s a binary thing. There’s the struggling veteran who can’t find a job that fits his skills.
I was actually hired by Exxon a full year before I got out, which is unusual for corporations but not for Exxon. Starting the year before you get out, the military helps you transition. You take workshops on how to make a resume and I also went to a career conference.
I didn’t know what I was going to do but I did know that I didn’t want to do intelligence because my biggest reason for getting out was stability; my parents were getting older. I was in a very safe place during my deployment and you can give statistics, but parents don’t think that way. They’re thinking you’re being shot at every day.
The transition piece was easy because someone else created that knowledge base and took on the process of educating people. If I hadn’t run into the career conference, I might’ve struggled like other people because it’s hard to bridge that. You can’t translate everything, not all skills translate, you have to build a bridge. Law enforcement, for example, doesn’t translate; just because you have a weapon doesn’t make it the same job. There is so little knowledge about the military and how to help veterans and understand their skills.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Without giving too many details, we’re working on an AI capability for Silent Professionals. As we grow, one of the things that’s important is that we’re able to service as many people as we can. The common issue is that most people have jobs and not enough people to fill them. We have the opposite: a lot of great, strong people and not enough jobs.
AI is going to be important in educating our demographic of veterans being discharged and looking for work. AI isn’t just a buzzword, it’s going to help educate people in a much more rapid fashion. When utilized the right way it can change the dynamics of how things are run.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Whether you’re a small business or a giant corporation, everyone needs to take the time to keep learning. Anyone who is a real leader or a business owner needs to take that to heart and regularly access their leadership, their development plan and listen to criticism. It’s not about making me happy, or telling me what I want to hear. Corporate culture has become all about that. If you have that, then you don’t have the right leadership culture.
No matter what success you have right now, you’ll succeed much more if you lead better or commit to leading better from here out. It may not be immediate success but good leadership is supposed to take time. Everybody needs to spend far more time focusing inwardly on how are they leading their people and how are they growing them, and how they’re setting them up for success. If you as a leader and business owner, can’t honestly say to yourself, I am trying to set these people up so that they can take over my job, then you’re not leading correctly.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people. Business itself is an inanimate object without the people behind it. Nobody does anything by himself or herself. But my husband is definitely one. Being an entrepreneur sounds really exciting people but there’s a lot of sacrifice. And your spouse sacrifices too. Once you’re successful, people will say ‘wow, good thing they were there’ but you don’t know the future, you could fall flat.
People don’t understand what it is. They say, “It must be nice to be your own boss.” It is but it’s not because I am my own boss but because I get to create something great with great people. I work far more hours than the people who typically say those kinds of things.
Spouses are often right there with you. They have to be emotionally and mentally strong enough to go through the ups and downs with you. It takes great people around you to succeed greatly, whether it’s your life partner or your business partner.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think the work in itself almost seems obvious. You’re literally keeping families safe. We have hostage rescues and we provide security. A lot of these people have children. We’re blessed to be in a safe place but in other nations, there isn’t reliable law enforcement. If you have something to lose, people want to take it and if you have children that’s who they’re going after.
This is very delicate type of work. You keep the families safe.
Overall, we’re changing the world of recruiting and what this looks like in our industry. Veterans are great for this work and it’s often more in alignment with their background than other jobs in the States.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
The movement that I would want to inspire would be a little broader and for people in general. I’m disappointed to say the least in the way that our society in America has gotten when it comes to discussion and dialogue.
It wasn’t long ago we could have a dialogue. You could be less politically correct and we’d still have a dialogue. God forbid you’re in the middle of something. What if you have conservative views and you support LGBT marriage? Now it’s like that person is unstable or someone on the flip side, who is liberal but have some conservative views? They’re almost flayed alive. Whether they’re prominent or average people, everyone is at risk. That’s the downside of a social media — it colors how they view everything.
There’s a saying: “Like a chicken talking to a duck.” That’s how it translates but what it means, is when you see a chicken and duck as chicks they look the same. They sound the same but they’re completely different. We all think we’re saying the same thing because were speaking the same language but we really aren’t. Someone from Maine has no idea what the issues on the border of Texas are like. Someone in the middle of a farm in Kansas has no idea what you’re city is like.
You can say someone is a monster but you don’t have a real basis for understanding the issue. We get incensed by each other’s opinions because we hear the language and the words. I remember a trip to South Korea. Everyone has plastic surgery. It didn’t seem like the culture I grew up in with my parents. My brother worked at Samsung at the time and he told me that it’s a gift from their parents at 16.
I disagreed with that. There’s nothing medically wrong with them; what a shallow way to be but the jobs are so competitive that even if they spend money for better tutoring, at the end of the day the employer just chooses the best looking person because there are so many qualified people, and not enough jobs. So, it’s a matter of survival for these people because they’ve done everything for a livelihood and the only way to get the position now comes down to their looks.
You always have to be more broadminded. You understand issues in your context, not their context and that happens every single day. Let’s talk about race. If you say something about race, that’s a hot button. “I have a Black friend.” I’ve always hated that statement because it reveals a deeper ignorance and arrogance to say you think you understand what another person has lived through. Not to mention, that person might have had a different experience. Another Korean family that emigrated at the same time as mine, might have a different experience and I don’t want to be lumped into that. You don’t have the right to opine on something you have no knowledge on.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Yes, it still stands out to this day. My dad was a Taekwondo master and was very well-respected . I was sparring in a tournament and he told me what he could see that I was always trying to capitalize on the weak side of my opponent. He decided to teach me a lesson and drew a line. He then asked me how to make the line shorter. I said you can cut it.
He redrew the line and then he put another one next to it that was much longer. He told me, “What you need to know about fighting and everything in life, is that by making your own line longer, you make the other line shorter by comparison. You don’t have to spend time or energy trying to destroy something. Instead, use that energy to grow yourself and that line will be shorter.”
That stuck with me since I was nine years old. When you have that sort of a lesson, it’ll come back to you because it’s so profound and when you take the hard steps to live that way it will bear fruit. They taught me a lot but that’s the one I really hold onto. There will be things that anger you, but remembering that spending the time to cut something apart is an unworthy expenditure of time.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I don’t really have anybody that’s prominent in that way. More than anything, it’s about going back to see people. With my parents I can go back to them anytime, while they’re alive anyway and I capitalize on that as much as I can. There is so much wisdom, I know I won’t get it all. So I’d rather meet with people from a different chapter of my life and see where they are today and talk about those types of things and where we are today because of it. An old commander on mine, for instance, I really admired him as a leader. It’s not easy to just talk to people. That’s how I would think instead of lunching with a business leader. Even if they have impressive accomplishments and I wont take anything from that, I don’t know anything personally about them so it makes me ambivalent about meeting them. I would rather check in with the people who shaped me.
Thank you for joining us!