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Robert Seo: Lessons I Learned From My Military Experience About How To Survive And Thrive During A Time Of Crisis

The most important lesson I learned was to put your team’s needs and goals above your own. It’s counterintuitive, but it will lead to a better outcome for the team and for yourself. The Marine Corps preaches unselfishness and I think this is what makes us such a formidable force. When every Marine knows that every other Marine would lay down his/her life to get them to safety, then that inspires them to do the same. To take it another step. I know that every other Marine would lay down his/her life to get even my dead body home to my grieving mother, then there are no lengths to which I would go for another Marine. That is how we move forward in combat and how we stay motivated when we’re cold, wet, tired and hungry. When you take care of others, they’ll find a way to take care of you. The more you give, the more you get.

As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Seo, P.S.

Robert was born and raised in Maryland and went to UMD for undergrad. He joined the US Marines while still studying and in 2003, took a year off for Operation Iraqi Freedom with a light armored reconnaissance unit. After his deployment, he received his Bachelors in Economics with a Minor in Math and moved to NYC to work at UBS in investment banking. After a few years, he moved to South America for a year to learn Spanish and to do an Ironman Triathlon (2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile marathon). After completing the race, he came back to NYC and worked at Goldman Sachs in their Principal Strategies Group investing around the world and across various industries before receiving an MBA from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). After graduation, he moved to Korea for a year to look for startup ideas and moved back to NYC as the CEO and cofounder of Slidejoy. Slidejoy was acquired by Buzzvil in 2017. He is currently a cofounder of P.S., a sexual wellness company selling Condoms 2.0, the second coming.

Can you tell us a bit about your military background?

I joined the Marines right after my freshman year of college in 2000. I was looking to serve and to be challenged. I had had a pretty disastrous freshman year, at least academically, and knew that I needed something that I would get out of bed for. School wasn’t challenging or interesting for me and I found it tough to get out of bed to even go to class.

I chose the Marines because it is the toughest branch and I knew I’d be challenged. It all happened very quickly. I reached out to the recruiter and a week later, I was at Basic Training in Parris Island. I didn’t know anything about the military, how it worked or any of it. I just knew I wanted to be a Marine.

After boot camp, I got assigned to Bravo Company, 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion as a reservist. I went back to school and drilled once a month. I feel like I got lucky because in 2003, we deployed for the initial invasion of Iraq and then was able to continue my education and career after that. I say lucky because every Marine you talk to at the time wanted to be where we were.

After 9/11, I remember watching other Marine units go into Afghanistan. I was filled with envy because I wanted to be there. I felt like I should be there. And when Iraq happened, I knew every other Marine around the world felt the way I had.

Anyways, after we took Baghdad, we moved down to southern Iraq (Ad Diwaniyah) and served as the Quick Reaction Force (QRF) for the southern part of the country. If one of our supply convoys got attacked, then we’d respond and if a certain area kept getting attacked, we’d patrol that area.

I can’t say I was an exceptional Marine. I have a few awards from training, but I didn’t do anything particularly special while I was deployed.

Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?

On June 25, 2000, our Company got a call that a unit was being ambushed. So 1st Platoon went out to respond. As they were responding, they crossed a canal road that collapsed under the weight of the light armored vehicle (14 tons). There were a couple Marines injured and one, Gregory MacDonald, who died.

The guy was an exceptional human being and an outstanding Marine. A few days before, I was on watch making sure the vehicles were secured during the hottest part of the day. When I say hot, I mean anything that’s exposed to the sun at that time will burn your skin. So I’m on watch and I hear some noises coming out of one of the vehicles (which are completely exposed to the sun). Mac is in there cleaning his 240E machine gun! The dude was a warrior. Cleaning his burning hot weapon in the middle of the Iraqi desert during the hottest part of the day so he can make sure that it will do its job when the time came to lay it down for his fellow Marines. That right there, is love.

And when I heard the news that he had passed, it just wrecked me. There have been studies done that equate losing a battle buddy to losing a spouse and I don’t know if what losing a spouse is like, but the news was just devastating. It made me question everything in life.

I mentioned that I wasn’t the best student at school and joining the Marines didn’t change that. But once Mac passed away, I knew I couldn’t screw up anymore.

After having some time to register everything, I realized that I was afraid to live my life. I was afraid of trying things and doing my best in case I failed. And I vowed that I wasn’t going to screw around anymore. I was going to play for keeps.

If I talk to a therapist or someone who knows, they’d probably say I have Survivor’s Guilt or whatever, but I just see it where you have a guy who didn’t die for us. I mean he gladly would’ve. But he lived for us. He had a Master’s Degree in Middle Eastern Studies and had joined the Marines. So he was exactly where he wanted to be, doing exactly what he wanted to be doing.

And to honor that, I had to do the same. So that’s what I’ve been doing with my life.

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.

See my comments about Gregory MacDonald. He’s a hero. I think his heroics came to light through his death. But his spirit was heroic everyday he lived. It’s what in someone’s heart and what they do every day that makes someone a hero. The heroes we hear about just found themselves in the right situations for us to know about them is all. We’re surrounded by heroes.

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.)

The most important lesson I learned was to put your team’s needs and goals above your own. It’s counterintuitive, but it will lead to a better outcome for the team and for yourself. The Marine Corps preaches unselfishness and I think this is what makes us such a formidable force. When every Marine knows that every other Marine would lay down his/her life to get them to safety, then that inspires them to do the same. To take it another step. I know that every other Marine would lay down his/her life to get even my dead body home to my grieving mother, then there are no lengths to which I would go for another Marine. That is how we move forward in combat and how we stay motivated when we’re cold, wet, tired and hungry. When you take care of others, they’ll find a way to take care of you. The more you give, the more you get.

In business, this applies because it’s always going to be difficult and you may not always have all the resources available. But when you can keep a team motivated when you’re in a crisis, then you’re more likely to come out of it because the team will be focused on getting the company in a good place rather than serving their individual needs first.

Do you think your experience in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?

While I had to learn new topics like finance, accounting, etc. I still apply the same leadership principles ingrained in me from the Marine Corps. The Corps has a list of 14 different traits every leader should strive to embody and it’s something I try to live by every day. And it’s helped me attract and retain exceptional business partners throughout my entrepreneurial journey.

I also include it in the materials when I teach my entrepreneurship class at NYU. I want to make sure my students understand that there are topics you can learn like marketing, sales and operations. But there are equally, if not more, important things that you have to BE in order to be successful.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I cofounded a sexual wellness company called P.S. We’re providing better products and going out with a different message from the status quo.

We created a condom you’ll forget about as soon as you put it on. By working with a specialty manufacturer in South Korea and doing a lot of *ahem* testing, we designed a silky-smooth condom that transfers the vibes more intimately. P.S. also comes without the gross rubbery smell because they’re made with cleaner, non-toxic ingredients. We left out the Parabens, Glycerin, Casein, Bisphenol-A (BPA) and any other weird ingredients commonly found in those other condoms. And of course, P.S. Condoms can take a beating. They exceed FDA strength requirements so you can stay worry-free and in the moment.

The fact is, I’m a skinny Asian guy. In American culture, we’re told that big and bulky is manly. I grew up thinking that I needed to bulk up to be considered tough and masculine. My metabolism just doesn’t work that way. On top of that, how many times have you seen an Asian male who is also the romantic lead in a movie or TV? Instead, we’re bombarded by the media with Asian male actors who play nerds with small penises. In fact, it wasn’t until boot camp, where I was forced to shower with dozens of other guys that I found out that I didn’t have a small penis.

Anyways, my point is that along the way, I’ve accepted that I’m the man. I don’t need to look or try to be any type of way. I’m just manly. And I’m good with it.

Meanwhile, the old school condom companies have been perpetuating the same outdated messages on masculinity for over 100 years. If you think about it, Trojan man is the epitome of toxic masculinity. They’ve been saying that you have to look or act a certain way to be considered sexy or masculine.

Through P.S. and our brand, I want to redefine what masculinity is. It’s not about being anything but yourself. You’ve got to accept yourself wholeheartedly. Because honestly, what’s manlier than that?

I’m hoping to bring back that loving feeling (literally) and also go out with a more positive message to men.

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?

I wouldn’t say that there is any one individual person that helped me be who I am. Now that I have kids, I see that it really takes a village. And it’s been the same way with me. From my parents, to their friend community growing up, to my friends from school, the Marines, my cofounders, colleagues from work, and of course my wife, I’ve been blessed to have been surrounded by people who have all contributed to who I am.

Lastly, of course I can’t forget the haters. You know you’ve made it when you have haters. Haha just kidding, I don’t have any haters, I mean, how can you hate a guy like me?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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