Jesse Levin | DEF Community
The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum includes brilliant and motivated civil servants, military members, academics, entrepreneurs, policymakers and technologists working in national security. We conduct occasional interviews to share individual stories as part of our mission to connect people and change culture.
This interview with Jesse explores the perspectives of a serial entrepreneur working to change culture in the challenging areas of disaster preparedness and response. His perspectives and experience are great examples of innovation in action. We love how he thinks out-of-the-box about challenges and is always helping others!
Andrew Gibbs @ DEF: I’ll lead off by saying thank you for being the first person to participate in this series. I think it’s pretty exciting, and hopefully we’ll have a great conversation. So, question number one:
How did you arrive at this intersection between entrepreneurship, disaster response, and the veteran community?
Jesse Levin: That goes back; I grew up going to the Tom Brown Coyote Tracks survival school, and I started bumping into the veteran community really early on at twelve or thirteen years old, but really it wasn’t until I started doing what I was calling “cultural mediation” work down in Panama starting in 2006 through a small firm I ran, Archer Group Investments, an austere environment logistics and foreign direct investment advisory firm which was shuttered in 2010 after selling off the assets and relocating back to the US. We were doing a lot of work out in areas fifteen to twenty years ahead of the curve. So, we were way out in the more remote regions that were pretty contested areas where there was a lot of drug trafficking and various groups with very different interests running around. From the indigenous population living on the river heads, to the maritime police, mining operators to foreign investors and the local gangs that would look to disrupt and steal from the traffickers…. it was not as peaceful as it was beautiful.
…we were way out in the more remote regions that were pretty contested areas where there was a lot of drug trafficking and various groups with very different interests running around.
In doing the work that we were doing out there, mitigating all the differences between these various groups, we realized that we had access to resources when there were these huge storms. All these local villages were getting socked-in. There was no form of communication, cellphones, or anything like that out there. We had access to larger boats, and I learned that you could just pop into a Red Cross supply depot to get what you needed and put an ad hoc team together. And if you could afford to buy gas for the Maritime Police Unit, they’d be more than happy to lend you a hand and their boat to go run around and help, which amounted to a free patrol for them. And that’s how we got into disaster response, which turned out to be a great tool to unify contentious parties and to provide an opportunity for everyone to work together for positive impact.
In working with the special police units, or the veteran community, in conducting those types of operations, it became a no-brainer from an execution and efficiency perspective. I rolled into Haiti in 2010 to volunteer for search and rescue after the earthquake and when that phase ended we did a whole lot of last-mile triaging, field hospital logistics, etc. and that’s really when I just saw how broken the humanitarian assistance and disaster response and the whole system was.
I came back to the States in 2011 and started Tactivate, which brought all of these experiences together, taking the same principles and tactics that we were using to build capacity in international disaster response and in austere environment logistics to launching companies. There was just this massive cultural disconnect, I’m preaching to the choir here, but the veteran community is just incredibly resourceful. We all know this conversation but while the rhetoric was, “Hey, veterans are valuable, we want to hire them,” there still wasn’t a lot of effective action being taken.
We still saw a huge disconnect, so on a very small scale — we’re tiny — we started to work with one or two individuals at a time. We’d launch some kind of crazy concept, like Brooklyn Boulder’s climbing gym and co-working spaces and select veterans would help us out with that. We would get a feel for their tempo, their interests, etc. and would help advise them, fund them, get them placed or whatever the case might have been. We would learn from them and they would help us in the project — it was a win-win.
We still saw a huge disconnect, so on a very small scale — we’re tiny — we started to work with one or two individuals at a time.
In turn, a majority of the cash flow that we were making, we’d deploy to support ensuing volunteer efforts for disaster response, so we could bring what we were learning in the entrepreneurial ecosystem to play in identifying, supporting and amplifying local capacity in the aftermath of a disaster. Our role in the disaster community really became a focus on emergency economic stability and supporting local capacity to solve their own challenges to decrease dependence on foreign aid.
Since you mentioned Tactivate, I heard that you guys had a huge impact down in Puerto Rico. Would you say little bit about that work?
JL: Yeah. Typically, our deployments are one or two weeks. We’re not structured as a not for profit but we end up spending most if not all of our for-profit proceeds on supporting volunteer operations. We fund all of our disaster response work out of pocket and through support from our close friends who often step up. While it would be easier in a lot of ways for us to become an NGO, we have been working to avoid that model for a number of reasons. Normally we are in and out quickly, with exceptions like Haiti and Puerto Rico, where we were for about a year.
Basically, every disaster is different. We go at things by really looking at local capacity. We get very last mile and work to identify the systemic breakdowns in the local system, be it supply chains, water, power, etc. We look for what resources and expertise exist locally and how we can get behind it. We then politely albeit not necessarily through formal channels siphon or redirect resources from the huge resource pools, be it the HA/DR community, or government, or the Department of Defense ,and put them behind the local talent we identified.
“We get very last mile and work to identify the systemic breakdowns in the local system, be it supply chains, water, power, etc. We look for what resources and expertise exist locally and how we can get behind it.”
In Puerto Rico, one of the things we noticed right off the bat when we hit the ground was a lot of talk about a lack of food and water, which there certainly was. But there was also a whole lot of supply throughout the island in these little mom and pop stores that had stocked up before the storm. They had done what they could to serve the community, of course, and gave away what they could, but they had no power and had no communication or purchasing/ selling power as it was a cashless and no point of sale environment.
A vast majority of the island’s residents relied on EBT food stamps to buy food and water. So, with no connectivity, there was no point of sale and no purchasing power or selling power. So, the economy had come to a halt and the aid community was sending hundreds of tons of food and water to the island completely eradicating the local suppliers in the meantime. So, we figured if we could re-connect the POS systems, there would be a lot less demand for expensive and logistically complicated supply drops that further jeopardized local businesses anyway.
So, we went to work returning the purchasing and selling power so the local, not foreign, resources could be utilized to solve the acute challenges. We wanted to get some economic stability going while addressing the acute needs by allowing the locals to solve their own challenges. Getting the economy cranking, even in the acute response phase, helps to negate the heavy dependence on external resources and to get the economy to stabilize and the impacted places functioning again.
Getting the economy cranking, even in the acute response phase, helps to negate the heavy dependence on external resources and to get the economy to stabilize and the impacted places functioning again.
So, we dropped in a bunch of super-simple M2M satellite terminals that a friend of ours, the guy who led that operation, Steve Birnbaum, had sourced through an incredible strategic partner, Focused Mission. We put together this quick, kind of hasty team with other aid groups, local foundations, and the local government and we self-funded to start. Because the government or the military wasn’t acting on the issue, I just put these terminals on my AMEX and we were able to collaborate with FEMA to get air transport to move quickly.
Working with the Department of Family Services and the acting CIO of the Puerto Rican government at the time, we were able to map out the most strategic areas to drop the systems into. We put them in identified locations around the island in conjunction with the CIO and head of the Puerto Rican Innovation Technology Services Office at the time. We were able to operate outside of the traditional aid infrastructure which had identified this as an issue that they wanted to solve, but could not do it quick enough. And with the air support, we were able to conjure an ability to get around the island quickly.
We were able to operate outside of the traditional aid infrastructure which had identified this as an issue that they wanted to solve, but could not do it quick enough.
I think in the first phase we dropped in twelve units in two weeks and millions and millions of dollars in transactions had gone through the systems in the first few months, restoring access to food and water through normal channels while decreasing dependency and strain on external resources and supply chains. The hard cost for the units was roughly $30,000, so the ROI was great by any measure. Forbes and Entrepreneur put out some fun pieces on the project.
What projects are you currently focused on?
JL: Ha! Being ragingly ADD, you know, I am a bit all over the place and there is always something. We spent a lot of money in Puerto Rico; it’s all volunteer stuff, so we don’t drop into these environments looking to make money, we don’t contract or anything like that. So, now we have to essentially refill the coffers to be ready for the next one.
Through all the projects we’ve done in the past, we’ve been testing this idea of how to socialize the hard and soft skills of readiness. How do we do what CrossFit has done for fitness in making it communal and tribal for readiness, making it an everyday part of culture. How do we do that for things like situational awareness, keeping calm under duress, medical skills and the like. How do we teach communities to be more self-reliant and less dependent in times that fall outside the status quo?
Through all the project we’ve done in the past, we’ve been testing this idea of how to socialize the hard and soft skills of readiness… How do we teach communities to be more self-reliant and less dependent in times that fall outside the status quo?
We feel the times call for that shift in society. When people are armed with the skill set and an informed perspective from training on both the soft and hard side of readiness they learn to proactively respond and not react in time of need, something we think has implications in every facet of life — not just in emergencies. We have been fascinated by the concept of proactive whole community readiness for about a decade.
So, we’ve tested parts of a concept we have had to launch a social club for badassery through projects like an outdoor survival training bar pop-up in Miami, climbing gyms and co-working spaces and team houses we have launched in disaster zones. We’ve done all kinds of excursions and trips with high-level CEOs and special operations veterans.
Now we're looking to bring the concept to life in a concerted way, not baked into another venture. We launched a pop-up over the holidays in Connecticut to bring the emergency readiness training social club to life. It was shorter-term again and it would have been great if we were still running it through this COVID-19 episode. C’est la vie.
What do you see as your biggest obstacle in your current project?
JL: Entrepreneurship is kind of a suck fest right? People glamorize it, and they say it’s great. Everybody wants to be an entrepreneur, but it’s pretty unpleasant most of the time. It’s a constant, constant grind. And what’s been an obstacle for us is there’s a very specific skill set that we bring to the table in the way of identifying niches and an ability to conceptualize and rapidly launch projects, establishing a brand and pulling teams together to build massive organic community quickly.
But there’s a whole subset of expertise that we don’t have and are not good at where we need to partner with people. The brass tacks, I call it the zero to one. The business structuring, the financial modeling, the ability to sign serious leases, HR. We can do it, but we're not the best at it, and truly don’t enjoy it. Its just not our skillset. Where we excel is coming in at 1.5 to 2.0: launch phase, as we call it.
Our efforts have always been designed to be synergistic and to amplify collaborators' projects. In marrying our efforts with others we have found success, but have not yet engaged in a relationship to bring our concept, in a dedicated way to light as the main attraction and primary focus. We are looking for that partner.
We sort of hit this question already, but do you see any other really big unexplored opportunities, in the HA/DR entrepreneurial space, to really disrupt the way things are currently functioning?
JL: Yeah, I think DEF is actually a perfect model for this, to be honest. We use the term expeditionary entrepreneurship, and there’s this very black and white perception in the HA/DR world where you’re either a disaster capitalist, or you’re an NGO, or you’re military or government. It’s incredibly siloed when, in point of fact, it takes all of these people, including the locals (often left out), really working together effectively to get anything done. And that collaboration typically happens outside of the traditional system through informal relationships.
I think there’s a huge role for entrepreneurship as a tool kit and perspective…. being able to drop in to assess a system holistically and understand what the underlying challenges are and identify rapid solutions in human capital and technology to solve them in the most austere environments.
I think there’s a huge role for entrepreneurship as a tool kit and perspective to play, both pre-, and post-occurrence and not from a profiteering perspective, but from a solution engineering capacity. Being able to drop in to assess a system holistically and understand what the underlying challenges are and identify rapid solutions in human capital and technology to solve them in the most austere environments…
It is similar to what you have to do when you create a company. Like when you have a massively competitive environment, but you see that one little tweak, that one little fix, that one little connection where you can arbitrage and solve massive challenges with minimum of resources — that’s disaster response — that’s also entrepreneurship.
I would like to see or cultivate, a deployable entrepreneurial capability or capacity in that world. One that speaks enough military, that speaks enough UN (United Nations), that speaks enough FEMA, that speaks enough NGO, that has the empathy and the wherewithal to understand the power of the local population to create those informal relationships and to build informal capacity.
Which person, experience, or idea has had the most impact on your thinking about your work?
JL: The most informative experience of my life, bar none, was the youth program of the Tom Brown Tracker School, Coyote Tracks. It’s a wilderness philosophy and awareness school that I grew up going to. Basically, to keep it very simple, I realized at thirteen or fourteen years old that I could walk into the woods with a knife and provide for myself and my family and have fun doing it.
I realized at thirteen or fourteen years old that I could walk into the woods with a knife and provide for myself and my family and have fun doing it. It changed my baselines like, “What do I really have to fear?”
It changed my baselines like, “What do I really have to fear?” I was able to extrapolate that allegorically and came to understand what that meant in every facet of life. But more importantly, it taught me to pay attention. It taught me to understand movement and angles and people and there is a real philosophical aspect, based on Native American principles that re-wired how I perceived the world.
Learning how to move through your environment, how your actions impact things around you, the idea of concentric rings and influence; that’s what has formed the vast majority of my perception and my pursuits in life and I am forever grateful for the experience.
You mentioned DEF being a really good forum to break down these silos between different communities. So, what do you hope to bring to the DEF community?
JL: Yeah, I’ll never be able to contribute to DEF compared to what I’ve extracted. From a reach-back perspective, it’s the most incredible resource out there. You have a collective, it’s like the hive mindset; you’ve got this group of exceptionally dedicated, committed individuals who have come together and have really developed a truly good-willed solution-focused and insanely well-resourced community.
I’m a civilian, right? There’s only so much I can do in interacting with the DoD, because there is a cultural divide, which I respect tremendously, but of course, at times, find frustrating. DEF is the first place I have found where that doesn’t really matter. It is a very well connected, well resourced, well-intentioned group of people that you can tap and access with no ask, and there’s no, “I’m going to do this for you, you are going to do this for me.”
Jesse Levin is the Founder of Tactivate, an expeditionary entrepreneurial initiative with a mission to mesh principals from the international disaster response, military Special Operations veterans, and entrepreneurial ecosystems to create hybrid approaches to new venture launch and last mile disaster readiness, response, and economic stability operations.
Jesse works with teams from these disciplines to launch start-ups to gamify disaster preparedness training. These ventures cultivate proactive community emergency readiness. In the aftermath of large international disasters, Tactivate deploys to bring entrepreneurial solutions to disaster response and recovery operations.
Past private sector projects have included Brooklyn Boulders; venture backed climbing gym and innovation spaces, and Mortar & Pistil, an outdoor survival-training bar in Miami. Jesse has led disaster response operations around the world from Haiti, the Philippines to Puerto Rico and New York. His efforts with Tactivate have been featured in Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, FastCo, CNN, and Entrepreneur.
The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that inspires, connects and empowers people by convening events, forging partnerships and delivering tangible solutions. Our mission is to promote a culture of innovation in the U.S. national security community.
If you are a civil servant, military member, academic, entrepreneur, policymaker, or technologist (or just find the idea of helping solve tough problems enticing), we’d love to have you join the DEF Community!