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The 5 Principles My NASA and U.S. Navy Careers Taught Me About Leading a Startup

KC Chhipwadia
KC Chhipwadia

These principles have successfully guided a military veteran through his startup journey.

From birth until my deployment to Iraq, I wanted nothing to do with entrepreneurship (or at least the version of "entrepreneurship" as I perceived it). I was convinced since the age of 6 that I would become an astronaut, or so I thought.

After decades of intense research and working my tail off as a senior human spaceflight engineer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, I made it to the final round of astronaut candidate interviews in 2012. But, no cigar. While I will always be grateful that I made it that far in the selection process, I concluded that the process is outdated and full of inequities.

The astronaut selection process is nothing more than the recruiting component of a human resources process that hasn't evolved in four decades. If any mature business or organization fails to evolve in their recruiting process, that business will become irrelevant. So why is this allowed in the selection of such a visible U.S. government employee? Simply put, it shouldn't.

While working at NASA, I also had the honor to serve our great nation as a naval officer. I've served 20+ years of both active duty and reserve combined. My service has included time on ships, with intelligence units, naval research, special operations, personnel recovery, base operations, and expeditionary warfare to name the "big ones." Throughout my naval career, I would temporarily leave for various deployments, including a 15-month deployment to Iraq and a 13-month deployment to Afghanistan. Life-altering experiences during my Iraq deployment derailed my life's course, and my Afghanistan deployment convinced me that my life's purpose was indeed much bigger than being an astronaut, but I had no idea what that yet was.

After a lot of soul searching, I concluded that my purpose would reveal itself after I connected three dots. Dot No. 1 is my passion to crush outdated and broken processes that hold people back from growing and achieving. Dot No. 2 is that I want to help kids achieve more regardless of the ZIP code they are born into, and dot No. 3 is my passion to affiliate with groups who exude military-like qualities, including teamwork, higher purpose and being mission-oriented.

After extensive research, speaking with other veteran entrepreneurs, and other athletes, I had my "aha" moment:  Student athletes represent the cohort of kids in society who start life's hustle early, and exhibit cooperation, passion and tenacity. And so my journey to build Athlete Foundry began.

Since launching Athlete Foundry, I have become a human punching bag (figuratively, of course). I've lived through nearly every startup challenge there is, but I am better for it, and with the exception of what I have put my family through, I would not change one single thing!

As I reflect on my entrepreneurial journey, there are five principles I identified that my NASA and U. S. Navy careers equipped me with that helped me power through my days leading a tech startup.

Principle No. 1: Always lead from the front, ethically, morally and sincerely. 

"Play the midfield."

Do not compromise any of these tenants, ever, period.  Don't play the game of "I'll walk along the edge, push the boundaries as far as I can, and, on occasion, step over the line briefly when no one is looking." 

The world is full of people inside and outside of tech, inside and outside the C-suite, that do not have a moral compass, nor have they been taught how and why to "hold the line" when it comes to these tenants. It is hard, but deviating from these tenets must be non-negotiable. And while employees in an organization should abide by these tenants, too, it must start with, be transparently communicated, and be visible with the leader to set the tone and establish the culture for the company.

Principle No. 2:  Always have a servant mindset. 

"The joy in others lies our own."

Except for a very small group of individuals in history (such as Mother Theresa), even the most humble people feel a sense of pride and personal accomplishment in their work, the tasks they complete, etc. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; after all, that's being human.

However, I strongly believe that if we do things with the aim of serving others, it amplifies our influence and, therefore, magnifies our impact. This principle applies to your team, customers, friends, family, even strangers you run into in the coffee shop.

Principle No. 3: Don't be afraid to redefine yourself.

"Decide, commit, act, and crush it."

Regardless of your profession, don't let others (or yourself) use that to define your future potential. I'm not saying that you can (or should) abandon a career as a human spaceflight engineer to become an entrepreneur, leave the U.S.  Marine Corps Special Forces Operations to become a movie producer, or retire from the National Football League to become an inspirational speaker, best-selling author and executive coach. Transitions are hard, especially when you swing your ship's rudder in the opposite direction from the course you were sailing for decades. 

I have found that a sound transition recipe requires three elements:

  1. Your commitment to pursue a problem worth solving
  2. A systems mindset to break the problem down to the first principles
  3. A wicked team and broad network of subject matter experts

Principle No. 4: Have an attitude.

"Don't be an a**hole."

Let me be clear, I'm absolutely not saying to be arrogant, cocky or rude. (The world has enough jerks). What I am saying is to be bold, courageous and committed to achieving your vision.

Despite the roadblocks, the scarce resources, stay on target. There will be countless naysayers who feel they have a right to share unsolicited criticism or who will tell you that you will fail. I love these people because I turn their negative energy into fuel that accelerates my internal fire.

Principle No. 5: Have a plan, then make course corrections.

"Hope is not a plan."

What differentiates amateurs from professionals is how they plan and adjust. Consummate professionals start with the end in mind and build a reverse plan that unveils a roadmap to achieve the desired end. That is easier said than done. 

No plan is perfect, but every plan's framework should have an appropriate level of detail so you can answer the questions of what your end goal is, what the milestones along the way will be, who is doing what, how you and your team are doing it, what going "off course" looks like, what the risks are, and what the risk mitigations are.

In addition to a solid framework, the content should cover (or consider at the very least) all appropriate angles to ensure you don't overlook an unintended consequence. Do a 360 around your plan to appreciate the first- and second-order effects, spanning the team, customer, infrastructure, logistics, finance, security, investors, etc.

It's important to embrace the fact that no plan is bulletproof and that it must possess appropriate flexibility. What does "appropriate" mean?  This is the art and science of what is found at the nexus of leadership, planning and being mission-driven. "Appropriate" is based on the leader's experience, confidence, and judgment to read the tea leaves, forecast multiple outcomes, and make calculated risk decisions that are always surgically focused on achieving the mission.

Image Credit: Cressida Studio/Shutterstock
KC Chhipwadia
KC Chhipwadia Member
KC has been privileged to serve our great Nation in two capacities, 20 years as a senior human space flight engineer at NASA Johnson Space Center, supporting over 50 Space Shuttle missions, including the Space Shuttle Columbia accident investigation, with his last post serving as the manager of the Space Shuttle astronaut launch & entry suit and crew escape system; and 20+ years, active & reserve combined, in our United States Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer, including deployments to Iraq looking for our missing-in-action, and Afghanistan with Naval Special Warfare.