On Gov. Gary Herbert’s recent trade mission to the Middle East, we enjoyed pointing out the many things Utah and that part of the world have in common. The most notable similarities are geographic. We have the Great Salt Lake, they have the Dead Sea. We both have a Jordan River, Mt. Nebo and Moab.
From an economic standpoint, I noticed another important similarity. Israel is frequently referred to as Startup Nation because of the number of high-tech companies founded there. Utah is also recognized for its outstanding entrepreneurial environment and the number of companies that begin and flourish here.
As I met with successful entrepreneurs in Israel, I noticed a common thread in our conversations. Many of them credited their entrepreneurial success to the experiences and lessons learned while serving in the military. Israel has a mandatory conscription for all young people beginning at age 18. Men serve three years in the military, and women serve for two. There are exceptions, but most citizens have some sort of military background.
The benefit of military service most frequently mentioned by those entrepreneurs is the discipline and hard work they learned while serving. Military life is very regimented, and soldiers have to adjust their habits to conform to the greater good of their unit, the military and their country. This environment “forces” them to grow up faster than most 18-year-olds. In addition, they learn to work in teams and become leaders. Most of the successful business people I met in Israel had served in leadership positions in the military.
At a meeting with some venture capitalists, I was introduced to a very successful business woman. When I asked if she served in the military, she smiled and said, “Yes. I am an officer in the army.” Several entrepreneurs attributed their business success to the specialty training they received in the military. Some had been assigned to units where they were taught specific skills in technology or other fields and, subsequently, utilized that training to start a company after they left the military.
The bottom line is that the experience, leadership, discipline, confidence and training generated by military service has a positive impact on Israel’s entrepreneurship culture and economy.
A couple of years ago, we went on a trade mission to Western Europe. In Brussels, we met with several government officials from the European Union. As I was conversing with one of the officials, he asked why Utah was having so much economic success. I launched into my standard reply about having low tax rates, offering a business-friendly environment, etc. He stopped me mid-sentence and said, “Come on, Val. Let’s be honest. It’s because you have all those Mormon missionaries. They give you a huge advantage.”
I didn’t disagree with him.
Utah benefits from a similar phenomenon when it comes to entrepreneurial and business success. Hundreds of thousands of Utah men and women have served missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Young men are eligible to serve beginning at age 18, young women at 19.
These young people go throughout the world, where they are required to live a disciplined, regimented lifestyle for two years or (in the case of women) 18 months. Some learn a second language and are immersed in a different culture. They learn to work in tandem with a 24/7 companion and spend time each day studying and working. They learn valuable interpersonal and communication skills. Most return home much more self-confident and prepared for their education and careers.
While LDS missions are very different from military service, both tend to produce young people who are disciplined, mature, team-oriented and focused on future success. Most of the entrepreneurs who started Utah’s unicorn (valued at more than $1 billion) technology companies served LDS missions. My guess is if you ask them, they will tell you their mission experiences taught them valuable lessons that translated into business success.
It will likely never happen, but imagine the impact if the U.S. decided to adopt mandatory conscription. Or, for those who didn’t want to go the military route, required some sort of service such as a church mission, the Peace Corps or Job Corps. How would our country change if every 18-year-old had to spend a year or two in a disciplined, regimented environment, doing something that was difficult and forced them to make a personal sacrifice? Would the end result be a better country? Would it benefit our economy?
In my estimation, yes.
Val Hale is the executive director of the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development.