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Meet Jake Wood — The Steve Jobs of Public Service

The list of famous entrepreneurial leaders is filled with household names: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk. A common thread among these individuals is that they combined vision, creativity, and unyielding execution to change the world. 

Jake Wood, Co-Founder and CEO of Team Rubicon, is well on his way to joining this list.

In 2010, shortly after Jake finished tours of duty as a Marine Sniper, Haiti was hit by a 7.8 earthquake, one of the worst natural disasters in its history. Jake, his friend William McNulty, and a small group of others (including former Marines and Special Forces personnel who responded to Jake’s Facebook post asking “I’m going to Haiti. Who’s in?”) spontaneously decided to head down to Port-au-Prince and help however possible. While on the ground providing recovery support, the team encountered and overcame several bureaucratic obstacles which had prevented available resources from being deployed in a timely and logical manner. For example, pallets of emergency supplies needed to save dying people were being held at the airport due to red tape until Jake’s team broke the logjam and delivered them to injured Haitians. 

Realizing that there were numerous ways to improve the effectiveness of catastrophe relief, Jake ultimately co-founded Team Rubicon, which is revolutionizing the disaster recovery industry by eliminating administrative barriers which have unfortunately led to a severe lack of efficiency at many of the more traditional players. In addition to an entrepreneurial focus on “relentless execution,” the group’s secret sauce is to deploy U.S. military veterans, who can use their past training and experiences to lead disaster relief efforts. 

Team Rubicon’s model is a true win-win: On the one hand, the communities of the impacted areas receive disaster relief during tragic times. On the other hand, Team Rubicon’s veteran volunteers utilize their skills for an important cause, which can ease their transition from the military to the public sector. As General (Ret.) David Petraeus, Chairman of the KKR Global Institute and former Director of the CIA notes, “Jake Wood is a visionary, inspirational leader who has understood a hugely important ‘big idea’ about veterans — that we miss the sense of purpose, identity, and community that makes service in uniform so special — and has then set about providing opportunities for veterans to experience purpose, identity, and community again by being part of Team Rubicon,  an organization that ‘serves veterans by serving others in the wake of natural disasters.’”

In creatively connecting the proverbial dots between two pressing needs — disaster response and veteran reintegration — to solve multiple issues and executing with nimbleness and speed, Team Rubicon is in many ways more like a Silicon Valley startup than the traditional organizations that it is disrupting. This innovation has not gone unnoticed. As Jeff Dailey, CEO of Farmers Insurance, observes, “Jake is an unusually talented leader and innovator. If you’ve met him or heard him speak, the first thing you notice is his energy and charisma — he has the ability to inspire people to do the right thing. We’ve certainly been inspired by him at Farmers. But maybe more important, he has a creative way of seeing opportunity where others see problems. We all know many returning veterans face issues readjusting to civilian life. And we all know that disasters leave communities reeling and in need of immediate hands-on help. Jake put those two seemingly unrelated problems together and found a single, powerful solution.  And then he had the drive to make it happen. That’s pretty rare.”

Jake serving in Blanchard, OK in the wake of multiple tornado touch-downs in 2015. Photo credit: Kirk Jackson

What about Jake’s background and personality inspired him to start Team Rubicon?

On the surface, Jake’s life has all the hallmarks of a stereotypical Hollywood hero: Midwestern roots, Big Ten scholarship football player (at Wisconsin, whose alumni include NFL stars Joe Thomas, Russell Wilson and JJ Watt), military combat veteran (former Marine Sniper with tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan), married to celebrity newscaster (Indra Petersons of the Today Show). However, beneath the surface is a uniquely passionate person, someone who lost many of his friends during or after military service, including his best friend Clay Hunt, who committed suicide two years after returning from combat. This tragedy enhanced Jake’s already strong sense of purpose and desire to help military veterans.

These diverse range of experiences helped Jake develop into the leader he is today. Among other skills — preparation, decision making, execution — perhaps most importantly, they’ve honed his unusual ability to “Confront the Brutal Facts,” a skill which Jim Collins, author of the seminal leadership book Good to Great, describes as “the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.” For example, Jake consistently refers to himself as a “sh*tty football player.” On a more serious note, when describing Clay’s suicide, Jake has said that, “Everyone says don’t blame yourself, but that’s bullsh*t…I know I didn’t kill Clay, but I didn’t do what I owed him.” It is this uncommon ability to acknowledge and grapple with difficult facts that has helped Jake recognize that the traditional disaster relief industry, although well-intentioned, is broken in many ways and pushed him to replace the existing model.

Above all, Jake has the integrity to put the needs of his organization far above any personal desire for individual recognition. Perhaps the best example of this trait comes from his time playing football at Wisconsin. In his book Take Command, Jake acknowledges that, while he wanted to be the starting left tackle, he had to “swallow my pride and tutor a younger, albeit more talented player named Joe Thomas.” Even though they were competing for the same position, Jake took Joe under his wing, becoming a mentor and teaching him the playbook; Joe subsequently went on to become an NFL star, making the Pro Bowl in each of his first ten seasons. Recognizing when to let other team members assume a greater role and to help them along the way has infused Team Rubicon with a deep bench of talent, which has in turn accelerated their impact. 

Gregg Lemkau, Co-Head of the Investment Banking Division at Goldman Sachs, sums it up best when he says that “Jake is the embodiment of an authentic leader.  He leads with character and integrity and he leads by example.  These attributes have allowed him to build Team Rubicon into a world class, mission-driven organization that helps not only the disaster-stricken communities it serves but, equally importantly, the dedicated veterans that serve them.”

Today, Team Rubicon has attracted 65,000 volunteers (70 percent are military veterans), completed 200 operations across the United States and abroad, and raised over $40 million from public and private supporters. Jake and his story have been featured across a wide range of media outlets, including CNN, GQ, and NPR.

Jake serving in Texas in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Photo credit: Jon Connors

Jake caught up with Bold from his office in Los Angeles.

What was your inspiration for co-founding Team Rubicon and continuing your public service career?

I had just gotten out of the Marine Corps about three months earlier and had been considering business school and the private sector (not non-profit). At the time, I just wanted to go to Haiti and help, so I went with a couple friends and then things snowballed from there. We eventually incorporated as a non-profit. There really wasn’t a single moment that was the inspiration.

In your book, you describe your thoughts on leadership as “less as an answer and more as an ongoing journey.” What are some of the key lessons you have learned on your journey building and scaling Team Rubicon?

Lessons in leadership are always ongoing. We should always be growing as people. A key tenet of Marine Corps leadership is that first you need to know yourself and maintain a sense of self-awareness. Really know your strengths and deficits. You can’t be afraid to surround yourself with really strong leaders. So I’ve tried to bring in strong leaders to Team Rubicon. They’ve made me better and helped me learn every day. On our team, there’s a strong sense of trust and mutual support. We all want to be better. We’re not threatened by each other. Everyone has bought into the program. Not only have we avoided competition, but we genuinely want to see each other succeed.

Do you have any mentors? What have been the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from them?

My life mentor has always been my father. I’ve always been very close with him. He worked in manufacturing and taught me a lot about life and put effort into raising me with integrity, character, and pride in my work ethic. He’s someone I’ve always admired. I’ve learned a lot from him. He taught me to be very logic-based in my approach to life.

I’ve actually done a poor job of building mentors in the workplace. Mentorship requires lots of work on both sides; I’ve been bad at leveraging my network. That said, on a day-to-day basis, I’ve been good at letting my guard down around peers, being vulnerable and asking for honest feedback. Going back to my earlier comment, I’m not worried about being a boss who asks others for advice. 

For our younger readers especially, what advice do you have for those looking to find mentors? What can someone do to distinguish themselves to a leader such as yourself?

The biggest thing is to make sure you genuinely like one another. A lot of the time, people make the mistake of looking for a mentor with the sexiest job title. That’s not the right way to look at it. You need someone you’d genuinely want hang out with, which will lead to more consistent opportunities to provide value. So go one level deeper than the resume. Find someone you’d enjoy sharing a beer with if stuck at an airport.

Who do you most admire and why?

I really admired my dad. A good man who did things the right way: became a business executive with no college degree, raised a family, good citizen, engaged civically, faithful spouse, took care of his employees.

With so many different things on your plate, how do you prioritize your commitments and maximize your productiveness?

You know, it’s hard. I probably could do a better job of saying no. There’s a great book called “Essentialism” by Greg McKeown that emphasizes the importance of saying no, which can be liberating. I’m not too good at it though. I pour myself into work, into my wife. Those two things take priority. Ancillary things have suffered: hobbies, workout schedule. Work and family balance is always a challenge.

In your book, you discuss the importance of “Preparing the Soul.” Without diving into deeply personal experiences, can you talk big picture about the role religion has played in your life?

Religion has had a formative impact on my life starting in my younger years. We had a Christian household, went to a Lutheran church. Religion set the framework for how I look at life: Right, wrong, what my role is in the world, what values to exude each day, to not be afraid to fail.

Preparing the soul goes beyond time spent in church. You need to find a way to be introspective. For me, reflection takes place much more on airplanes, or when I’m walking my dog. I’ll ask myself questions: Am I meeting my personal standards? Do I feel fulfilled? If embarking on a new journey, have I come to terms with what’s at stake? Thinking through lots of different things like this has brought me to where I am today.

While it’s hard to pinpoint whether someone else is introspective or not, every once in a while, I come across someone that you can tell hasn’t done it.

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give yourself and why?

Eat more vegetables. (laughs) I’m not kidding though. As I’ve gotten a better understanding of health and nutrition, I’ve realized the impact that my diet had on my sports career, where I was successful but often injured.

I don’t really have much in the way of regrets. While there are single instances that I can look at and think that I could have made a better decision, I don’t have any regrets in the aggregate.

In your book, you reference Secretary of Defense and Marine General James Mattis’ required reading list: what books or other reading do you recommend to up-and-coming leaders?

With everything going on, I really haven’t been reading as much of late. I’m in my office and staring at a massive pile of books. I want to read “Hamilton,” the book that inspired the musical.

“Gates of Fire,” a work of historical fiction, was the book that sent me into the Marine Corps. It opened my eyes to the discipline and love found in the military and its service.

Jim Collins’ works are also standard but timeless. Team Rubicon draws upon many of their lessons.

A final book is “The Go-Getter,” which my dad forced me to read as a young man.

What can we do better to support veterans and others who have dedicated themselves to public service?

The biggest thing anyone can do is to ask and listen. We are too comfortable getting our understanding of the military from Hollywood. Instead, the public should be asking veterans directly how they feel. As a society, we have a moral obligation to help them with their burdens.

As you look forward to the next 2-3 years and beyond, what goals have you set for yourself?

We’re changing the world a day at a time, so I feel professionally motivated and challenged. I would like to see us hit our scale and sustainability benchmarks. If, at some point, it feels like it’s time for me to move on, I’d most likely do something else entrepreneurial where I could recreate the success we’ve had at Team Rubicon and be excited.

To learn more about Team Rubicon or Jake Wood, please see the following:

Team Rubicon
Instagram: @teamrubicon
Twitter: @TeamRubicon

Jake Wood
Instagram: @jakewoodtr
Twitter: @JakeWoodTR

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