Over two decades of war, American service members overseas looked across the rubble, the destroyed fields and the ripped-up homes and saw possibilities.
One tasted tea for the first time during his deployment; another was taken by flip-flops fashioned from combat boots. Female soldiers got to know women in Afghanistan and imagined economically empowered lives for them. An Army helicopter pilot came back sick from exposure to burning plastics and shifted his views on the environment.
Many veterans have struck out on their own, availing themselves of small business programs to build companies inspired by their combat experiences and calibrated to address social or economic issues in the countries where they served.
Nick Kesler, a veteran advocate who once ran a nonprofit consulting firm dedicated to supporting these sorts of deployment-inspired businesses, said the veterans behind them “know the true cost of instability and conflict on the families they aim to support.”
“These businesses create a connection for them between their life in uniform overseas and now their civilian lives back home,” he said.
Below are the stories of four such businesses.
While growing up in Louisiana, Brandon Friedman had only tried tea in iced form and thought it was “the grossest thing ever.”
“My idea of tea was British ladies with big hats,” he recalled.
His first true tea sipping was in Iraq with Kurdish fighters wearing AK-47 bandoleers. It was one of many eye-opening moments for him during deployments to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Outside of the taste, tea drinking in Iraq represented “stopping and slowing down,” Mr. Friedman said. “It was a way to remove yourself from everyday life.”
Back home in Dallas in 2004, he found himself rummaging through halal grocery stores for brown bags of loose tea. Life moved on, with marriage, graduate school, a child, a job in politics. “I left the war and left the tea in the past.”
In 2016, Mr. Friedman began to research the origins of the tea he enjoyed. (The black Ceylon tea he had in Iraq came from Sri Lanka and other nations.) He soon began exploring how he might import tea from former conflict zones. His tea education began in earnest, as he learned about the aroma and mouth feel of each type.
Working with a nonprofit and seeking money on Kickstarter, he and an Army buddy — a former Green Beret — began the business in 2017 in a 250-square-foot office space in the back of a small building, importing from Nepal, Colombia, Vietnam and other countries whose teas can be hard to find in American stores. They now have a 2,000-square-foot facility with a storefront, and ship 45 teas from nine countries.
Reporting From Afghanistan
There have been challenges. In Vietnam, for example, the 300- and 400-year-old wild tea trees that grow in the mountains and forests in the northern provinces of Ha Giang and Yen Bai are difficult to manage.
Some suppliers “are much more casual about timelines,” he said, and were hard to press to meet holiday sales schedules. The biggest issues arise, however, when post-conflict nations like Myanmar and Ethiopia “turn back into current-conflict countries.” On top of all that, of course, came the supply-chain challenges brought on by the pandemic.
Selling tea has become an extension of his military mission, said Mr. Friedman, who still favors the Ceylon tea he first sipped in Iraq. “I remain convinced that the way out of conflict is through people talking to each other, and commerce,” he said. “We call this peace through trade.”
Emily Miller recalls first deploying with the Army in Afghanistan over a decade ago, when the U.S. military was finally realizing how culturally inappropriate it was to have male service members tramping through villages and talking to women and children. In 2011, she joined a team tasked with engaging “the other 50 percent of the population that has been pretty much largely ignored.”
She ended her two deployments “pretty disillusioned with the war effort and how we weren’t making the difference.” She believed that business could be a more effective force for good. Soon, Ms. Miller was at Harvard Business School and on a Skype call with a classmate, Kim Jung, and a third friend, Keith Alaniz. Everyone on the call was an Army veteran who had cycled through Afghanistan.
Mr. Alaniz told his friends about his second tour in the Maidan Wardak Province, and meeting Hajji Joseph, a saffron farmer who was eager to tap into the U.S. marketplace.
The three friends started mulling saffron together. They wondered if they could connect farmers with restaurants in the United States. They talked about starting a business that could improve economic conditions in rural Afghanistan in the process.
A trip in 2014 to Afghanistan, where the three met with farmers, sealed their plan to create Rumi Spice, Ms. Jung said. (They later added Carol Wang, a civilian who spoke Dari, to the mix.)
“When the saffron came into the room,” Ms. Jung recalled of their visit, “it just filled the room with this amazing fragrance that I thought any chef would just swoon over.” But it came in a cardboard box wrapped in string, presaging years of work to teach U.S. standards of packaging and food safety to local students and farmers, and to centralize processing in the region, which had never been done.
Rumi Spice has since trained nearly 4,000 local women to work in its processing and fulfillment centers, some of them receiving a salary for their labor for the first time.
The team was careful not to align themselves with the Americans or the Afghan government they backed, which proved prescient.
Even after the disintegration of the country’s government last year, Rumi Spice — now with 12 products in 1,800 stores across the United States — continues to employ thousands of women and farmers.
During his deployments in Iraq, Chris Videau could not help but notice all the trash. There were piles of it everywhere, and a black haze of pollution darkened the skies. The stench of burning plastic hung below.
The military’s burn pits — giant garbage dumps ignited by jet fuel — glowed so intensely that Mr. Videau, an Army helicopter pilot, could navigate by their light.
Mr. Videau was among tens of thousands of people who were exposed to burn pits while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have since filed disability compensation claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Congress has also taken up their cause.
Mr. Videau thought he had left the burning waste, like so many parts of his deployment, behind him when he returned to Kansas in 2007. But by 2008, his morning runs began to suffer. A doctor who examined his X-rays told him his lungs “were like a 70-year-old’s” even though he was in his early 30s.
“I started thinking about plastic,” Mr. Videau said, and soon he and his wife began to remove it from their home as much as possible. “That changed my outlook on life.”
But he still could not avoid plastic laundry detergent tubs. In 2017, he began researching whether laundry sheets could replace standard soap. After some complex negotiations with a company that held a patent for such sheets, Mr. Videau and a partner started their business. They quickly sold 25,000 boxes of soap sheets.
Since its first year, Mr. Videau said, Sheets Laundry Club has had over $9 million in total sales and prevented more than 615,000 plastic containers from being sold.
“The intent wasn’t to create awareness for burn pits,” he said. “It was to create a sustainable business for my family. We believe if we do the right thing, the money will come.”
Mr. Videau’s journey has come full circle, as he now makes a point to donate his products to troops overseas.
“I have been over there,” he said. “I know what it’s like to not get things in the mail.”
Matthew Griffin was a 4th-generation military man and West Point graduate thrust into the war immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. “I grew up on ‘Rambo’ and thought the best way to serve my country was to be an Army Ranger,” he said.
After leaving as a captain in 2006, Mr. Griffin found his way into the contracting world, and in 2008 was back in Afghanistan helping to set up medical clinics.
One day he visited a combat boot factory in Kabul, where he was impressed to see workers making a boot that emulated a flip-flop sandal. It seemed that many Afghan fighters, used to unlaced shoes, were “losing tens of thousands of man-hours a day,” struggling with the extensive laces on their combat boots.
The factory owner had invented military sandals “that adhered to their cultural norms,” Mr. Griffin said. When the owner told him he had no plans for the factory after the war, Mr. Griffin ventured to turn the business into something viable and enduring, benefiting the country where he once fought.
He called another Ranger buddy, Donald Lee, and the two pondered how to get Afghan footwear into the American marketplace. They started making flip-flops in the country in 2012 and “immediately failed,” he said. They eventually shifted production to Colombia, benefiting from bilateral trade agreements with the United States, and began selling Combat Flip Flops online in 2013.
“When we first started, our customers were 80 percent military and military families,” Mr. Griffin said.
Their customer base grew and diversified as they added scarves, bags and jewelry made in Afghanistan, Laos and the United States. After the Taliban regained control over Afghanistan last year, Combat Flip Flops pivoted its Afghan textile factory to make blankets and cold-weather clothing for displaced Afghans suffering through a brutal winter. Some proceeds from sales have gone toward funding girls’ education in Afghanistan, land mine removal in Laos and services for disabled veterans in Washington State. “It’s been a pretty wild ride,” Mr. Griffin said.