How one Greenville entrepreneur is helping Navy SEALs find jobs back home

Foxfire CEO John Sterling. Photo by Will Crooks.

The U.S. Navy’s Sea, Air, and Land teams (SEALS) are considered one of the most elite and highly trained special operations forces in the world.

But despite their uncanny ability to find solutions in high-pressure situations, many operators struggle to find meaningful employment once they transition back into the civilian world.

“You’d think these elite guys would find a good job when they get out, but it’s not that easy,” said John Sterling, CEO of Greenville-based warehouse management software company Foxfire. “Many operators choose to redeploy rather than transition, because they can’t figure out how to translate their skills to the corporate world.”

Sterling, however, is working to make that transition easier for special operators.

In 2015, Sterling traveled to San Diego to visit his son, Jack, who is transitioning out of the Navy SEALS after nine years of service. While there, Sterling heard about his son’s experience with The Honor Foundation, a San Diego-based nonprofit that offers career coaching and professional development courses to both current and retired special operators to help them transition to their next job.

Sterling was inspired by his son’s experience and met Joe Musselman, founder of The Honor Foundation, to learn more about the nonprofit’s programs.

Since its launch in 2013, THF has established employer networks in more than 10 cities to help active and retired special operators connect with potential employers or find mentors within the business community. 

Last year, Sterling partnered with Musselman to become the official sponsor of an employer network in Greenville. Today, Sterling is working to employ 100 special operators in the Greenville area by 2027.

It could benefit businesses across the region. Since 2013, THF has graduated more than 100 former special operators from its program. Graduates are currently employed in a wide variety of industries, including finance, manufacturing, hospitality, advanced technology, cybersecurity, health care, and more.

“Overall, they are highly trained at planning and solving complex problems often with very limited time constraints,” Sterling said. “They are trained to never quit until they meet the goal. Many go into roles managing general operations, while some have specialties that they have been trained in.”

Sterling is trying to attract recent THF graduates to Greenville and surrounding areas by organizing annual networking events and tours of local businesses. Last year, for instance, Sterling invited Musselman and three graduates to tour ScanSource and North American Rescue, as well as network with companies like Amazon.

According to Sterling, the networking events and tours are essentially designed to help THF graduates market their skills and capabilities to Greenville businesses, hopefully resulting in follow-up discussions and interviews.

So far, Sterling’s employer network has raised more than $20,000 for The Honor Foundation and helped Ty Hardee, a former Navy SEAL and recent THF graduate, find employment with Northwestern Mutual in Charlotte. Hardee was one of the three operators to tour Greenville last year alongside Sterling.

“The Greenville business community has been outstanding. We have not had one business leader that we have called not want to be helpful or be willing to meet and interview a visiting THF graduate,” Sterling said.

As for the future, Sterling is looking to improve the employer network, which has already garnered support from local economic development leaders like Greenville Mayor Knox White and developer Bo Aughtry.

Sterling, for instance, recently recruited the help of Gary Tomkins, founder of Greenville-based recruiting firm The Kidder Group, in order to expand the network’s reach and specialize tours for this year’s visiting group of operators.

“We are working to line them up individually with businesses that represent their specific job interests,” said Sterling. “The more exposure the graduates can get to what different business situations look like the better.”

Sterling added that eight THF graduates will visit Greenville on Sept. 21 and network with professionals from various industries, including real estate, logistics, apparel marketing, social media, management consulting, and more.

If the graduates find a job in Greenville, then it could create a domino effect and attract more operators to the area, according to Sterling. It could also help The Honor Foundation establish an alumni chapter in South Carolina.

“We expect it to start with a trickle, and as more and more THF grads settle in the area, they will tell their friends that are still in the service and we will start to build a pipeline that will start to feed itself,” said Sterling.

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