The seeds of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum were planted in 2012 with the publication of ‘The Military Needs More Disruptive Thinkers’ in Small Wars Journal. This call to arms started DEF on the path to promoting a culture of innovation in the national security community.
“It’s time we get leadership that understands the present. This necessarily requires understanding the context of our world. That context is not merely in artillery shells and Tomahawk missiles, but rather crowdfunding, horizontal management, social media and broad interaction with people not like us.” – Ben Kohlmann
Originally identifying as “disruptive thinkers,” a likeminded clan of junior Servicemembers quickly coalesced through the asynchronous interactions of a newly-developed military blogosphere, leveraging Twitter and other social media platforms to facilitate critical discourse. Essays and commentary covered topics like the state of affairs in Village Stability Operations, Air Force social media practices, and even implications of military culture for innovation more broadly.
It was at this point that the connections, ideas and momentum could no longer be harnessed virtually. A crew of enterprising members in this new movement determined to get together in person and see what happened. Supported by a friend who had recently departed active duty to get an MBA at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, DEF2013 was announced in much the same way as previous discussions: with a blog post. (Want to read up on all the posts from that time? Click here.)
That event solidified the need for continued action. More than one hundred participants joining together to share ideas, dig through lessons learned, and attack problems with counterparts who all saw the same pressing need: to innovate, and quickly. In the time since those three days in October 2013, DEF has continued to expand and grow, spawning regional DEFx events to capture the spirit of the Annual Conference and address issues of gravity for the surrounding area. Local Agoras, with their monthly Drink & Thinks, brought even more frequent opportunities for virtuous insurgents to engage, spreading not just around the United States, but around the world.
In 2017, the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum celebrated its fifth anniversary, a major milestone for any start-up, and even more so for a non-profit run entirely by volunteers. Along the way, with the support of incredible partners, like the Atlantic Council, DEF continued to evolve. National programs provided more opportunities for individuals to contribute their thoughts and ideas as part of an effort to shape the decisions of leaders as senior as the Secretary of Defense. The Firestarter Fellowship ran its first pilot in 2018, giving individuals with budding talents in national security roles the chance to work on personal development while expanding the network.
All those efforts were just the beginning. In early 2018, DEF 3.0 was announced as a focused effort to round out the third pillar of our mission: truly empowering members in order to change culture in the national security community. Having inspired and connected people for the first half of a decade, the next five years will be focused on building pathways for an expanding membership base, including corporate supporters and a growing number of volunteers.