Maj. Mike Erwin hoped to get his MBA after he came home from his third tour in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, the military had other ideas, and sent him to study psychology at the University of Michigan.
There, Erwin grew interested in the theory of positive psychology, a relatively novel discipline that involves studying the behaviors that lead people to report greater happiness, along with lives of purpose and meaning.
As a military man, Erwin had a realization. While there were many great nonprofit organizations set up to serve returning veterans, he couldn't point to one that sought to help modern veterans improve their lives according to the principles he was studying.
People were eager to "support the troops" who were returning from war by helping with career, financial, and health issues, but Erwin believed there was a deeper need. So, he decided to try to fill the void.
"I had not a damn clue what I was doing," he told me recently. "I was in grad school, but I had some time on my hands ... so, I threw 40 hours a week in summer 2010 into creating Team RWB."
Team Red, White & Blue
The organization that resulted, Team Red White & Blue, is devoted to "transforming the way that America supports its veterans ... by creating communities of veterans, their families, and American citizens that enjoy authentic interaction through physical and social activities."
It's not about offering veterans a specific solution to a short-term problem, like helping them to find jobs or lobbying the government for more generous veterans benefits. Instead, its goal is to create lightly organized communities to give veterans a sense of belonging, purpose, and physical achievement--all of which are connected to positive psychology, and among the things that many veterans say they miss after leaving the armed forces.
For Erwin, an avid runner, a natural first step was to gather communities of veterans to support each other and run in road races. Three years later, Team RWB has 24,000 members participating in all kinds of athletic events.
If you've run in a race in the past year or two, chances are you've seen participants wearing red Team RWB shirts. In fact, click here to read my article earlier this year about how members of Team RWB who were running the Boston Marathon leapt into action after the terrorist attack there. (As recounted in The Washington Post, for example, one Team RWB combat vet "peeled off his Team Red, White & Blue T-shirt and tied it as a tourniquet on the limb of a bombing victim.")
A 3-Year-Old Startup
I first met Erwin seven or eight years ago, while I was writing a book about his West Point class. We lost touch in the interim, as he went on to serve as an intelligence officer with the 1st Cavalry Division and the 3rd Special Forces Group.
Now, with his master's degree in hand, he's back at West Point, teaching in the Behavioral Sciences and Leadership Department. He now serves as chairman of Team RWB's board, responsible for building partnerships to fuel the organization's growth. (Erwin and his wife are the parents of two small children, with a third on the way.)
Meantime, Team RWB has grown quickly. It now adds 500 new members each week and has partnerships with corporate sponsors like ConocoPhillips and with other nonprofits, including New York Road Runners, the group that founded the marathon in New York City.
Behind the scenes, Erwin said, they one of the world's top consulting firms offered to offer pro bono assistance. He's not allowed to say which one.
"They were looking for a military or veterans startup to throw their expertise behind," Erwin explained. As a result, "a year ago, we got a professional business plan with professional strategy. We're three years old, but really only 10 months old, since we've only been implementing our strategy since mid-January of this year."
Among the future goals? Expanding membership and the scope of events that they participate in.
"In 2011, it was just running," he said. "In 2012, it was running and triathlons and Crossfit. Now, it's running, rock climbing, swimming. Anything that increases your heart rate, we're there."