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The Latin phrase E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One - is our de facto national motto. It was a rallying cry of our founders as they built a single unified nation from a collection of states. It's a good reminder of where we need to go.

Today as our country struggles to find the common threads that bind us, we need unifying, cohesive, collective, and shared national experiences to bring the country together again.

Here's what we’ve done to get started.

And why I did it.

Pete Newell, Joe Felter and I met over coffee in 2016 to discuss our common goal – how to get students in research universities who would never consider working on national security problems engaged in keeping the country safe and secure.

Today, our contribution to national service, Hacking for Defense, turned five years old. In this class, students learn about the nation’s emerging threats and security challenges while working with innovators inside the Department of Defense.

The result? The class teaches students entrepreneurship while they engage in what amounts to national public service. From our single class at Stanford, Hacking for Defense is now taught at 47 U.S. universities, having graduated 500 teams and 2,000+ students.


Why Serve?

My interest in starting Hacking for Defense was rooted in my long belief in service – not just paying taxes or voting, but actual service. I had a great career as an entrepreneur but always believed that at some point in your life, you need to serve others – whether it’s God, country, community, or family. And I did so in my stints in the military and public service and as an educator.

Disconnection

Looking back, it's clear that our country was far more cohesive when millions of us had to physically share space and live and work with others who didn’t think like us or talk like us. The Air Force turned out to be the first melting pot I would encounter (Silicon Valley the next), where individuals from different classes and cultures had the opportunity to share a common goal and move beyond the environment they grew up in. At each base I was stationed in, I hung out with a group that tutored each other, read books together, went on adventures together, and learned together. And while most of us came from totally different backgrounds (before the Air Force, I never knew you put salt on watermelon, that Spam was food or muffuletta was a sandwich), as far as the military was concerned, we were all the same. 

But a half-century ago, the country started to disconnect from each other and our government when we eliminated national service. In 1973, near the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. ended compulsory military service and has since depended on an all-volunteer military.

One result of this experiment: the risk for the sons and daughters being sent into harm’s way is no longer evenly distributed across all segments of society. Many American families no longer have a personal vested interest in our nation’s decisions about foreign policy.

The unintended consequence of this decoupling is seemingly perpetual wars (we’ve been in Afghanistan for two decades). And with our country focused for two decades on fighting non-nation states – Al-Qaida and Isis – Russia re-armed and China has built weapons that have negated our strengths, matched our military, and threaten democracy around the world.

Even more corrosive to the nation is that without any type of mandatory national service - not just military service - we eliminated any unifying, cohesive, collective, shared national experience or shared values.

Values

Instead, our values are shaped by what we read on social media, where we find an echo chamber of others who think as we do. Technology that was supposed to bring us together has instead sold out the country for partisanship and division, for profit over national interest. Others found it politically or financially profitable to create distrust in the government institutions that protect and bind us. The result is that we're easy targets for disinformation by adversaries intent on undermining our government and its institutions.

The world isn’t a benign place. Our freedoms and values need to be defended. Throughout history, the capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another has proved endless. My parents, along with millions of others, lost parents, siblings, and extended family in Nazi-occupied Europe. Volunteering for national service for me was a partial payback for the country that welcomed them, sheltered them, adopted them, and allowed them to become Americans. And as much as we wish it and try, we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes or even in our children's lifetimes. Today, the struggle for freedom and human rights continues across the globe. Ask the Uighurs or the people in Hong Kong or Tibet what happens when their freedom is extinguished.

A Contribution to National Service

Five years ago, listening to Pete and Joe talk about the problems the Department of Defense (DoD) faced reminded me of what I noticed inside the parts of the government where I was now spending time. While there were smart, dedicated people serving their country, few of students from the schools I was teaching at were there. Few of my students knew what the DoD or other branches of government did. It just wasn’t part of their lives.

It dawned on us that building on the last national curriculum I created – the National Science Foundation I-Corps, we could hit the ground running and create our own version of national service. We envisioned a national Hacking for Defense program across 50 universities.

It’s taken five years, but I’m proud we’ve accomplished just that. The class is now adding 1,000+ students a year, many of them choosing to change career paths to work in national service or the public sector after graduation.

Still, there’s much more we can and must do.

While my entrepreneurial career allowed me to work with people who built great products and companies, my national and public service careers connected me to those who’ve dedicated their lives to serving others. And I’ve concluded that a life lived in full measure will do both.

We need to scale the existing national and public service initiatives -AmeriCorps, YouthBuild, PeaceCorps, U.S. Digital Service, Defense Digital Service, and conservation corps- that today only reach 100,000 people. We need to offer every high school and college graduate - all 4 million of them - a shared national experience and a chance to help us to continue to build E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One.

In the face of forces working to tear us apart, we must remember that we are stronger together, more resilient together, more successful together than we are apart. Our challenge is to bring unity back to a nation that is built on different backgrounds and beliefs. E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One.

Hacking for Defense is our contribution to what hopefully will be a much larger effort to help unify the country.

Lessons Learned

  • E Pluribus Unum– Out of Many, One
  • We need to find the common threads that bind us
  • We need unifying, cohesive, collective, and shared national experiences and values that will help bring the country together again.
  • Hacking for Defense is our contribution.

Steve Blank is an adjunct professor at Stanford University, 8-time serial entrepreneur, ex-member of the Defense Business Board, co-author of Hacking For Defense and the NSF I-Corps and co-creater of the Lean Startup Methodology.



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