Building the Base Episode 42: Jim Hake

Building The Base Website Graphic Episode 42 V2

In this episode of “Building the Base,” hosts Lauren Bedula and Hondo Geurts welcome Jim Hake, the founder of Spirit of America, a unique nonprofit organization.

The podcast delves into Jim’s fascinating background as an entrepreneur and the inception of Spirit of America in response to the 9/11 attacks. The conversation explores the organization’s role in providing private assistance to support national security objectives and filling gaps that government alone cannot address. Jim shares insights into the evolution of these gaps over two decades and emphasizes the importance of private philanthropy in enhancing national security.

The discussion touches on Spirit of America’s global impact, focusing on regions like Ukraine, Taiwan, West Africa, and Iraqi Kurdistan. Jim reflects on the challenges of navigating legal frameworks, building trust, and creating a collaborative ecosystem between private citizens and government entities.

The episode concludes with a discussion on talent acquisition for nonprofit endeavors and the crucial role of a diverse, values-driven team. Jim also expresses optimism about the growth of entrepreneurial ventures in the national security space.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Flexible Mission-Driven Capability: Spirit of America operates as a flexible, mission-driven capability that supports national security objectives through private assistance, emphasizing the relevance of this approach against evolving threats.
  2. Filling Gaps in National Security: Jim discusses how the organization fills gaps in national security objectives, highlighting the role of private assistance in areas where government efforts fall short.
  3. Nonprofit Impact in Global Relations: The episode underscores how nonprofits like Spirit of America contribute to building trust, fostering partnerships, and delivering on commitments, thereby positively influencing global perceptions of American values.
  4. Talent Acquisition for Nonprofits: Jim emphasizes the importance of hiring the right people for nonprofit endeavors, focusing on values, openness, and a collaborative culture to drive success.
  5. Evolving Industrial Base: The podcast touches on the growth of entrepreneurial ventures in the national security space and the need for a diverse network, combining nonprofit and for-profit entities, to effectively address security challenges.


Jim Hake founded Spirit of America in response to the attacks of 9/11. He wanted to stand up for what America stands for. Spirit of America is a privately-funded 501c3 citizen service organization. It is the only nonprofit recognized by Congress and approved by the Department of Defense to work alongside deployed US troops and provide private assistance in support of their missions.

Spirit of America is “not-neutral” – it takes the side of America and our allies, partners, and friends. It brings the entrepreneurial power of our citizens to support America’s security, values, and leadership. It fills the gaps between what is needed and what government can do.

Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General (Ret.) Joe Dunford says, “Spirit of America represents a new capability – not just another nonprofit” that is “important to our country’s future.”
Prior to Spirit of America Jim was an entrepreneur. He founded and sold Access Media, one of the first internet media companies. In 2000 and 2001, Jim was named a “Technology Pioneer” by the World Economic Forum. Jim has been honored at the Marines Evening Parade, is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and is an honorary member of the US Army Civil Affairs Regiment. He is a contributing author to Warriors and Citizens: American Views of Our Military, a book edited by General Jim Mattis and Dr. Kori Schake. Jim has given talks at the TED conference, the Bush School of Government, the Aspen Institute, the Fletcher School, Dartmouth’s Tuck School, SMU, and USC.

Jim received a BA with distinction in economics from Dartmouth College. Throughout college, Jim worked as a member of Local 161 of the International Association of Ironworkers — the riggers union in Philadelphia. After Dartmouth, Jim trained as a hovercraft pilot with the Canadian Coast Guard and was part of a team that tested the viability of commercial hovercraft transportation in southwestern Alaska.

Jim earned an MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business. He is the founder and president emeritus of The Friends of Arjay Miller (FOAM), Stanford business school’s longest-lived social institution.

Podcast Transcript

Lauren Bedula 00:42
Welcome back to building the base, Lauren Bedula and Hondo Geurts. Here with today’s guest, Jim hake, Jim founded spirit of America prior to the attacks on 911, an interesting nonprofit organization, which we have not had many perspectives from on the on the show here. So excited to dig into that today. And Jim, of course, had an interesting career prior to that as an entrepreneur as well. So, Jim, thanks for joining us today to tell your story.

Jim Hake 01:06
It’s great to be here with you. Thank You

Hondo Geurts 01:07
So, Jim, it is, you know, we are gonna get in dig into the spirit of America here and that whole interesting last two decades, but give our listeners a little background and kind of where you came from, and kind of what sets you on that trajectory and get us all the way to the start of this idea of creating this new bold nonprofit? Well,

Jim Hake 01:26
I grew up in Philadelphia, I was born in Philadelphia grew up in Philadelphia, and Philadelphia is the where our nation was born. And growing up, we had a copy of the Declaration of Independence on the stairs from, you know, on the stairway, up from downstairs, up to the bedrooms and everything. And, you know, before starting spirit of America, I had no government or military background at all. But for maybe because we had the Declaration of Independence on the stairway or spent a lot of time down by the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall, I always had a very strong feeling and belief in what America stands for, and how important that is. And I am an entrepreneur, I love starting things. I love ideas I love creating. And America provides the best opportunity for the realization of the human potential there is. And I know as a country, we are not perfect. But what we stand for is as close to perfect as you get. And so, after the attacks of 911, I wanted to do something to stand up for what we stand for.

Lauren Bedula 02:32
Fantastic. And, Jim, I saw you recently talked about in an interview about net gaps and national security and gaps in defending freedom and democracy that cannot be filled by government alone. Can you talk about what you mean by that statement?

Jim Hake 02:46
Well, since we work so closely with US military and State Department personnel, and what we do is provide private assistance in support of national security objectives. And everyone thinks, of course and properly so that national security really is the responsibility of the government. What people are not familiar with is that there are gaps in what we need to do to fulfill national security objectives. And what government can do, people were very familiar with the idea of that there are gaps in public education in a role for private philanthropy and gaps in public health. But we have broken ground in terms of filling those gaps in national security, with private assistance in the kind of things that only citizens and entrepreneurial approaches can fill. So, it has been a bit of an education process for us to have people understand that, well, just like you are familiar with every other sector of society in you know, how America operates in the world. And in national security, there are gaps to and ones that really make the difference between life and death. And whether we are going to live in a secure world or not.

Lauren Bedula 03:51
And two decades now or so of doing this, can you talk about just the evolution of what you have seen from private industry in terms of interest in supporting these gaps? Has it changed? Are we stronger? Or are we more disconnected? Now? What is your take and watching over the past was the

Jim Hake 04:07
I started the organization motivated by the attacks of 911. And for quite a long time, everything that we were doing and what was motivating national security was counterterrorism. And what we have seen in the last, you know, 568 10 years, really, with Russia, and then the PRC, People’s Republic of China, becoming major existential threats to not only America but what we stand for even more so that what has been needed and what those gaps are has changed quite a bit over time. But the idea of having with spirit of America, a flexible, mission driven capability, and the only reason we exist is to support what, you know, you the United States is trying to accomplish and what our troops and diplomats are trying to accomplish a capability which supports to solely exist to support that is, it is as relevant, even more relevant now against the larger threats and challenges that we face.

Hondo Geurts 05:12
So, in the Wayback Machine I got almost 20 years ago, I think I was at your special operations command. And I remember you coming in for one of the earliest briefs. And, you know, we had some good forward-thinking commanders here. And they told the senior staff, hey, we have got this guy coming in, he has got this interesting idea of a nonprofit to help us, you know, wants you to come to take their briefing, and that was a little bit, you know, okay, what is this gonna look like? And it ended up being an interesting turning point. And again, a little bit of me thinking about problems differently. What was like, how did you get this off the ground? Like, you know, you had the idea, you were inspired by 911. But like, what were those first steps and kind of the early years that have led to now this, you know, really, impactful nonprofit?

Jim Hake 05:59
Well, I will tell you the story where the idea came from, because, as I said, I did not have any military or government background at all, which was almost entirely a huge advantage. And partly because I did not know what could not be done. But the other was that I did not know what should be done. So, I created an open mind and listen, the organization and asking questions of people close to the problem that still is a core to how we operate today. But the idea for Spirit America came about when I was channel surfing in 2003, back when people still chattel served. And I stumbled upon this National Geographic show that told the story of US special forces team in Afghanistan. And the scene that caught my eye was this Special Forces Sergeant, Sergeant First Class J. Smith. And behind him, there were Afghan boys and girls playing baseball with other US soldiers. And he told the story of how this came to be. And it was that he had taken over his baseball mitt and a baseball to play catch in his free time. And then the kids in the village started to play with it. So, Sergeant Smith called his wife Diane and said, Honey, can you send in front of bats, balls and mitts of these kids can play a game, a real game. And so, she did. She raised money from family and friends and coworkers sent the stuff over, and voila, you would never expect to see baseball in Afghanistan, you would be thinking about soccer so, but Sergeant Smith saw a need saw an opportunity to build relations with the children and adults in this village. And he reached back for what is going to happen to the Department of Defense. So, we reach back for the small-scale humanitarian assistance from his wife. And so I thought, that was the lightbulb moment for spirit of America, I thought, people like Sergeant Smith are really our frontline ambassadors in the world, they have greater influence on the perceptions of who Americans are and what we stand for, than our official ambassadors, in most cases, and I was sure that there would be other men and women like Sergeant Smith that needed something to support their missions that they couldn’t get through government, or couldn’t get it fast enough. And I knew there would be other Americans like me, who would be happy to help if only they knew what was needed. So, I tracked down Sergeant Smith, who is the producer of the show. He wanted to meet with him, because you know, it is an entrepreneur, you always want to talk to people who really know what is happening, even if you think you have a bright idea. And he said, Great, we will meet at Fort Bragg on June 1. I said, Awesome. Where’s Fort Bragg. And so, what he led told me was that, because of the small-scale assistance that was really delivered through friends and family back home, and the lubricant that that provided for trust and goodwill with the villagers, the villagers ended up forming a Night watch patrol to protect our soldiers from al Qaeda. They have been crossing the Pakistan border at night and firing rockets on their camp. And he had kept explained to us after he kept saying this is going to save lives, you know, the idea for what became spirit of America. And when he told me when he explained how and why would save lives. I thought, oh, man, now I really must do this. Because starting something is hard. Right. And so that is when I got it off the ground.

Hondo Geurts 09:11
So Geurts 09:11 what were your first like movies for all those out there? who are who have another great idea? So, one of them was talking to the experts? Yes. What were some of your first moves to get this off the ground?

Jim Hake 09:23
Well, in talking to people, one of the big things is, you know, people like to guard their ideas closely, and they want to perfect them and then launch them in some big way. And what I would say is talk to as many people as you can, as fast as you can to get feedback on that idea. The more fluid that collaborative processes of developing an idea, the more successful you are going to be, and talk to a diverse range of people to you know, it is in a business, it is the customers, whoever the stakeholders are, get out there and get messy in the marketplace and do not do sit in your garage and try to do something in isolation but the anti-stealth mode, the anti-stealth mode Exactly. And as the you know that the first company that I worked for in Silicon Valley was rational, Rational Software. And they developed, we are developing advanced software development technology. And the big idea then, which has a different name now in terms of agile development, but it was rapid prototyping. And so, you as an entrepreneur, you want to rapidly prototype your idea as best you can, and get messy and get in the marketplace.

Lauren Bedula 10:25
That is great advice. And something that has come up often when we talk about the national security industrial network on our show, because it has been evolving, so much like you talked about even just how the term has evolved. Can you talk about, maybe some of our listeners do not know exactly what a 501 C three is? And we have hinted here that nonprofits are important part of this industrial network, can you talk about what makes a 501 C three unique to help and why it is a little bit different than others. And Ben is who is who star show, as you know, is also a 501, c three. So, I think great for our listeners to hear about this. Yes.

Jim Hake 11:00
And Ben’s is an awesome organization in terms of nonprofits in the national security space, it is really bends in and doing the things that Ben’s does and spirit of America, really the only players, because that is a hard space to break into and add value. So, the spirit of America is a privately funded nonprofit, and we do not receive and would not accept government funding. So, everything that we do, whether it is, you know, providing non-lethal assistance to Ukrainian Armed Forces today to help Ukraine win, or helping stand up and mobilize citizens in Taiwan, for self-defense and preparedness, everything we are doing is in support of national security, but with private funds. So, and it is a key distinction in that. So, with nonprofits, there are certain places that you can have access to, and because you can come in and not have a commercial agenda. And, you know, as a business person, myself, there is nothing, I am all for commercial agendas, and people making money doing what they do. But having a nonprofit structure gives you certain access and a certain ability to collaborate, especially with those in the national security community, that a for profit business could not have it. So, you do not, it is not just having one or the other, you need that ecosystem. And it is the ecosystem of alternative options to get things done. That has been so absent in national security over the years.

Lauren Bedula 12:22
And I imagined to be effective, you must have trust on both sides. And I am curious how you prioritize that, or develop that, especially on the government side, when it seems so difficult to break into?

Jim Hake 12:32
Well, with spirit of America, the idea started it. The first really the only person I talked to before starting the organization was Sergeant First Class J Smith. What I did not know is if I talked to the next layer up, it would have cascaded upwards, and it never would have happened because there would have been all the reasons that it could not work. So, you know, having started at that lower level, and just trying something and proving that it worked. And by the time we needed to get legal approval for what we were doing. We had been doing it for that point seven years, and had trust built based on results produced, you know, in on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan and Africa. With you know, the needed first two officers that I met were, at the time Colonel Joe Dunford, who was the chief of staff to Major General Jim Mattis at the First Marine Division. So, and that was in 2003. So, by the time the legal issues became real issues in 2010, we had built trust in some important places. So, but starting small and not trying to solve a systemic problem is an important approach, at least in my experience. That is good advice.

Hondo Geurts 13:43
Yeah. And I remember again, I think I was at SOCOM and Iran that 2010. And I think you were able to achieve I think something that has never really been achieved before where the DOD is getting the NDAA to give you legal backing, you know, how did you work your way through, you know, what problem were you trying to solve there? And, and I am sure that was another trail of tears, trying to get that work through Trail

Jim Hake 14:07
of Tears is a pretty good way to put it. And so, when I guess I, when we first bumped into the legal, let us say, objections or issues, it was in 2010. And it was because we were working with Marines, both spirit America and the Marines thought it would be a good idea to have personnel on the ground, essentially embedded with Marines and Afghanistan. So, our personnel could be looking what the Marines were trying to accomplish, from the standpoint of how do we bring in private assistance to help because Marines are not trained, trained up to think about that. So that is when we bumped into legal objections. That is when they said, well, you are doing that violates the joint ethics regulation. And I said, What’s that? Anyway, which is important, of course, so it took from that point until 2018. To get to the point where we now have an agreement spirit, America has an agreement with the Department of Defense that provides a worldwide legal and operational framework for the military’s ability to collaborate with us. So, it allows the military to talk to us identify needs receive and distributed assistance, provide logistical support, all at the military’s discretion. And that was because of language in two different NDAs. A legal framework that was created along the way. But that was done in 2018. And one of the reasons I was so persistent in pursuing that was I realized that agreement was what really helped open the system, to private assistance, and open systems create greater innovation, better results. And so, for me, it was a quest to open the system to be able to get private assistance in the way that we do it spirit of America in support of national security objectives.

Hondo Geurts 15:58
And it has so given our listeners a sense of the scale now from this idea almost 20 years ago, from the surgeon to now, you know, what is the size? What is the impact spear America now has been able to achieve?

Jim Hake 16:14
Well, we aided in over 100 countries over that timeframe. Right now, our major efforts are in Ukraine, Taiwan, and West Africa, and Iraqi Kurdistan. And in Ukraine over since we have been we have been active in Ukraine since 2014. And especially active since the full-scale invasion and February of 2022. And since that invasion, we have been entirely focused on providing non-lethal assistance to help Ukraine win. And most people are not familiar with nonprofits or nongovernmental organizations that take a side. And we take America side, we are not neutral. And we are taking Ukraine side and, you know, humanitarian organizations will not support military efforts. In Ukraine, the most humanitarian thing that can be done, in my opinion, in our opinion, is to stop the suffering at its source. And there is one source of the suffering in Ukraine, and it is the Russian Federation. So, to help Ukraine when to stop Russia has a humanitarian element to it, for sure. But it is also core to US security interests.

Lauren Bedula 17:27
So over 100 countries, it is incredible. And allies and partners are key to national security and national prosperity. Can you talk about the role spirit of America plays in furthering our interests around strong partnerships? And that sense?

Jim Hake 17:44
Well, it is good. The small example with Sergeant Smith and the Afghan villagers is scalable in a lot of ways. And the, you know, now late, George Shultz, who was on our board of advisors, put it this way said, what spirit of America helps our troops and diplomats do is produce results, and deliver on what they say they are going to do. And, and that has happened with Ukraine, we have raised more than $66 million for non-lethal assistance in the last year and a half. So, it works on that scale, and it works at the village scale, is to be able to help the United States deliver on what the United States says it is going to do, and help our personnel deliver is a huge trust builder. So, and you can only the way that works best is with, you know, private citizen-based approach like ours, along with what government can do those two together, working in total alignment, just produces the best results, and helps reassure partners and allies that well, these people, these Americans are really with us.

Hondo Geurts 18:54
So it’s really interesting to see that. But I am sure just like in your tech companies before, it is a talent driven thing. You cannot just, you know, put anybody to do this. You have got to find the right talent. How do you sense how do you attract talent? And do you think this is, you know, the nonprofit or companies like spirit or America is a way for those who want to serve, but maybe not in a direct military way to contribute? How do you see that playing out?

Jim Hake 19:22
Well, first year 100%, right, that it is about talent and people, you know, the right people with a mediocre idea are going to do great, the wrong people with a great idea are not going to get very far. So, the it is same thing is true for us at spirit of America and we have some unique requirements. Our operations team, needs to be great listeners, they need to be very entrepreneurial because we have total flexibility for what we do to support you US national security objectives. You know, the main constraint is that we do not do lethal assistance, everything is non-lethal. Some of its humanitarian economic or partner force assistance is not the case of Ukraine. So, we are our job as an organization, especially our ops team, is to be in search of opportunity, which is really the definition of entrepreneurship. So, we have got to find the right people who can build trust, maintain trust with US personnel, local partner, partners, and find opportunity and then execute on it really hard thing to do. So, for, you know, that that is just in the case of spirit of America, the nonprofit world does provide a different kind of platform for people to engage and help the mission help the fight, you know, the fight for freedom and democracy in the world. Nonprofits can offer some opportunities that for profits do not. By the same token, you know, I do not view except for the obvious kind of structural piece, which is not there is no one owns a nonprofit, you cannot profit from a nonprofit. But apart from that, I do not view a nonprofit in terms of how you run it is any different from a business. And, you know, I run spirit or America that way that the same way, except for the obvious things, you know, with ownership and such the same way that I would run a business. 

Lauren Bedula  21:25
Its so interesting, and it seems to play a really important role in the national security ecosystem. And now you have been part of both the national security and technology space for a long time. Now, I am curious at your assessment of how the industrial base is doing to keep up with the pace of national security threats? 

Jim Hake 21:43
I think the industrial base and especially with the growth of more entrepreneurial ventures that are in the national security space, it is pretty. The growth and presence of entrepreneurial and venture backed companies in national security, to me is one of the most encouraging things that has happened over the last, I will say, 10 or so years, with the Defense Innovation Unit and other attempts and activities to get more entrepreneurs involved in national security, I think that is very, very encouraging. At the, by the same token, the national security system is not really user friendly to innovation, especially external innovation. So, there is a long way to go there. And I do not think that is why it is improved a little bit, but the awareness of what So, a whole of America approach would do for the country, I think is still it is hard to action at that level. And so, I think there is a long way to go.

Hondo Geurts 23:08
I think you are you know, that is why we like talking about a network. Because I do think to be effective, it’s going to take all the elements, nonprofits, all the way to for profit to entrepreneur to established that is crimes, I want to pivot a little bit and talk about, you know, just role as a senior leader. And, you know, it’s should be no surprise, doing this for 20 years, you know, can be a grind, you’re taking on, you know, conventional thinking. And as we talked about legal thinking, all that, how do you stay fresh? What have you done to help keep yourself fresh, because every time we get together, I’m fired up? You know, it’s, you know, 20 years afterwards, we were just talking about having seen each other for a little while yet. And, you know, to me, you’re always staying fresh, what are any tips or tricks for those out there who are kind of grinding away right now how to stay motivated and fired up?

Jim Hake  24:01
Well, it’s kind of easy to say that, and I feel the same way that when I see you, I get fired up. And that actually points to one of the most important things I think, which is it’s the people that you have around you, and because nothing worth doing, probably almost really nothing at all, frankly, can you really do just by yourself. And with any of these challenges that we’re talking about? Of course, it takes a lot of people involved. And if you’re trying to do something new, it is a lot harder because the inertia yoke can be very tough to deal with. So it’s about really the people that you surround yourself with. And you know, for us that spirit of America the selection of people is key we have a you know in terms of our hiring guidelines at the top of the list is no assholes. And and we really mean that and we’ve been really good at adhering to that, but there are other values that we require, and the values that we encourage and keep talking about the other. Our core values are not just words on paper, they are really important to our fulfillment of our mission, and to be able to have that kind of alignment that we need. So a couple of those involve one of those involves openness, which is both open communication, you say what you think, and you’re open minded. And another one is, you know, assume positive intent, because nobody’s perfect, right? So if you have the right people around you, and you provide the right culture that makes a big, big difference. And for me, as the leader of the organization, having folks on our board of advisors, like, we talked about General Dunford, General Mattis, Michele Flournoy, HR, McMaster, those are people who are in a lot of ways kindred spirits, and provide me and the organization with a lot of strength during difficult times. And our board of directors, same thing.

Lauren Bedula  26:01
Well, Jim, on that note, I want to say thank you so much for coming on the show to talk about the role spirit of America and nonprofits in general play in the National Security industrial network. There’s great advice to our listeners and appreciate you coming on to talk about it.

Jim Hake  26:15
Thank you very much. It was a real pleasure and honor to be with you

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