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Katie Pelkey spent five years of her Coast Guard career as a pilot on the Great Lakes, performing search-and-rescue missions. Each mission was well-defined, with something or someone to be found—perhaps a ship, swimmers, or kayakers lost at sea.

Pelkey, still active duty, now also attends Booth as a Full-Time MBA student, where she performs a different kind of search in Hacking for Defense.

Groups of interdisciplinary students in the 10-week experiential course, which is administered through the US Department of Defense’s National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), are partnered with DoD organizations and intelligence communities. They work together to provide solutions to a complex, real issues faced by these agencies.

Pelkey’s group works with the US Navy to understand and predict problems that may occur with batteries on the Navy’s underwater unmanned vessels. A big challenge: How can the Navy detect and diminish the chances of the batteries on these vessels catching fire because of thermal runaway? It’s a complex problem, Pelkey says, and there isn’t one correct answer.

“When I’m searching in the Coast Guard, I’m usually looking for a person or a boat,” says Pelkey, who studies accounting and entrepreneurship at Booth. “Now, we’re searching for something, but we don’t know what. It’s a fresher way of thinking about the problem.”

“In our group, we have service members and civilians. I can translate military speak, and they can translate business speak. Together, we can bridge the gap.”

— Katie Pelkey

The Skill Set of Service Members

This quarter’s Hacking for Defense course—now in its third year at Booth—has 36 students, 14 of whom are veterans or active-duty service members.

Adjunct assistant professor of entrepreneurship Will Gossin, who teaches the class with UChicago law professor M. Todd Henderson, says that this course gives students with military experience a chance to showcase their unique skill sets, while also teaching them that their skill sets have unique applications in business.

“We believe this course offers a compelling opportunity to serve the country, learn the entrepreneurship tool kit, and potentially create a new venture,” Gossin says. “This year, the military-affiliated students are taking a leading role in that entrepreneurial experience.”

Bill Lennon, a student at UChicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and an active-duty Navy helicopter pilot, is working with his group in Hacking for Defense to solve a problem for the Navy’s Task Force 59. The unit, based in Bahrain, uses unmanned autonomous vehicles to monitor large areas of water for threats. Lennon’s team is developing a way to automatically pull data from these vehicles and showcase the insights on a dashboard, allowing service members in the Navy to see what’s happening and more efficiently make their next decisions without needing to manually pull data from each individual vehicle.

Lennon, who studies public policy and computational analysis, credits Hacking for Defense with expanding his thinking when solving a problem.

“It has been a new area for me, especially the customer discovery portion,” Lennon says. “We’ve been doing as many interviews as we can with end users in the Navy to see what types of problems they’re having and what they really want, then developing a product to meet their needs.”

Students in Hacking for Defense are also tasked with finding a dual use for their technology. If a solution can solve a problem for the government, can it do the same for private businesses? Gossin says that by the end of the course, he hopes that many of these teams can create a prototype worthy of competing in the Edward L. Kaplan, ’71, New Venture Challenge at Booth.

Lennon and Pelkey both love getting to work on these issues with a professionally diverse group of students—the class is open to students across UChicago—as it allows people from a variety of military and business backgrounds to find a shared language and work together.

“In our group, we have service members and civilians,” Pelkey says. “I can translate military speak, and they can translate business speak. Together, we can bridge the gap.”

“Rather than walking into a situation and saying, ‘This is the mission,’ I can now step back and say, ‘Can this be done a better way? Hacking for Defense has opened my eyes to that way of thinking.”

— Bill Lennon

A Changing Mindset

The goal of the class, in Pelkey’s view, is to connect the dots of a given situation to find a creative solution. That goal has changed her mindset as a service member.

In the past, Pelkey felt that she’d have to follow protocol—the way things have always been done—rather than digging deeper into an issue. Now, she feels confident in looking at the bigger picture and searching for answers in places no one else has looked.

“Maybe it’s a human-behavior solution instead of an engineering solution that needs to be put into place” Pelkey says. “Or it might be a process change that’s needed, or something else entirely.”

Lennon, too, believes that this renewed focus on problem-solving will help him in his duty with the Navy. “Rather than walking into a situation and saying, ‘This is the mission,’ I can now step back and say, ‘Can this be done a better way?’” Lennon says. “Hacking for Defense has opened my eyes to that way of thinking.”

Opening the minds of students—those with business backgrounds to how the DoD operates and service members, to entrepreneurship—is part of what makes Hacking for Defense great, Gossin says. Service-member students have high standards, excellent collaborative skills, and a deep sense of purpose. But because of their experience in intense bureaucracies, they don’t often feel that they fit the entrepreneur archetype.

“But they do,” Gossin says. “In Hacking for Defense, they gain the tool kit necessary to introduce and scale innovation more effectively—both inside the DoD and on the commercial side. Along the way, they often gain the confidence to see their professional capacity differently. They come to see themselves as entrepreneurs.”


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