In Bluemont, Virginia, a hundred-year-old farmhouse sits atop a mountain called Boulder Crest. For now, the two-hundred-acre property is home to Ken Falke and his wife, Julia, but soon, part of the scenic and tranquil land will become a sanctuary to brave men and women who have risked their lives to shape the world into something better—those who have made the promise to protect our country and have lost limbs in the name of that promise.
After watching hundreds of wounded warriors from the bomb disposal community return from Iraq and Afghanistan as amputees, Ken knew he had to do something. That’s why he and Julia launched the Boulder Crest Retreat Foundation, donating 37 acres of their estate and working to construct a $5 million facility where these heroes and their families can seek the solace and support they deserve as they embark on the road to recovery. Also the co-founder and CEO of Shoulder 2 Shoulder, Inc, a multimedia and IT firm dedicated to helping wounded warriors as well, Ken’s indelible passion and commitment to serving those who serve our nation has translated into innovative solutions that are transforming the way soldiers reconnect, recover, and reconstruct their lives.
Shoulder 2 Shoulder was launched in 2011 to complement work being done by another nonprofit Ken founded, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Warrior Foundation, which provides iPads to EOD personnel who have been wounded in combat and confined to hospital beds. When Ken and his team began distributing the iPads, he heard over and over again from these veterans the continued desire to give back. “Despite their injuries, they were really looking forward to the future,” he recalls. “I also heard a family member say she was having trouble keeping track of all the services at the hospital that could benefit their family.” Ken contacted a friend of his, Chris Ferguson, and said, “We could build an app for that.”
Originally, the partners planned to develop the technology through one of their existing nonprofits, but they soon discovered the government was not set up to contract with the nonprofit community. Thus, Shoulder 2 Shoulder was born. Its first product was an iPad application called IMPACT, short for Injured Military Personnel Assisting Combat Troops. “It’s based on the idea that this individual lying in the bed is still part of the fight, connected to his or her unit and to other wounded warriors they can share experiences with,” Ken explains. “The company was launched to build that iPad app, and now we’re seeing some great opportunities in the veteran and Veterans Administration healthcare space. So that’s what we’re focusing on now—helping veterans transition from their military career to a successful second career.”
While it’s a for-profit company, Shoulder 2 Shoulder donates 50 percent of its profits to causes worth believing in. “We like to think of it as a socially responsible business model,” Ken remarks. “We think we’re the first in the government space to build a company around a give-back model, and that’s exciting.”
At 10 employees and $3 million in annual revenue and growing, Ken is excited about the opportunity for the unconventional organization to continue its trend toward success. “We’re looking at what I call non-traditional opportunities for medical healing,” says Ken. “In instances where medical healthcare costs become prohibitive, we’re investigating new avenues that allow warriors to heal without necessarily having to spend a fortune. Post Traumatic Stress, for instance, is often healed better through peer-to-peer healing as opposed to individual-to-doctor. So how do we make those connection points for people? How do we prevent people from getting to the point where suicide feels like the only solution? People nearing that extreme become very disconnected, so we’re using IT and social networks to connect people and make sure they know they’re part of something bigger than themselves, whether it’s internships with corporations or nonprofits, meeting with friends, or engaging in study or prayer groups. We’re about bringing people together to provide veterans with that extra support they need to remind them that they’re not alone.”
Ken and Julia launched the EOD Warrior Foundation in 2007 after receiving a phone call from a friend in Iraq. One of his soldiers had lost two legs, and he asked Ken to meet the family at Walter Reed Hospital. When he went to the hospital, however, he found a wounded soldier but no family. “The soldier’s mother lived in Kentucky and couldn’t afford a plane ticket, so of course I immediately got in contact with her and paid for the flight,” he remembers. “It was one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, and it wasn’t the last time I would see it.”
Ken made similar gestures three more times that year and several times the following year, to the point where he had spent so much personal and corporate money that his accountants urged him to start the nonprofit. They began holding golf tournaments, polar bear plunges, and other fundraising activities, raising around $1 million a year. They donated half and used the rest as a working capital fund to build an endowment for the future.
In understanding Ken’s vision for this future, one must first peer back into his past. He was born in Pittsburgh, but moved to Alexandria, Virginia when he was two years old. His father had enrolled in the Washington, D.C. police academy after finishing his Army career and became a D.C. cop in 1961. When his mother died of cancer shortly after Ken turned eight, his father left the police department and started a construction company. Ken spent summers in Pittsburgh with his maternal grandparents—hardworking immigrants with a steel mill and coal mining history who taught their grandson the power of perseverance.
“I was an entrepreneur from day one,” Ken laughs. His first job, at age 11, was selling Krispy Kreme Doughnuts door to door, in which he was given a fee per dozen of doughnuts. He would also run from door to door in his neighborhood, offering to mow lawns and trying to beat out his competitors. “I loved talking to people, meeting customers, and collecting money,” he recalls. “I was a diligent saver and had my heart set on buying a pickup truck.” With his goal in mind, he soon retired from donut selling and picked up a paper route delivering the Alexandria Gazette, and then another delivering the Washington Star. When a friend then handed over his gig delivering The Washington Post, Ken found himself juggling three simultaneous paper routes at age 15, delivering three newspapers a day, seven days a week, on his Schwinn bike. By the time he graduated high school, he had accrued $10,000 in his bank account.
“When I think back to what made me successful in high school, it was my network,” Ken explains. “I knew everybody. I grew up in a military community that was constantly changing, with kids moving in from Korea or Guam or Hawaii. I loved hearing those stories. I always worked to meet people, and I created a good network—what I call a ‘Circle of Like.’”
When he graduated from high school in 1980, Ken had dreams of playing professional ice hockey and went down to Fort Worth, Texas, where he tried out for a farm team for the Colorado Rockies called the Fort Worth Texans. “I figured the further South I got from the Canadians, the better chance I had,” he laughs. “I was so wrong! I was a good skater and player, but I didn’t have the size.” Ken stayed in Texas for a year working as the night manager of an ice skating rink, running the youth and adult hockey leagues as well. Earning $800 a month to cover his $500 in monthly expenses, he played on the adult hockey league, where he noticed a teammate would arrive in a Navy uniform before changing into hockey gear. “That got me thinking,” he says. His maternal grandfather was a career military man, and one day, he found himself in the Navy recruiting office in Arlington, Texas.
Ken joined the Navy to be a SEAL, and to be a SEAL alone. But when he arrived at boot camp, he found that the inadequate results of his eye exam meant he had to choose a different path. He had not come across a single other Navy career that interested him—until he came upon a recruiting poster advertising interviews for the U.S. Navy Presidential Honor Guard. When he arrived to interview, he was surprised to find that the Officer-in-Charge of the guards in impeccable uniform was the father of a high school friend, who promptly invited him to join the Ceremonial Guard. With that, Ken joined for three years, serving in Presidential details and Navy funerals at Arlington National Cemetery and advancing through the ranks from casket bearer to petty officer, the first noncommissioned officer (NCO) rank in the Navy.
In January of 1983, when Air Florida flight 90 hit the 14th Street Bridge in Washington, DC, Ken was the second military figure on the scene. His leading petty officer donned a wetsuit and braved the icy water to recover bodies and help survivors, while Ken pulled wreckage and bodies aboard a Navy boat. Around midnight, he noticed another boat chugging up the river toward them, manned by Navy divers from Indian Head, Maryland. “I hadn’t known there was a bomb disposal school run by the Navy up there,” Ken remembers. “I wound up on the boat and was absolutely fascinated by the diving—the equipment, the men going underwater for hours at a time.” He worked late into the night, helping with the mission and brewing hot coffee for the divers upon their return. His efforts caught the attention of one of the leaders, who remarked that they’d love to have someone like him at EOD. “What’s EOD?” Ken recalls asking.
The following week, Ken put the wheels in motion to make the transition to the division he had so admired through that icy night of tragedy. His wife was from London, so he took a set of orders to spend a year and a half in Holy Loch, Scotland. In May of 1985, he left Scotland for the U.S. Navy Diving and Salvage School in Panama City, Florida, and then went later that year to bomb disposal training in Indian Head, Maryland. He spent five years of his career doing traditional Navy bomb disposal, and prior to Operation Desert Shield/Storm, was assigned to a SEAL team to advance that mission. In the early 1990s, Ken spent most of his time supporting Navy SEAL Teams and U.S. Army Special Forces missions.
In 1993, Ken went back to Indian Head, Maryland, as an instructor at the U.S. Naval EOD School and was then selected in 1996 to be an exchange officer with the British forces, who at the time had the highest bomb disposal expertise in the world. He worked with the best of the best for two years, and was then stationed in San Diego for his last three and a half years of Naval service. Thus, by the end of his 21+ year military career, he had earned the rank of Master Chief Petty Officer, the highest enlisted rank in the U.S. Navy. It had been a great run, but Ken saw some opportunities outside the Navy and knew the time was right to leave. He dreaded the idea of being “stuck” behind a desk as the war in Afghanistan kicked off.
By that point in his career, Ken had become a leader in the Navy bomb disposal community’s counter terrorism efforts, with a focus on the West Coast war plans for the Pacific Theater. When the threat of weapons of mass destruction blossomed, he was responsible for the technology and training programs geared at taking their teams to the next level of preparedness. During that work, he met some of the best and brightest technologists—individuals who were masters at building products but didn’t quite know how the military used them—and Ken saw an opportunity to be an interface. “If someone’s going to build a robot, who better to receive input from than a soldier who carried a robot on his back?” he poses. “People thought I was crazy when I left my military career, but I saw that need, and I knew my future lay elsewhere.”
Julia, his wife, was among those people, though her support for her husband maintained its characteristic steel. Married in 1983, his military career, which spanned over 21 years, required him to spend almost half of that time away from her. “No matter how close you are to someone, you don’t realize just how strong people are until they have to be, and Julia has always been there for me,” he says. “I would have to leave suddenly in the middle of the night to go to some secret location for months, but she never wavered. I missed the birth of our oldest daughter, Genna, and every one of her birthdays until she turned 16. Julia’s truly been the rock of the family, raising our daughters and supporting me through my career.”
Military officers who are educated and networked tend to do well when they get out of the service, but young enlisted individuals are not always afforded the same opportunities. In the bomb disposal world, Ken’s peers pursued UXO (unexploded ordnance) environmental jobs, sweeping old military bases that had unexploded ordnance in the ground. Ken, however, had other plans, and put a business plan together for A-T Solutions in November 2001. He and Julia had made $250,000 from the sale of their home in San Diego when they moved to Stafford, Virginia, and he asked her for $50,000 to put into the startup of the company. “I told her we’d put the rest away, and if by Christmas we were eating beans on toast, I’d go to work for somebody,” Ken says. “It took two to three years to make that money back, but then we made it back in spades.”
As they were laying the foundations for A-T Solutions, Ken happened to accept an interview request at the Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) in Albuquerque, where the division president asked where he saw himself in five years. “To be honest with you, it’s not here,” Ken answered. “I want to start my own company. I have no desire to own an SAIC one day, but I’d love to have a small defense contractor specializing in weapons of mass destruction. I think I could create a great network of people and provide some great services in this space.”
To Ken’s surprise, the president offered to make him a deal—he would give Ken his first contract if Ken found him two more people with his expertise and motivation. Ken did, in fact, deliver, and A-T Solutions was founded in February of 2002 and incorporated on March 26, 2002, Ken’s birthday. By May 2002, A-T Solutions entered into contract with SAIC.
Though their initial business plan was to train state and local police on how to deal with weapons of mass destruction, Ken couldn’t find funding sources for state and local bomb squads, so he focused more on technology integration, developing training plans and delivering technologies to Special Forces and bomb disposal units. They took Segways to Iraq and taught soldiers how to drive them in bomb suits. They took robots to Afghanistan that could hazard into caves and draw enemy fire without risking the lives of troops. They were contracted to do security work for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.
When America invaded Iraq in 2004 and the first bombs went off, Ken himself was in the Pentagon. “I always tell people there’s no such thing as luck; that success is instead born when preparedness meets opportunity,” he affirms. “We had some of the military’s best bomb disposal veterans on our team, so we were sent to brief and then transformed into a training company overnight.” With a degree in education and no business background, Ken was honored, if not intimidated, by the sudden hyper-growth of A-T Solutions, and enrolled in Harvard’s executive business school to learn how to best lead his company.
When Ken sold the company in February of 2008, it had reached 200 employees and $35 million in revenue, and he had learned invaluable lessons about the importance of infrastructure. “Initially, we never imagined we’d grow over 30 to 50 employees,” he remarks. “Once you start needing 100 people to fill a contract, you need an HR Department, and we needed to offer benefits. Still, the culture was unparalleled—very friendly and mission-focused. We were all very passionate about the warfighters we were supporting.”
When the opportunity to sell presented itself in June of 2007, Ken instead wanted to put money back into the company to build out its infrastructure. Ten of the 13 individuals with equity in the business, however, voted to sell, leaving him no choice. He continued to run A-T Solutions for two-and-a-half more years, and the business grew to 500 employees and $102 million when he left. “My biggest mistake was not understanding the buy-sell agreements better when we founded the company,” he acknowledges. “I knew I’d want to sell it one day, but not after only six years, and not with two more great years ahead, for sure.”
Once he left the company permanently in June of 2010, Ken took a year off to complete a Masters degree in public policy management at Georgetown University. During that year, the bomb disposal community had 56 amputees arrive at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval hospitals. Ken knew then what his future would hold. The product of these many years of leadership experience is a calm, quiet, resolute style that commands respect, instead of demanding it. “Even when I was captain of my ice hockey team at age 16, I never raised my voice to people,” he affirms. “I believe in teamwork. I have big ideas and love to see a team take ideas and run with them, turning them into business opportunities. I love watching people grow. Leaders are individuals that get people to a place they may not have gotten to on their own, and I hope that my style allows me to do that. I have 500 employees who have gone to the worst places on Earth for me—not to make money, but because they believed in our country, in the mission of the company, and, I think, in my leadership.”
In advising young people entering the working world today, Ken poses 10 keys to success, which begin with #1, set a vision. This vision must be larger than you—something people can follow. Next comes #2, set the roadmap to get to the vision, step by step and goal by goal. “Most people want responsibility, but not accountability,” Ken warns. “When you look at the U.S., you can see that at the highest levels. It’s always somebody else’s fault—always the victim mentality. That links directly to #3, people who are accountable are successful.”
#4 in his recommendations is kindness. “In the most tactical levels of the Afghan wars, the most successful people on the battlefield are those who figure out how to go into villages, meet with elders, build trust, and build that Circle of Like,” Ken reveals. “When people like you, you’re going to be successful. Furthermore, #5 instructs us to give back. From the time I was three years old, I remember being at church and giving food to the families of steel workers and coal miners who were in and out of work all the time. The church never turned people away. You have to do something for other people; it gets you away from that selfish mentality in life.”
Connected to giving back is the tenet of #6, which is working hard with the cause, rather than the bottom line, at the forefront of your mind. #7 then reminds us to take calculated risks, and to find the right people for the right jobs. “#9 is especially important because it reminds us to listen!” Ken emphasizes. “A lot of leaders just transmit without listening. As a leader, I feel that if you listen well, you’ll make adjustments to the way you operate and take people to the next level because you’ve heard what people want to do and be. In taking them there, hire for attitude and train for skills. And finally, #10 instructs us to keep in mind that the grass is rarely greener. People go from company to company looking for the best thing, but only you can make yourself happy. And finally, be ready. A million opportunities will come your way in life, but if you’re not ready for them, they’ll pass you by.”
These 10 steps are like rungs in a ladder that leads not only to success, but to something higher—a mentality that is bigger than the success of any one person, company, community, or nation. “The question it comes down to is: how can you shape the world?” Ken challenges. “This is a country that allows you to do that, so think big and execute.”