The Innovators

10 Up and Coming Leaders to Watch

The Innovators


Innovators push the boundaries of the known world. They're change agents who are relentless in making things happen and bringing ideas to execution.

Dawn Halfaker, Halfaker and Associates
Illustration (C) Brett Affrunti

Soldiering On

Dawn Halfaker, Halfaker and Associates

Dawn Halfaker always knew she wanted to lead. After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy, she became a police captain in the Army, leading troops in Iraq. But after driving into an ambush during a routine patrol in 2004, Halfaker emerged from a coma back in the U.S., without her right arm. At age 25, she had no idea what to do next.

She chose to move on, starting as a consultant for defense contractors. But believing she could do a better job keeping the military in touch with cutting-edge technology, she started Halfaker and Associates in Arlington, Va. Her 100 employees help government clients, including the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs, with everything from data analytics to software engineering and cyber-security services."I sat in the hospital bed, soul-searching," she says. "All I wanted was to be with my platoon back in Iraq. I could either feel sorry for myself or turn adversity into opportunity and move on with life."

It's no surprise that she leads her staff (25 percent are military vets) similarly to how she led her soldiers. "I made my corporate motto 'Continuing to serve,' because I wanted to attract people who wanted to be part of a mission, something bigger than themselves," she says. "In the military, it's not about yourself; it's about being committed to your company and to each other. Solid teamwork and accountability are key in the office."

But Halfaker has learned one big difference between being an Army officer and being a CEO: Sometimes you have to let employees step out of formation. "I give them room to be creative and innovative, because that's the best way a company can grow," she says. "The military rigor of micromanaging can't be applied to the same degree, but it has been a big adjustment figuring out how to have an efficient organization without sacrificing innovation."

Halfaker uses corporate incentives like flextime and telecommuting to score top talent. She also helps employees support nonprofit causes with the company's backing. If someone wants to organize a blood drive or a run for wounded warriors, Halfaker's staff will help set it up and raise money. "It shows the company is not just about profits; it's about how we use our people and resources for the greater good," she explains.

One thing the military does well is strategic planning, and Halfaker brought that concept to her company. "Everyone knows their objective, and that ties all units together, from the Secretary of Defense on down, which is what makes the military so powerful," she says. "So what I do is make sure everyone is on the same page and the corporate objectives are transparent so that everyone knows how to contribute to our overall success."

Today's newest veterans often have a hard time finding work in the civilian world, as many companies seem to undervalue the merits of military training. Halfaker says employers won't regret taking a chance on former soldiers.

"Many businesses are focused on having to do more with less, cutting costs and maximizing returns," she points out. "The people who will be successful at doing it for you are those who are mission-focused, go all in and see success as the only option. That's the focus the military gives its soldiers. They possess skill sets that are reliable, relevant and useful to any company." --V.R.

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This article was originally published in the March 2014 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: 10 Up and Coming Leaders.

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