AFVentures Fellowship forges connections between military, Silicon Valley

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  • AFWERX Public Affairs

In early 2020, the inaugural AFVentures Fellowship brought together 21 Airmen for a six-week immersion with technology and venture capital firms in San Francisco.

The fellows were trained in investment and risk management to strengthen their ability to develop and deliver essential capabilities to the Air Force’s mission from February 10 to March 20.

“In addition to the government, venture capitalists and investors are a key component of accelerating innovation in sectors we rely on to accomplish our mission,” said Maj. Tony Perez, AFWERX Spark Cell lead and the fellowship’s brainchild. “To better collaborate and understand the different roles we play, we need Airmen who understand the world of startups, investing and technological advancement.”

To meet this growing need for Airmen who speak the language of entrepreneurship, Perez enlisted the help of Shift, a talent development company that supports career shifts for military veterans.

Through a Small Business Innovation Research contract and in coordination with AFWERX, the company developed a fellowship that would expose Airmen to concepts including design thinking, leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship.

“As a small business owner and Navy veteran, a major benefit from the SBIR program is its focus on developing dual-use technologies that serve a need for the private sector and defense community,” said Mike Slagh, Shift chief executive officer. “The AFVentures Fellowship is built upon Shift’s proprietary matching technology, which we initially developed to help transitioning veterans find private-sector jobs. For the fellowship, it powered our selection and matching process with venture capital hosts, and I couldn’t be happier with the results.”

The fellows were competitively selected and comprised a diverse mix of officers, enlisted and civilians, across the active duty, Air Force Reserve, and Air National Guard, and came from a variety of Air Force mission sets including cyber, space, intelligence, special operations, legislative affairs, and software development.

The fellows were then embedded with an organization to receive first-hand experience in the private sector, which was augmented by weekly educational sessions, group projects, and reading assignments.

“I’ve long been intrigued by the optimism and ambition Silicon Valley is known for,” said Maj. Stacie Shafran, Air Force Personnel Center public affairs officer who spent her fellowship with Offline Ventures and Brit + Co, learning how a venture capital firm and venture capital-backed company operate, make investment decisions, and manage risk. “I also fostered conversations with venture capitalists at the cutting edge of healthcare innovation—specifically mental health care—so as to improve the quality of life for our service members. The fellowship equipped me with new insights, an even stronger growth mindset and an understanding of capabilities to foster innovation."

In addition to Airmen learning from their experience, venture capital partners were exposed to renewed possibilities to engage with the Department of Defense initiatives and priorities.

“Silicon Valley was built on a foundation of public-private partnerships between the national security and technology communities,” said Jake Chapman, AlphaBridge co-founder and managing partner. “As we enter a new era of great power competition, it is absolutely vital we rebuild broken bridges. I, for one, intend to invest much more heavily in national security-related technologies going forward and I have the AFVentures program to thank for that.”

By strengthening ties between the Air Force and Silicon Valley, the AFVentures initiative aims to  increase collaboration between the often different worlds and accelerate
national innovation.

The fellows of Cohort 20.1 and their hosts are listed below:

  • Maj. Abby Barger, LeMay Center for Doctrine Development and Warfighter Education Joint Special Operations chief at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama; Expa
  • Lt. Col. Mike Benitez, 53rd Wing Commander’s Action Group director at Eglin AFB, Florida; Atomic
  • Capt. Bobby Carbonell, ARCWERX operations officer; Bow Capital
  • Mary Chung, intelligence analyst, Technology Protection Branch, Air Force Office of Special Investigations; ForgePoint Capital
  • Maj. James Colraine, AFWERX program manager; AlphaBridge VC
  • Barbara Estes, National Air and Space Intelligence Center intelligence analyst at Wright Patterson AFB, Ohio; SigOpt
  • Maj. Brian Hasbrouck, 566th Intelligence Squadron program manager at Buckley AFB, Colorado; Andreessen Horowitz 
  • Maj. David Ho, Strategic Warning and Surveillance Systems Division chief technology officer at Peterson AFB, Colorado; Foundation Capital
  • Master Sgt. Kevin Joseph, Combat Development Division 721st Operations Group superintendent at Peterson AFB, Colorado; Lux Capital
  • Master Sgt. Josiah Littrell, Air Force Special Operations Command contracting officer; Reach Capital
  • Morgan Locklar, operations research analyst at Hill AFB, Utah; Bain Capital Ventures
  • Lt. Col. Kaly McKenna, 432nd Operations Support Squadron chief innovation officer and director of operations at Creech AFB, Nevada; Andreessen Horowitz
  • Capt. Paulina Morales, 62nd Aircraft Maintenance Unit officer in charge at Luke AFB, Arizona; JetBlue Ventures
  • Capt. Tim Nolan, Air Force Special Operations Command wing innovation initiatives director;
  • Capt. Justin Poole, director of staff and C-17 evaluator pilot at Travis AFB, Calif.; Expanse
  • Kristen Reed, acquisition program manager at Hanscom AFB, Massachusetts; Catapult Ventures
  • Laura Russell, Air Force Office of Special Investigations special agent,
  • Maj. Stacie Shafran, Air Force Personnel Center public affairs officer at Randolph AFB, Texas; Brit + Co and Offline Ventures
  • 2nd Lt. Sarah Soliman, Maryland Air National Guard 175th Cyberspace Operations Squadron; SemperVirens
  • Maj. Forrest Underwood, Special Operations Command Europe chief of strategic engagements; GGV Capital
  • Capt. Brian Wolff, Air Force Lifecycle Management Center weather systems branch cloud computing team lead engineer at Hanscom AFB, Mass.; Emerson

The fellowship is scheduled to run three cohorts per year in 2021 through the AFVentures Strategic Financing (SRATFI) Program.

Anyone interested in following along with the fellowship or applying for future cohorts can learn more here: