When Patrick McKenna first landed on Wall Street in 1998 as a newly minted business school graduate, it wasn’t his vast experience in finance that helped him get a job — because he had none.
What he did have were four years of military service that had taught him leadership, work ethic and how to react in the face of adversity.
“One of the first key lessons in my military career was that you just never know what life is going to deal to you,” said the Army veteran. “You just figure it out.”
These skills ultimately helped him land a position at J.P. Morgan, which would, in turn, launch his career as a financial investor and entrepreneur. Other military-learned lessons, such as strategy and diplomacy, have also come in handy in his nonprofit work focused on bridging the geographic and economic divide in the U.S.
McKenna said he lives by a simple mantra: “Service doesn’t end at separation.”
For his service as both a soldier and a civilian, McKenna, 48, will receive the Chairman’s Veteran Achievement Award at the annual Service Members of the Year Award ceremony in Washington, D.C., on July 10. The new accolade, which will be given alongside the annual Service Member of the Year Awards, honors a veteran who continues to embody military values and also aims to spotlight how military service can create opportunities for success in civilian life.
In the Army, McKenna was a first lieutenant who worked in communications security in Korea, led a support program for Cuban refugees in Panama and served as a personal signal officer for a four-star general.
Then came graduate school at Georgetown University, stints on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley and the co-founding of four businesses, two investment funds and a nonprofit. Now as an employer, he makes a point to hire, mentor and invest in other veterans.
“It’s not a charity. I see veterans as an investable opportunity because they bring a lot more to the market place than just doing the job,” he said. “I see the service on some of these resumes as huge assets.”
LiveOps, a customer service company he founded in 2002, employed thousands of military spouses and veterans and continued to do so even after he sold it. Over the past ten years, his companies have employed more than 10,000 veterans and military spouses.
Most recently, McKenna founded Catalyst Opportunity Fund and the nonprofit One America Works, which both combine his passions for investment, technology and working toward a greater good.
The nonprofit, founded in 2017, aims to get fast-growing technology companies to open offices outside of Silicon Valley in overlooked American cities with untapped talent, such as Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Milwaukee.
McKenna said he feels like his current work is a continuation of the sense of service that initially got him excited about pursuing a military career.
Jason Hodell, CEO of headphone company Skullcandy, has been friends with McKenna since their J.P. Morgan days when the two former Army veterans bonded over shared military experience.
“Thirty years ago, whenever we were being trained to become an Army officer, part of that training is all about the greater good and for the country and the nation,” and that has stayed with McKenna ever since, he said.
Hodell calls his friend a “man of the people.” He sees McKenna being picked for this award as an acknowledgement that military service “actually can stay with you forever, and you can make a difference in the business world.”
McKenna knows he’s not the only veteran still sticking to his military principles.
“This is why I love hiring veterans. They have great skills, they’re mission driven, they’re great learners,” he said. “They have a deeper meaning for what they want to do with their life.”
As the Chairman’s Veteran Achievement Award pick, McKenna will sit on the board of the Spirit of Service Program. The program falls under the Military Charity Organization, which mobilizes business and community to raise funds for the advocacy of veteran transition issues.
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.