Emery Wager never considered joining the military until he had a random conversation with a stranger at a party. After some small talk, Emery was surprised when the stranger, a senior at Stanford University, mentioned that he was planning to join the Marines after he graduated. It wasn’t that Emery, who had graduated from Stanford the previous year, considered the military to be an unworthy career choice; it was just that he’d never met another Stanford grad who’d ever considered it a viable option.
After the party, Emery put the encounter out of his mind and went back to his job as an engineer at a medical device startup in Silicon Valley. His was the type of job that graduates from elite colleges usually pursue: a high-paying and in-demand white-collar position that allowed him to live a comfortable lifestyle while working his way up the corporate ladder. But as the next few weeks and months went by, Emery started thinking about his conversation with the future Marine more and more.
“I started to get the sense that I would sort of owe him something,” Emery says. “He was going to go over there. He was going to sort of sacrifice his opportunity–the best, highest-paying jobs, which I was under the impression we were all supposed to be pursuing. This was 2007 or 2008, so the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were still going on, and he was going to sacrifice that opportunity to spend, at the very least, four years of his life in the military.” Given what was going on overseas, Emery says, he knew this guy could potentially be sent into combat and have to put his life in danger during his time of service. “I got pretty uncomfortable with the idea that I’d be owing him that.”
For a while, Emery assumed he would just have to live with this discomfort. After all, his entire life had prepared him for the career track he was already on: he’d gone to prep school, which got him into an elite university, where he majored in mechanical engineering, earning a practical and highly respected degree that allowed him to get a job in a practical and highly-respected field. Joining the military was never an option…or was it?
“For a while I was just resigned to that feeling, because I didn’t really consider the fact that I could actually go and do this,” Emery says. “I just thought, ‘Wow, this is the way it’s going to be, I guess.’ It took me months before I realized that, ‘No, this is a choice I’m making, to not do this; If I wanted to do it, I could.’ That was a groundbreaking realization for me because it not only opened up the military, but thousands of other possibilities that I had never considered simply because of the environment I’d grown up in. That’s not to say I’m not grateful for the education I got, and it definitely opened up opportunities that a lot of others don’t have, but, among all of those opportunities, only a very narrow range is presented as real possibilities.”
So, after Emery finished some projects at the medical device company, he entered the Officer Candidate Program in the Marine Corps. At the time, he chose the Marines over the other military branches because that’s the one the guy had mentioned at the party, and it was the first one that came to mind. “I genuinely had no reasoning beyond that,” Emery says.
In late 2008, Emery shipped out for training at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia. After completing Officer Candidate School, he earned a commission as a second lieutenant, and, after another year of training, he was sent to North Carolina and became a platoon commander in charge of forty-five Marines, most of whom were between the ages of seventeen and twenty-three. Although Emery was only a couple of years older than that, he soon realized that some of the men under his command lacked even the most basic life skills. “In addition to being their platoon commander, which meant I had to get them combat ready so we could deploy to Afghanistan in nine months, I also ended up being the marriage counselor and financial adviser for some of them,” Emery says. “It presented an additional challenge, but it kept things interesting.”
Serving as both platoon commander and life coach for these men proved to be Emery’s first real leadership challenge as a Marine. The second, and more intimidating, challenge came in the form of his platoon sergeant, a senior enlisted adviser in his thirties who had over a decade of combat experience but whom Emery outranked. “This man had been in some of the most violent battles in Iraq in the early 2000s. He was more than a decade older than me, and I was supposed to be his boss,” Emery says, recalling how intimidated he was at the time. “I’m coming in, this kid from Stanford, who didn’t have a military background. I grew up in Seattle, and he was from Alabama. We were kind of a world apart. The opportunity to be his leader and earn his respect was incredibly challenging, and it certainly didn’t happen immediately. Eventually, I did, and we developed this amazing working relationship and are good friends to this day. I think that was one of the biggest challenges initially, being put in a position to be his boss when there was a huge disparity in military experience.”
After nine months of combat-readiness training, Emery and his platoon were deployed to Helmand Province in Afghanistan where they were assigned to secure a district against the Taliban, which was interested in the region for its poppy-producing capabilities. “Our mission was to bolster the local government, the police force, the local Afghan Army unit that was there–to kind of increase the bubble of security that was around the district center,” Emery says. “It was really an amazing deployment because we stayed in the same place the entire time. We really got to see the improvement. I think a lot of the guys there felt like we were making an impact, that we were doing what we signed up to do. This was during the Afghan surge, so there were a lot of resources, and the attitude was generally like, ‘We’re here. We’re committed. We’re going to make this better.’ It was a pretty effective deployment.”
After seven months overseas, the platoon returned to the States to prepare for its next mission. Rather than directly setting up and running the training as he had done before, Emery was promoted to company executive officer, which meant he took on more of an administrative role and made sure everything in the company was running smoothly. “We knew we were going to go back to Afghanistan in about nine months,” Emery says. “So we kind of started the whole training process over again, only this time, I was responsible for making sure all the platoon training went effectively. I made sure they got the resources they needed to have the classes and do the field exercises, and sort of interfaced with our higher headquarters to make sure we were on track. We had to account for tens of millions of dollars worth of gear, equipment–thousands of pieces. It was a lot of admin and logistics and planning. I definitely learned a lot in that position, but it was less of a front line opportunity to really get down in the mud and do the training.”
After another nine months, Emery’s company was sent back to Afghanistan, to an area about fifty miles away from where they’d been the last time. At first, things seemed like they’d be pretty similar to the way they had been the previous year. But times had changed, and the politics back home had put increasing pressure on the Obama administration to withdraw troops from Afghanistan as quickly as possible. “The whole mindset over there had shifted from, ‘We’re going to solve these problems,’ to, ‘How do we figure out how to get everything turned over and get out as fast as possible?’”
This shift not only affected how the mission was carried out, but also the morale of the men on the ground. “It was a completely different mission. It was harder to see your direct impact. You knew you were going to leave in a couple days to a couple weeks. The locals knew you were going to leave soon, so they didn’t really want to throw in their lot with us. They did the minimum required to appease us, but certainly weren’t going to provide a bunch of help because they knew we were going to leave. You don’t want to be the one that helped out the U.S. when the Taliban inevitably come back. It was very hard to see the fruits of our labor or to see as much of the purpose behind it as we had on our first deployment.”
Emery acknowledges that the increasing skepticism among the company made leading his men more challenging than it had been before. “Your guys can see what’s going on. They’re not dumb,” he says. “How do you keep people motivated and make sure you’re doing your best with the situation that’s been given to you, and that you’re not letting anybody get complacent or do something that would put them or other people in more danger than they need to be in?”
At the same time, Emery relished the opportunity to take on the additional responsibility that came with his new role as an officer. “For me, personally, it was exciting because typically in Afghanistan, we were operating in such small units, the squad or platoon level. Very rarely were companies all together operating as one unit,” Emery says. “It was an opportunity where I got to actually be the second in command of the company, where the company commander would take half the company, and I would take the other half. A lot of my peers were not getting the company-level combat-leadership experience. So, despite the challenges, it was a really exciting experience for me.”
In the Fall of 2012, Emery returned to the States to finish out his contract with the Marines. Although the experience had opened up a whole world of opportunities and taught him skills he never would have acquired elsewhere, Emery decided to return to the private sector to expand his knowledge. “I had had to deal with so many different practical leadership situations, both at home and abroad–spanning from dealing with disciplinary issues, to giving career and personal mentorship advice, to maintaining discipline in the field, to trying to maintain focus and motivation. I was a much stronger leader than when I went in.”
Instead of picking up where he left off, he decided it was time for yet another new challenge. “I felt like going back into engineering would not fully capitalize on the experience that I’d had in the last four years,” he says. “It would, in a sense, be going backwards, where I’d be starting behind people who were just getting out of school. I really wanted to do something that could leverage both the last four years of leadership experience and my technical background. I was looking for something that would fit both of those.”
After several months of “searching, ski bumming, and writing,” Emery met Dan Price, who was recruiting for Gravity in the veteran community. He’d heard about the officer position Emery had had in the Marines and was looking for someone with that exact type of experience. At the time, Dan knew he needed someone who could help him execute his long-term vision for the company, but he wasn’t exactly sure what the job would entail. Instead, he let Emery help him figure it out.
“We pretty much took the first week or week and a half to create the job description together,” Emery says. “I would basically interview him about some of the top concerns he had about Gravity, or the top roadblocks that he had. We consolidated them and came up with maybe twelve different things he wanted to work on, so I just started attacking those things.”
Five years later, Emery still can’t easily explain his “job description,” and his official title, “Special Assistant to the CEO,” doesn’t come close to describing the role he plays. The best way to describe what he does is that he’s part idea man, part executor, and part leader, taking on projects at all levels and areas of the company that don’t easily fall under someone else’s purview. “It’s pretty amazing all the things that Emery is always taking on, and it inspires me to do more and be better,” says Cary Chin, an accountant and payroll specialist at Gravity. “If I’m feeling tired, I just look at Emery’s calendar and then go, ‘Well, my calendar isn’t that bad.'”
The one thing Emery can say for sure, though, is that his role at Gravity fully capitalizes on his military experience. “Pretty much everything I’ve done is something that I could not have undertaken by myself. Whether I needed to create some sort of interdisciplinary or interdepartmental team, or whether I just needed information from people to complete the project or task that I was working on, I’ve needed to work with the vast majority of the people at the company at one point or another. Although, for a long time, I wasn’t officially managing anyone or leading any team, I still had to exercise a lot of leadership, in terms of getting people on the same page, getting people working toward the shared goal.”
Emery points out that, while Dan was quick to recognize how Emery’s military experience could be useful in a business setting, most companies don’t look at veterans that way. “I think a lot of people think a veteran is a veteran, and that they’re basically all the same,” he says. “But that’s like saying, ‘All women will be like this,’ or, ‘All Asian people will be like this.’ The military is so big. The job responsibilities that you can have are so diverse, and the quality of people is so diverse.”
This tendency for companies to paint veterans with the same brush can make it difficult for those just leaving the military to find a job in the private sector. “What I found when I was getting out was there was a huge tendency for really well-meaning companies to try and recruit veterans for a few very specific jobs,” Emery says. “It’s kind of like, ‘Here are all the jobs that veterans should be good at,’ and it’s usually something like managing a warehouse. I just don’t think people really appreciate the diversity there. It was hard to sift through that and find a company that was looking for the right person, and just happened to be looking in the veteran community, as opposed to one that already had a preconceived notion about what a veteran could do.”
This ability to look at individual skills and talents, as opposed to just backgrounds or resumes, extends to all job candidates, Emery notes. “I think Gravity is really good at asking the right questions,” he says. “Saying, ‘This is what we want. How do we look for that?’ Not, ‘This is what we want. What credentials or what past job do they need to have to fit that bill?’ I think that’s where Gravity really differs, just by knowing what we’re looking for and being willing to do the hard work of uncovering that for someone of any background. We’re not turning people down because they don’t have a college degree, or because they are or are not in the military. It’s about what they’ve learned through their prior experiences and positions.”
As for what’s next, Emery is confident he’ll be able to continue growing and learning at Gravity for a long time. “A lot of people feel they need to find a new job every couple of years in order to keep gaining experience and moving forward in their careers,” Emery says. “But Gravity prides itself on hiring great people and letting them grow and develop in a way that works for them and the company. So, no matter your background, you have the opportunity to take your career in pretty much any direction you want it to go. In just five years, I’ve been able to do everything from product development to marketing to HR, and I’m looking forward to what the future has to offer.”
By Brooke Carey, Content Editor
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