TILLMAN TUESDAY: Entrepreneur Erik Wittreich is Privileged to Be Part of Scholar Family

Featured Media, News | 03/10/2015

Pat Tillman Foundation can’t fulfill its mission to empower military veterans and their spouses without the generosity of our supporters across the country. Nationwide, nearly 350 Tillman Scholars are striving to impact our country and communities through their studies in medicine, law, business, policy, technology, education and the arts. Every “Tillman Tuesday,” we are committed to highlighting the individual impact of a Tillman Scholar, focusing on their success in school, career and community—all thanks to your support.

In this week’s edition of Tillman Tuesday we had the chance to catch up with 2013 Tillman Scholar Erik Wittreich after he completed the 408k Race to the Row in San Jose, CA. Wittreich is gearing up for Pat’s Run where last year he and fellow scholar Jon Andrews raised over $20,000 for the annual run held in Tempe, AZ. In addition to running and raising funds for future Tillman Scholars, Wittreich is an Entrepreneur starting his own business, Hinted.

Tell us about your Military career and what your duties entailed. “On Sept. 12, 2001, while a senior at Miami of Ohio, I went and spoke to a local Army recruiter and started the conversation about enlisting. Prior to the events on Sept. 11, I really had no interest in the military and really didn’t know what the Army entailed other than a few Hollywood movies I saw on TV. I thought Airborne Rangers sounded pretty cool, so that’s what I wanted to do. The recruiter took care of me and guided me throughout the entire process so that was helpful.

In January, I was told I did really well on the aptitude test and could have any job I wanted. With my four-year degree, I wanted to enlist in the military, but I also wanted to be an Army Ranger. At the time, I was told all the slots were full, so I was ready to walk out the door without signing anything yet. After talking for a while though, I was told a few Special Forces Airborne contracts had opened up and I was asked to sign one, to which I agreed.

On January 15, 2002, 10 minutes after I signed the contract, I was called back into the office to take a call from a General down at Fort Knox. He told me I was the first person in the nation to sign this particular Special Forces contract. That was the start of my time in the military. I was set to graduate May 5th and under the delayed entry program I headed to Fort Benning, GA for Infantry school. After that, I had one chance at Special Forces.”

Did you join because of September 11? “Absolutely!”
Already having earned your degree, what moved you to take the enlisted path? I was interviewing with financial advisory firms at the time. I thought I could work in a tall building in New York City that might be another target of an attack, or I could go try and do something to stop that from every happening again. I had received some advice from my Uncle who reminded me that other than school, I hadn’t really done anything that set me apart from my peers. I was trying to find a job at all these companies, but I didn’t have a compelling story about myself to share. That advice met the litmus test for me that if I’m in the military for a couple of years, I’ll get some great experience and it will be a story for me to share with my grandkids one day.”

That was sort of the optic for my decision. I’m clearly not a lifer, but the military worked out for me. I spent seven years on active-duty and then one year in the National Guard.  Ultimately, one of the main reasons why I decided to transition out was because as an enlisted soldier there was no opportunity or mechanism in place to allow me to both continue serving and go to grad school. I knew I wanted to go back to school at some point.”

 How did your family react when you told them you were going to enlist after 9/11? “My mom will end up reading whatever you publish so I will decline to answer! Seriously though, my family absolutely supports my decisions and are completely proud of my military service and my affiliation with the Pat Tillman Foundation. They were a little confused when I approached them over winter break in 2001, and told them I had every intention of going to back to school in January and then enlisting in the military.”

Is it true that you had interactions with Pat at Ft. Benning during your early training before heading to basic training? We were lined up and not supposed to be talking in the hall. I had no concept of time as we were all waiting to take our PT test. We were tired and annoyed, but then I heard a little chatter. The guy behind me said, ‘hey that’s him; that’s Pat Tillman.’ I said, ‘Who’s Pat Tillman?’ ‘He’s the NFL Football player that just passed on a contract to join the Airborne Rangers.’ So he (Pat) walks by and I ended up going in and trying on shoes next to him. That was the only experience I had seeing Pat. His presence struck everyone around him with awe.”

Is it surreal now to be considered a Tillman Scholar and have had that chance encounter at Ft. Benning? “I think my whole experience with the foundation is surreal given the foundation came about after such tragedy. But at the same time the connection has afforded me some of the best relationships I have. The highlight of my day on any given day is interacting with my fellow scholars.”

At what point did you decide to apply to become a Tillman Scholar? “Fellow scholar Jon Andrews invited me to a social gathering in Washington D.C. when the Leadership Summit was taking place. It was there that I met a few staff members. Jon and others were encouraging me to apply for the scholarship, knowing I was planning on going to graduate school. The scholarship and financial support aside, it just seemed like a happy family. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something cool like that?

You’re welcome to having the funds back any time you would like! But I’m absolutely privileged to be part of this family. That’s the value I get out of the foundation.”

What was your reaction to being notified you were a recipient of the scholarship and who was the first person you called? “The first person I called was Jon Andrews to say thank you because he played such a pivotal role in me applying. I’m very humbled to be considered a Tillman Scholar. There is no compelling story for me to share on a ‘Tillman Tuesday’ because I really don’t think I am that interesting next to the other scholars! But I was pleasantly surprised to be able to be part of this family.”

What does the scholarship allow you to do after completing your grad school work? Not just academically but also professionally. “What the Pat Tillman Foundation allows me to do is, at a very low cost to me and the person I’m talking to, have a conversation about my time in the military. There’s this affiliation and sense of safety where I’m approachable (wearing my Tillman Scholar shirt). It affords me the opportunity to have these conversations with those who haven’t served in uniform that I would never have running the 408K just wearing my regular t-shirt. I feel that’s what has been most special for me: I’ve developed relationships both with the scholars as well as outside the organization that I wouldn’t have had I not been affiliated with the Tillman name.”

What are you doing now? “Right now, I’m launching a new company called Hinted. I had the opportunity to attend business school a few years back where I had a great relationship with a couple of classmates. We had a shared pain point around not getting timely and sufficient feedback from our professors and that’s something that is probably not going to change, at least not in the short term. Even at the top business schools in the world, you would receive a grade back at the end of the term. If I wrote a paper on bringing a Chinese mobile company into the United Kingdom I would get two words back on that paper, ‘Good Job!’ With a team, we gave a 45-minute presentation. The things I want to learn about in the classroom are my presentation skills, do I come across as analytical, smart and compelling?

My grade has nothing to do with how I delivered my speech, etc. it only had to do with the strategy. We’re not going to change the manner by which professors assign grades and give feedback. However our classmates have a compelling amount of insight and perception about us and they might not be the right person to grade the paper on the strategy but everything else I care about (how I interact on a team, how I lead…). The more compelling question is, ‘Can we leverage those around us to get feedback?’ We look at feedback in the work environment and the corporate world where 875 million hours are spent annually on performance evaluation. Tell me one person that’s a strong advocate of that process? There’s a lot of natural or intentional bias toward the data so we are working on a solution with higher frequency and touch points trying to create the first feedback tool that’s actually designed for the end user as opposed to a tool seen by an HR or management tool.

My Hinted teammates and I think we’ve come up with a compelling way to eliminate this natural bias of data and we’ve also quickly reduced the burden of collecting this data. So if it typically takes you 100 responses to a question to have confidence around that answer, we can do it in 17 asks of that question. We’ve really reduced the time commitment and hopefully the end product adds more to the evaluation systems. We’ve tested this and collected 42,000 pieces of feedback on 200 users at this point and we will slowly release this privately now to some enterprises and then offer it as a software solution at some point.

This is a long response to a short question, but anyone who is interested in learning more about our company can check out Hinted.com.”

You’re a bit of a Renaissance man. Since 2005, each year you start a new hobby. How and when did you come up with that idea and what are some of the hobbies you’ve taken on?

“Initially, it happened out of necessity! When I was stationed in Germany, I found myself renting this big apartment and I didn’t have budget to buy art work for the walls. My taste is out of my price range, so I would go to the store and look at the artwork I liked and then go home and paint it. My first piece was entitled ‘Four Squares.’ It probably took about 15 minutes of effort. I then continued on with another piece and it didn’t ever occur to me that this would be a seed for a longer term hobby. One day, I had some friends over, and someone asked where I bought my paintings. They commented on how perfect they would fit in their home. So after that I started gifting these to my friends. It was a fun way to pass a few extra minutes each week. Eventually I decided to turn this into a process of self-exploration and get out of my comfort zone. Now, it’s an annual self-improvement gut-check, and I pick up a new hobby with the new calendar year. 

Wittreich Painting 1

I started with acrylics and then learned how to depict trees, mountains and snow scenes while crafting oil-based landscapes. At times I became frustrated and discouraged but learned patience and peace during the process. 2011 was the year of the piano. I invested in lessons and practiced on my own to the point where I’m now bold enough to sit down in public and play the piano at a wedding reception. One might occasionally find me playing for fun at a piano bar.  

Other hobbies have included writing, graphic design, coffee roasting and this year it’s metal crafting. Different kinds of dance will be on the list in the coming years! Right now, thanks to this hobby process, I can do all the artwork for our website and mobile design. Eventually I would like to learn French and Spanish too.

I find these pursuits inherently rewarding. My hobbies provide a viable escape from the demands and stressors of my profession, have encouraged personal growth and continue to be a source of wholesome pleasure.”