Building The Base

In this podcast, Lauren and Hondo engage in a conversation with three guests, Cameron McCord, Biz Peabody, and Akhil Iyer, discussing topics related to national security and public/private partnerships. The guests share insights on managing deadlines, staying fresh, and finding ways to de-stress in challenging situations. They emphasize the importance of connecting with people and having open discussions to address frustrations and challenges. The conversation also touches on the concept of good rebels and the need for leaders to create an environment that enables innovation and empowers younger generations. Overall, the podcast highlights the significance of collaboration, diverse perspectives, and the potential for positive disruption in the national security sector.

Topics Covered:
  • Stress management and maintaining resilience in high-pressure environments.
  • Building strong connections and fostering open discussions to address challenges.
  • Distinguishing between positive and negative stress to maximize productivity.
  • Creating an innovative and empowering environment for problem-solving.
  • Embracing diversity of perspectives and encouraging collaboration.
  • Leveraging ground truth and technology for effective decision-making.
  • Harnessing the potential of younger generations and embracing disruptive thinking.

What is Building The Base?

"Building the Base" - an in-depth series of conversations with top entrepreneurs and leaders from tech, financial, industrial, and public sectors.

Our special guests are weighing in on a broad selection of topics such as: shaping our future national security industrial base, leadership in challenging times, experiences related to the intersection of business and national security, and personal anecdotes related to their positions of influence.

Building the base is hosted by our own BENS member Lauren Bedula who is the Managing Director and National Security Technology Practice Lead at Beacon Global Strategies, and BENS Distinguished Fellow, Jim "Hondo" Geurts who retired from performing the duties of the Under Secretary of the Navy and former Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development & Acquisition.

Lauren Bedula (00:01): Welcome back to Building the Base. Lauren Bedula and Hondo Geurts here, and we have our first group interview today. We're really excited for this new format. We're all Silicon Valley Defense Groupies, if you will, involved one way or another. And we're here on MIT's campus for the Harvard and MIT National Security Conference, which you all were leaders with last year. This is the second year now. So, very excited to have Vince Peabody with us. He's currently a leader at a growth stage company and spent time during acquisition in the defense industrial base. We've got Cameron McCord with us, who is the founder, still in stealth mode. Excited to hear what you're up to, Cameron, particularly focused on the defense sector. And then we have former naval officer Akil Ayers, who is a venture investor and Marine. Great to have you all with us today. Thank you for joining.
Hondo Geurts (00:55): Yeah, it's awesome to have you guys here. We've had many guests reflecting on their thoughts and experiences at the back end of their careers, but we thought it important to get folks on the front or mid part of their careers and get your views on national security and what brought you into this community, either while serving or after you served, and kind of get your thoughts there. So, for our guests, we'll go one by one here a little bit on your background and how you got to this interesting spot here and talk about where we're going in the future.
Vince Peabody (01:37): Thanks so much for having us. This is really exciting. This has been, by the way, I think it's awesome to be on this podcast based off of all the amazing folks that you guys have had on here and everything that you all are doing. My background, I started in space, as Lauren mentioned, working for a big prime. I was doing contract negotiation for early warning radar programs, which was a great way to get introduced to space and see the absolute monster effect our programs would have on national security and geopolitics. It was really exciting and amazing, and I knew that I loved it. Then, I got over to this side of the river, as you said, Hondo, doing graduate school for policy and business to understand how governments and industries of all sizes can work together and operate on an even higher level. That's how I got into the early-stage side of defense. It's rewarding to see something grow and the impact our products have on national security, the warfighter, and geopolitics. It's exciting to see all those things come together.
Cameron McCord (03:20): Yeah, this is Cameron. Hondo, I just wanted to jump on to the one thing you said about being early or mid-career. I think this podcast is so cool. Many of the folks who've been on before, I think we're speaking for all three of us, have been sources of inspiration, advisors, mentors in this ecosystem. It's cool to be on and talk about that stuff. So, Lauren, you mentioned in my professional career, it's unfolded into two big tranches. The first is in the public sector. I was a naval officer. It's cool to be here at the MIT and Harvard conference. Both of those schools are on waters in one way. So, I went to MIT, it's really cool to be back on campus. The first part of my career was spent as a submarine officer, being a true operator in the Navy, embracing the mentality of doing incredible things with limited and sometimes outdated technology. That's the ethos. I spent some time working on Capitol Hill as a congressional Navy liaison, zooming out and seeing how all the pieces fit together. It was formative. The second part, the last several years, I founded a company, gained experience at operating companies, some investment experience, and put it all together to do something new. It's great to be back here. So cool.
Akil Ayers (05:08): Thanks. I'm Akil Ayers here in Orlando. It's awesome to be here with Vince, Cam, and the phenomenal group of cross-functional leaders and rising young professionals on this podcast. I'm fortunate to be here. When we thought about doing this conference last year, there was a wave of interest about the nexus of technology and national security. So it's great to see it in this rendition. By way of background, I come from the Marines. My parents immigrated from India, and giving back to the nation that gave them so much was valued. For me, that was doing ROTC and joining the Marines, leading young Marines and sailors, which was absolutely incredible. Like many veterans, after a few years of service, I recognized the frustrations around the technology we were using. I remember looking at public reports and news sources about ISIS leveraging asymmetric capabilities against our friends, allies, and democracies using everything from Twitter and social media to drones bought on the internet. That's when I first met Andrew Hall. It was super exciting as I left the military and before we all went to business school to see this new wave of interest and technology maturation. I'm fortunate to be working in venture capital with New Frontier Capital, focusing on the nexus between commercial technology and national security. We cover exciting domains across autonomy space.
Lauren Bedula 06:46 So you're all operating at the intersection between government and industry, with a real focus on mission national security. Tell me about your family's story and how that influenced your passion for getting involved. For me, it was September 11 that really sparked my interest in national security. What about you? Why mission? Why national security?
Cameron McCord 07:08 Yeah, it's family for me as well. I come from a huge military family, specifically Navy. My family has a strong Navy background, with relatives in various roles. I grew up with an outward looking lens, influenced by my uncle who was a retired Navy three-star and commanded the Abraham Lincoln battle group. I saw him on TV and attended his retirement ceremony at the Pentagon. As a kid, I realized how big and complex the world is. Alongside this, my dad being a physicist, I grew up as a big nerd. Defense tech embraces the idea of solving complex public purpose problems using technology. The leverage effect of technology is crucial. I believe it's the only way we can solve these problems. Companies that can leverage technology and scale their impact are key to addressing these challenges. That's what inspires me.
Biz Peabody 08:50 I don't have immediate family in the military, but both my grandfathers served—one in the Air Force and one in the Navy. They had a significant impact on my family. One grandfather, in particular, always emphasized the importance of service. At the time, I didn't fully grasp its meaning, but it resonated with me. He served as a submariner like Cameron and later became a politician. Working at Raytheon after college, I was amazed by the impact of defense programs and their role in geopolitics and international relationships. It felt like a service component on a macro level, something I hadn't considered before. Now, in Chile, everything we do is aimed at making things better for servicemembers and helping in various ways. It's been different aspects of service over the years, but I can't imagine anything more important.
Hondo Geurts 11:00 There are many ways to contribute, whether in uniform or not. Sometimes we limit our understanding of what serving the country means. In the special ops world, we used to say not to measure your value solely by proximity to the final objective. There are numerous ways to contribute, even if you're not the one using the technology directly. I find it fascinating to see the growing network of younger professionals like yourselves coming together with experience and a drive to make a difference. This conference is a great example of that. Do you see this as a disruptive network, ready to challenge the status quo that has existed in the national security space for decades? What are your thoughts on this?
Akhil Iyer 12:31 Yes, I think the conference reflects the significant changes that have occurred. When we graduated from undergrad, it wasn't considered cool to enter this space. However, after leaving active service and attending business school, I was fortunate to witness a rising interest in national security. I had the privilege of being a teaching assistant for the late Ash Carter at the Kennedy School, where he founded Defense Innovation Unit and made tremendous contributions to the innovation base. At his state funeral, it was inspiring to see how many people were passionate about continuing his legacy and advancing defense technologies, alliances, and public-private sector collaboration.
Cameron McCord 13:28 Building on that, my mind also went to Ash. You know him better than I do, but I have two points to share. First, I believe the current changes are the result of efforts that began years ago, such as the third offset and Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx). These concepts have slowly permeated the ecosystem and are finally driving change. It may be slower than desired, but progress is happening. Second, my hypothesis about the network is that this work is incredibly challenging and requires a high level of cross-functional expertise. It's difficult for individuals to excel in all areas, but through networking, we can bring together unique experiences and collaborate effectively. This younger network is making a difference, and I can see and feel it at this year's conference.
Biz Peabody 15:05 I think the technology itself is revolutionary in national security, and its applicability is really appealing to a lot of people. When I left undergrad, going into national security wasn't the cool thing, but now with artificial intelligence, quantum, biotech, and other technologies, it gets people interested. The level of technology and the mission are both important factors.
Lauren Bedula 16:05 I think the four of us are millennials, and we're geared towards moving fast and creating efficiencies. Silos don't work for us. We want to share information, collaborate, and find the most effective ways. The network aspect is making a difference. Hondo and General Votel wrote about creating a future industrial network that goes beyond tech and the defense industrial base. It includes academia and many other players in the space. How can we build a stronger future industrial network and create efficiencies? Any thoughts?
Biz Peabody 17:22 I think we need to create a network where we can talk to each other and listen more. Often, different languages are spoken, and companies may think they can do things better than the requirements. We need to create opportunities for conversations to happen, even if regulations or incentives don't always allow it. Small and big companies should work together, and we should explore the advanced program level to see what we can do with high technology and critical technologies.
Akhil Iyer 19:41 We need to lower the barriers to entry and create more mutual understanding. The industry is filled with acronyms that make it difficult for newcomers. Bridging the gap and bringing in more people from different backgrounds would be great. We should also scale the organizational innovations that have been successful, like the ones implemented by Otto and others, and leverage them effectively across the enterprise.
Cameron McCord 20:57 I agree with Akhil's points. Networks work well when focused on a central mission or goal. We need to identify that goal and iterate on it. There should be better signaling from the DoD to industry and academia about priorities and needs. We have powerful networks, but they can sometimes pull in different directions. Efficient solving requires alignment and knowing the prioritizations from the department.

Hondo Geurts 22:06 Thanks for the shout out about my age. I appreciate it. Unfortunately, you three are no longer the youngest people in the room. You've moved into an inspirational and mentorship role for others. Creating this ecosystem and network requires people to see themselves progressing to the next level, whether it's through contracting, service, or family connections. What are you hearing from the people you're mentoring? What advice do you give them? With recent events, there seems to be a sense of service that has accelerated in the past few years. How do you approach these conversations?
Cameron McCord 23:16 I'll go first. I love mentoring and I had a conversation with a veteran who recently left the Navy and worked in consulting for two years. They asked me if they should enter the defense tech world. My advice, from a vendor perspective, is twofold. First, there's a fear of being pigeonholed into government relations, business development, or defense-related roles. I believe this is a false dichotomy. You can leverage your past experience, operational knowledge, and deep understanding of the problem set in areas where it's a two-way marketplace for learning. I and Akela have done this early in our careers, drawing from our learnings and contributing to the company. Second, don't be afraid to explore different opportunities in the first few years. In this field, cross-functional skill sets are highly valuable. Bounce around to different places to gain a comprehensive understanding. It's not necessary to stick with one company for long-term upward mobility. Put in a good "tour of duty" at a company, learn about building products, and then move on to gain knowledge about how the government operates. Embrace the idea of shorter tours of duty and be comfortable with changing positions.
Biz Peabody 25:32 As someone without a military background, I don't want to exclude military personnel from this conversation. People look up to you in your leadership role and consider you important.
Cameron McCord 25:47 That's true. We get reached out to all the time.
Biz Peabody 25:52 I'm highly caffeinated right now. Yesterday, I was on HB's campus, discussing returning to school. In a class called "Tough Tech Ventures," there was a poll about job prospects for graduating students. Many students who hadn't secured a job expressed that they were looking for companies or organizations with a strong mission and values. I love this because it reflects a broader trend where millennials and Gen Z are considering the larger implications of their work. People want to align themselves with a mission and values that resonate with them. The national security industry offers a compelling focus on mission and values, as we've been discussing. People are starting to recognize this, even if they don't have a direct connection to the military. If you have a strong tie to the mission and values, you can explore different roles within the industry. I, for instance, have held five different roles at Chile, and it has been an incredible experience. I've had the opportunity to learn and collaborate with various teams, which has deepened my understanding of the company's values. So, it's not about sticking to one specific role at one company, but rather embracing the industry-wide possibilities that allow you to leverage your values and interests.
Akhil Iyer 28:18 I want to emphasize the importance of values, which are ultimately driven by people. I joined this venture not solely because of the industry, but because of the incredible leaders, Raj Shah and Mike Brown, who wanted to continue their impactful work in the private sector. Venture capital happened to be the field where we converged, but what excites me is being part of a mission-driven organization with strong values. It is crucial to be a part of something greater, especially at a time when conflicts and geopolitical competition require our attention. Working with amazing people like the ones sitting here is the best part of it all.
Lauren Bedula 29:01 So you are extremely high achievers. How do you think about managing stress? How do you bounce it off? How do you stay fresh?
Akhil Iyer 29:12 The de facto answer to "can you continue to work out?" is always a great thing, being outdoors. I think it goes back to connecting with people again and getting a chance to talk about the frustrations that you brought up. There are frustrations in this job, and it's important that we get a chance to talk about it. This is what forums like this are for, both in the conference room and the handoff line. It's important to acknowledge that not everything is glorious or gilded. There are real challenges, but there's also opportunity in those challenges as long as we're able to connect with people and find ways to de-stress. For me, it's working out, and secondly, being with great people with whom I can share the types of issues and challenges I'm going through.
Cameron McCord 29:52 Yeah, I can echo that, and I'll give a funny counterpoint to one of your points, Akhil. I believe and I often talk about this type of work with people in similar industries. In our case, Akhil and I have a rule that we will only talk about defense tech and public-purpose problems for a certain amount of time each evening. Otherwise, it can become all-consuming. I also think it's important to distinguish between good stress and bad stress. When you really love what you're doing and you're excited by it, you can handle much more stress because you're energized by the work. However, it's crucial to check in and assess what's good stress and what's bad stress, especially when building a company. Understanding how you think about those two things is essential.
Biz Peabody 31:24 I stress out a lot and think about how I organize my mind. It's like a campsite—there's good stress and bad stress. It's important to filter and identify what is what. Personally, I enjoy working out and meditating to de-stress. Stepping back from the immediate situation and removing yourself from it helps gain perspective. Having friends in the same industry who understand the dynamics and can bounce ideas off each other is valuable. Akhil and I wrote our thesis together, and it required tackling a problem from different angles. It's interesting to talk to friends and get their insights. Additionally, talking to people outside the industry, like my parents or friends, who are amazed by the problems we tackle, can provide fresh perspectives. So, it's all about people and finding ways to step back.
Hondo Geurts 32:58 I often talk about the difference between good rebels and bad rebels, similar to the difference between good stress and bad stress. Good rebels are mission-focused, about changing rules rather than breaking them, and they inspire rather than being angry. The three of you are great examples of good rebels. What would you, as good rebels, say to the dinosaurs here who may overvalue the status quo and not understand the potential for success or the need for speed in moving forward? What can leaders in positions of authority in the VC world, government, and other areas do to enable you to continue moving at the necessary speed?
Biz Peabody 34:29 I think one of the reasons I love Shield so much is that functional roles can be useful for an organization but may hinder moving quickly and solving problems. Being at an early-stage company allows you to work across different areas. If you see a problem, you can take the initiative to address it, regardless of your role. Being a good rebel means going after things that need fixing, even if they fall outside your job description.
Cameron McCord 35:39 I remember when I worked as a congressional liaison, where I was the conduit between human technology and information to people on the Hill. I had short conversations with senior staffers or members of Congress to educate them on topics like machine learning, natural language processing, cybersecurity, or advanced manufacturing. It's crucial for established individuals to be comfortable surrounding themselves with young rebel technologists. Having young people on their staff to bring in fresh perspectives and knowledge is important. On the flip side, as good rebels, we must balance respect for the organization, the Department of Defense, Congress, and the mission with an appropriate amount of reverence. Not everything should be taken for granted, and we must question the status quo to figure out what needs to change.
Akhil Iyer 37:35 You're hitting on the fact that it's important to get the ground truth. Gen Z is already different in their digital nativity and how they think about technology. Having those ground truth conversations is beneficial. Coming out of COVID, we can have those conversations again and recognize the value of irreverent disruption. As leaders, we must empower that and recognize the potential it brings.

Hondo Geurts 38:08 I was taught early on by some Reverend sergeant majors, which is almost a redundant statement in itself. But as a leader, you don't need to be the most innovative person or the most accomplished in one tech talent or skill. You just need to enable those who are and empower them to do their best. That's an important thing to remember. It's not about being a genius like Al RML or someone else. It's about creating maneuver room and providing clear boundaries and guidance. Then you let people run, as you guys have been doing very successfully.
Lauren Bedula 38:57 Well, with that, thank you, friends, for joining. I think it's inspiring for our listeners who are looking for ways to start their career paths. We always welcome feedback about our guests and ideas for action in this space as well. So thank you all. Thank you. Thank you, guys. Awesome.