When he was stationed in Afghanistan with the the 101st Airborne Division, Kip Beach vividly remembers receiving a red knit cap in the mail. There it was, inside a care package he received, tucked away among the candy and magazines.
Kip doesn’t know who sent him the hat, but he still has it to this day.
“When you’re out in the field and on duty,” he says, “you’re somewhere between fragile and dead. I’ve seen grown men cry when they get these care packages.” When he would return from the field, he would go back to his barracks, put his red hat on, and watch a bootleg DVD. And for a brief moment, 6,700 miles from where he grew up in Kingston, New York, he would feel safe.
Rob Lewis has a similar story. He was stationed in Kosovo when 9/11 happened and lost a very close friend when the towers came down. He remembers going out into the field for two weeks at a time, and when he would finally get back to base, he could call his soon-to-be bride and feel some kind of normalcy.
And there were the care packages. Packages put together by someone you had never met or said hello to, a lifeline that tethered you ever so slightly to home.
Finding Mission and Meaning
Today, both Rob and Kip work in the supply chain at Unilever a far cry from their service in Afghanistan and Kosovo. It was no easy transition to civilian life, let alone the corporate world. Despite his experience as an officer, three months into the job Kip was worried he was going to be fired. “There were a lot of challenges,” he admits. For starters, building a network and navigating the waters of such a large company. But also smaller things, like email etiquette, he didn’t have any experience with.
It occurred to Kip that others must be going through this as well—so wouldn’t it be great if Unilever could build a support network for veterans? Rob felt the same way. Care packages can help morale overseas, but he wanted a way to help vets when they returned home and entered the workforce.
Together, with the help of their Executive Sponsor Wendy Herrick, they started a Veteran’s Business Resource Group (BRG) with the purpose of building that lifeline and representing a group of people that want to help each other, but also making Unilever a destination for returning veterans. “[Having a group like this] greatly impacts business’s retention levels, recruiting, and assists in driving creative.”
Nowhere was this more evident than when Unilever needed help with a product that the Veteran’s BRG dreamed into existence.
The advertising campaign for the product involved special packs, a type of display you would encounter at the grocery store that’s stocked with product on sale, and was to target military consumers on bases. But the group working on it didn’t like the original artwork they were seeing on the special pack, so it was turned over to the Veteran’s BRG, who decided to have a competition to create a better display.
Tom Kearns, a member of the vet’s group, came up with the slogan, “from the field to the family.” Rob explains that “the idea behind the slogan is that you’ve been in the field for weeks on end, and all you want is to just take a shower, to clean up, to feel a sense of being human again. And the shower is the vehicle to get you back to the family so that you feel whole again.”
The slogan was approved by the BRG, and the packs are heading out to military bases now. For Kip, this is how Unilever can deliver the value of their business to their consumers, and also show their own commitment to diversity and inclusion.
A lot of the vets returning home have qualities that would be welcome at any company— leadership, discipline, and maturity. “When you have people’s lives literally in your hand,” Rob says, “selling soap is not such a big problem.”
This year, the BRG, which now includes over 150 veterans, is expanding their mission—reaching out to veterans with disabilities, recruiting them for positions at Unilever and elsewhere. They even made their first hire back in December with a vet who completed a six-week training program and is now working as logistics specialist.
Rob and Kip also spend a couple of weekends every year building care packages for soldiers deployed overseas, similar to the ones they received when they were in the field. The packages contain some of Unilever’s products like Dove and Axe, candy, magazines, even Christmas cards from kindergarteners. But it’s another opportunity to build a lifeline and pay it forward.
“Being able to improve people’s lives is powerful,” Kip says, “and small actions every day make communities work. For me there is no greater sense of accomplishment than knowing I helped someone. Having been the recipient of volunteer efforts, I am just paying off my debt.”