A Risk Worth Taking

Blayne Smith decided to take a risk.

He had a stable job with health benefits and a retirement plan, but when given the opportunity to make an impact in an area he’s passionate about, there wasn’t much hesitation.

After spending eight years in the United States Army, Smith joined Quest Diagnostics in January 2010 as a medical sales representative, but he quickly realized it wasn’t what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He enrolled in the UF MBA at the Hough Graduate School of Business, hoping it would give his professional life direction while building up a network of contacts.

“Medical sales was a good job and good living, but I wasn’t stoked about the idea of doing that for my career,” Smith said. “I was trying to figure out what I was going to do when I grew up, and I was 31.”

Mike Erwin, who served with Smith in the Army, provided some answers. Erwin founded Team Red, White and Blue (Team RWB), a nonprofit organization in Tampa with a mission to “enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.” Team RWB started with events as small as local running groups, but it has grown today to nationwide groups that do yoga, rock climbing, CrossFit, running and other activities.

Erwin spent the summer of 2010 trying to build momentum around the company. He asked a group of friends, including Smith, if they would train for a race in October to raise money and support for the newly-founded company.

The preparation, training and execution for the race brought Smith and friends back to a familiar feeling. Some of the veterans struggled to feel a sense of purpose and camaraderie that came on a daily basis while they were in the Army. It returned as they prepared and ultimately finished the race.

“We raised some money, but we loved the experience and training for it,” Smith said. “We could feel that sense of purpose that came with being a part of something.”

This became the foundation of Team RWB. Erwin and Smith knew from personal experience the benefits of physical activity, and they found studies that showed exercise can be as effective as counseling or antidepressants.

The company gained national traction in early 2012. Fundraising increased, and Erwin, who was still on active duty, asked Smith if he would be the company’s first full-time employee while taking over as the Executive Director.

Leaving a steady income with a stable company comes with risk, but Smith saw it as a chance to put his skills from UF MBA to use on a larger scale. The UF MBA experience gave him boldness to make the decision.

“It was kind of risky,” Smith said. “It almost felt a little irresponsible to quit my sweet corporate gig and work for a non-profit, but it felt right. That was a huge thing I got from the UF MBA program. I was inspired to do something with my business knowledge.”

As leadership took steps to grow the company, they decided to make an important pivot.

Team RWB was focused on helping wounded veterans when the company started, but company leadership heard from a large number of other veterans that were helped by the organization’s mission. Smith and others realized they couldn’t presume to know which veterans they should help and started focusing on improving the lives of all veterans.

Before the company’s leadership summit in January 2013, the company was averaging six or seven signups a day. That number jumped to 30 per day in the next month, and the organization now averages 110 signups on its website each day.

Growth has altered challenges Smith faces in his role. Instead of trying to build momentum for a startup company aiming to get off the ground, he’s now tasked with managing an organization that includes 20 staff members, 180 locations, 106,000 members and 15,000 hours of volunteer service per month.

With an organization of that size, the biggest challenge for Smith is communication. His goal is for the nationwide staff members and volunteers to hear from him as often as possible.

To make this doable, Smith writes an email every Monday to update staff and volunteers on what the company is working on and where it is heading. He ends each email by challenging them with ideas on leadership. They’ve also started to create Facebook videos on the leadership group’s page and recently began a podcast.

“It all helps me stay connected to our growing team,” Smith said.