How Breakthrough Champion Teri Nelsen creates a community of support for veterans

A Dell ERG leader sheds light on the valuable qualities veterans seeking civilian careers have to offer.

The first few months at a new job are an exercise in acclimation. On top of the basic duties of the job itself, there are countless nuances to wrap your head around, including communication styles, company politics and an unfamiliar software stack.

For veterans, this experience is often even more head-spinning due to the culture shock of transitioning from military service to a civilian career. For those accustomed to the camaraderie, hierarchy and critical decision-making inherent in many military roles, navigating the nebulous norms of the corporate world can be confounding.

Teri Nelsen, a global enablement program manager and co-lead of Dell’s Veterans and Supporters employee resource group (ERG), helps veterans cross that chasm. “I specialize in anything veteran-specific that can help people with their transition to civilian life and work,” she says.

Nelsen also works to show non-veteran hiring managers how in-the-field insights can translate to valuable business outcomes. With 61% of business leaders struggling with internal politics, a lack of clear communication, and/or weak decision-making power and governance, there’s potential for veteran hires to bring their military-honed skills to the boardroom and beyond—and help managers fill the skills gaps that keep them up at night.

Below, Nelsen shares her thoughts on the challenges veterans tend to face in corporate settings, how technology facilitates veteran support, and what she wishes more hiring managers knew about the valuable qualities veteran candidates have to offer.

Can you give a brief overview of your career path at Dell? What’s your current involvement with the Veterans and Supporters ERG?

I started working with Dell in 2014, and then moved to Dell in 2018 to work in commercial sales. I currently sit in the services space focusing on global enablement/engagement, which encompasses a lot of our cultural diversity and inclusion efforts.

When I first joined Veterans and Supporters, I was at the end of my military contract. I was looking to network with like-minded people, which I found in spades by engaging with the ERG. In fact, through the resource group, I was even able to introduce my husband—also a member of the military—to someone who could review his resume. He ended up landing a job here, too. Now, we’re both national co-leads for the ERG.

The ERG is responsible for facilitating a number of things at Dell, including military observances, enrichment programming, guest speakers, recruiting, and anything else in the hiring space we can help with. We run some great events and have done some impactful fundraising. Last year, we raised just shy of $60,000 for Run to Home Base , which is a 5K/9K run that finishes at Fenway Park. We’ve led some great Veterans’ Day events specific to women. Shortly, we will be sending six Purple Heart recipients on a five-day retreat.

I’ve also been lucky enough to work on the Veteran Integration Success program, which we launched in November of 2021. It’s a cohort of six. It’s the first program of its kind at Dell—a two-year rotational program that helps veterans with their entire transition from their military career to corporate success. Being part of that has been an honor.

What unique needs do you believe veterans have when it comes to employment?

One tough thing is that when you transition from the military into a civilian career, you don’t necessarily know who to ask certain questions. That hierarchy is clearly outlined in the military but not necessarily in the corporate world.

If you have business leaders who aren’t veterans, they’re not familiar with what you’re going through. The real value of programs like Veterans and Supporters is that they allow people to share experiences. The bond you have in the military is very different than typical office relationships. Ultimately, other veterans are the only ones who can understand what you’ve done, what you’ve seen, where you’ve been, and what makes you unique.

Another factor we see is a need for mental health support. Luckily, Dell has an amazing benefits package, as well as incredible external partners that do free webinars specific to this issue.

How do you believe remote work—and the technology that fuels it—can serve veterans?

Teri Nelsen and her husband Darrick with Michael Dell

For veterans, it’s definitely difficult because you’re going from being with your holding unit or your whole battalion to just you and your computer—so digital tools and platforms that facilitate real conversations can be super helpful. Email has its limits, but videoconferencing, social media, and collaboration software can be effective.

Within the ERG, we’ve found that when we post things in more interactive spaces, we see a ton of employee engagement. People share photos of their families, their military experiences, etc. These interactions are a reminder that we’re all coming from the same place. We’re all celebrating each other. It’s a good place for resources, too.

Another benefit of these shared online spaces is that they connect people across state and even international borders. My core team is all around the globe. We’ve got people in Ireland who I would never run into in a physical office. In fact, I just got off a one-on-one call with one of our female veteran leaders in Texas. There aren’t a lot of women veterans at higher levels who I can identify with, so when I have that opportunity, it gives me a sense of closeness—it makes me feel like there’s someone I can lean on.

What are some of the qualities that veterans can offer an organization as employees?

A lot of veterans I’ve worked with are incredibly mission-focused. They’re adept at solving problems, getting to an end result, and working through multiple hurdles that get thrown their way. They don’t give up easily or shy away from a challenge. While they may not have taken a formal communications course, when you’re consistently dealing with life-or-death scenarios, you have those skills naturally ingrained in you—not just how to solve a problem, but how to present it to others.

In terms of other soft skills, so many veterans have integrity, dedication, and the ability to learn specific tools quickly. That can be particularly important in today’s corporate environment, given that 69% of today’s business leaders are worried that they lack the necessary skills for digital transformation.  Cybersecurity, which is hyper-important in a military setting, can be another major area where hiring veterans can close a skills gap—and a critical one.  Today, 72% of business leaders believe that the changing working world has exposed their organizations to greater risk.

Many hiring managers are focusing on diversity and inclusion these days, and hiring veterans is one way of introducing more diversity in the workplace. One issue on the company side of the equation is that not every hiring manager understands what people actually do in the military. It’s important for veterans to put their skills into language that hiring managers understand and see value in. I also think hiring managers need to be willing to have a secondary conversation—don’t always judge from the resume. Give veterans a chance; that’s the biggest thing.

What would be your top piece of advice for veterans currently seeking jobs where they can establish a thriving career as a civilian?

Teri Nelsen and family

I would say, do your research. Talk to your veteran community about where they work or where their families work. It’s going to make all the difference if you’re coming into a culture that supports veterans and their transition and has people who have “been there, done that” and understand it. At Dell, we actually have a reverse interview program where culture ambassadors can talk to different individuals about the company culture.

The other big thing is once you find where that next step is going to be, understand that it is going to be different than what you were accustomed to during your service. It’s going to be hard no matter where you land. Don’t shy away from utilizing your managers or the benefits that are offered to you. That’s why they’re there—especially in the mental health space. So, I’d encourage you to ask the questions you would normally shy away from. Don’t hold back. Seek out the support you need. There’s a strong safety net and support system available to you—and your managers and colleagues want to see you succeed.