How These 'Shark Tank' Airborne Rangers Built a Successful Peacebuilding Company

Matthew"Griff" Griffin’s wartime service inspired him to make the world a better place. He started a company called Combat Flip Flops. Their mission is to grow entrepreneurs in areas of conflict around the world, build communities and fund women's education through the sales of flip flops and other shoes and accessories. (Matthew Griffin/Combat Flip Flops)

Soldiers know better than anyone the price that civilians pay in times of conflict. West Point grad and Airborne Ranger combat veteran Matthew Griffin has seen first-hand the devastating consequences war has on veterans as well as civilians in the conflict zone -- and his solution to some of those problems has turned into a successful business.

Airborne Ranger Matt Griffin during a tour of duty in Afghanistan.

Weapons of Mass Construction

Griffin served in the 75th Ranger Regiment as a Rifle Company Fire Support Officer, completing three tours in Afghanistan and one tour to Iraq. During his time in these war-torn countries, he noted how people lacked access to basic resources such as medicine, education, clean water, and electricity. Connecting the dots, he also saw that the scarcity of resources made it easier for radical groups to recruit and control local villages.

But Griffin saw something more than a war-torn people. He saw ingenuity, creative problem-solving, and a seemingly limitless capacity for hope of a better life. He knew he wanted to be part of the solution--not only only to rebuild, but give these people the means to sustain their own prosperity.

Doing Good by Doing Right

“The concept is very simple,” Griffin said in a TED X Tacoma talk. “We were going to take a handful of special operations veterans and deploy back to countries affected by conflict. We were going to take military capacity that was established to manufacture tools for war, and we were going to manufacture commercial products for peace.”

While the concept was simple, creating a company that operates in a conflict zone is a logistical nightmare. But for special ops veterans, it’s what they do best. After all, “Rangers Lead the Way.”

In 2012, he and fellow service member Donald Lee founded Combat Flip Flops in Kabul, with the aim of channeling local people’s innate entrepreneurial spirit in an action they came to refer to as “stoke.”

Flip-flopping the Narrative

Griffin says that his company's mission, “Business, Not Bullets” is flipping the view on how wars are won. “These people don’t want handouts. They want jobs where they can work hard and be proud of their contribution.”

Only 15 percent of Afghani women can read. Combat Flip Flops is changing that.

Combat Flip Flops started small, with just a handful of Afghani makers creating the company’s signature flip-flop, the AK-47. One pair of these shoes provides the resources for an Afghani girl to attend school for up to seven days. 

The flagship product sold so fast that the company could not keep up with the demand. The model quickly scaled to the point where it was offering a broad array of high-quality products like shoes, clothing, and accessories. The facilities are owned and operated by locals in Afghanistan, Columbia, Laos, and by Syrian refugees, and materials are also sourced locally whenever possible. 

Combat Flip Flops has also partnered with local groups that have literally cleaned and lifted up whole communities, such as mine clearance organizations. Local artists in Laos use the reclaimed metals from the cleared mines to form into jewelry and utensils.

Shark Tank Success

One of the growing pains faced by many talented entrepreneurs is the constant need for funding to expand operations.  Luckily, Combat Flip Flops was featured on Shark Tank. Billionaire investors Mark Cuban and Daymond John took a chance on the organization and funded the project in 2016.  With this capital boost, word of mouth has spread, with demand for Combat Flip Flops products rising 600 percent since the company’s appearance on the show.

Airborne Ranger veterans Donald Lee, left, and Matthew Griffin on ABC's hit series "Shark Tank."

Griffin wasn’t kidding when he talked about military capability either: all Combat Flip Flops products are built to last. One blogger wore the AK-47s every day for a whole year and was so impressed with the durability, he bought every person in his family a pair.

Everyone wants to make a difference in the world, but they aren't always too sure where to start. Combat Flip Flops is proof that you can make a big change through the choices that you make every day, and a shining example of how veteran-owned businesses can make a difference in the world.

Griffin also has some sound advice for military in transition to the civilian workforce as well as the veteran community.

"Griff's" top transition tips:

  1. Read/Listen to Dale Carnegie "How to Win Friends and Influence People."  This was a transformational read for me. In a civilian workforce, your team and employees don't have to show up if they don't want to.  And when they don't show, nobody throws them in jail or puts them on extra duty. This is the civilian world and you need to be effective with civilian speak.
  2. Get a counselor.  Whether you believe it or not, you're not a perfect person because you did well in the military.  Transition is tough and hiring a professional to arm you with the tools to combat stress is key to success.  Think of it as a personal trainer for your brain. Your family will thank you.
  3. Slow down.  Personally, I tend to go faster when I get stressed.  This leads to bad results. Live by the SOF mantra, "Slow is smooth.  Smooth is fast."
  4. Give back.  Coach a little league team, join a service group, or plant some trees--whatever.  Servant leadership never ends.
  5. Find your flow.  Find time every week to engage in "flow" activity.  Sports, art, music. It'll be good for you. I promise.

About Combat Flip Flops:To create peaceful, forward-thinking opportunities for self-determined entrepreneurs affected by conflict. Our willingness to take bold risks, community connection, and distinct designs communicate, "Business, Not Bullets"--flipping the view on how wars are won. Through persistence, respect, and creativity, we empower the mindful consumer to manufacture peace through trade. Every product we sell funds a day of school for an Afghan girl or clears landmines. Visit https://www.combatflipflops.com and be the Change.

Elizabeth Anne Hamilton is an Army Brat, Ret, and very proud of it. She is a published author and book marketing specialist, with successful NY Times Bestseller campaigns and Amazon Bestseller campaigns under her belt. Continue the conversation with her on Twitter @pookiegalore.

-- Sean Mclain Brown can be reached at sean.brown@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @seanmclainbrown.

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