Silicon Valley to Kandahar and back: An executive’s year in Afghanistan

July 1, 2011, 4:43 PM UTC

Afghanistan and Iraq are a world away for most business people. But there’s a class of executives who make the war personal and visceral and real. They’ve traded stable pay and nice perks to live part of their lives in the Reserves or National Guard. One day they’re in their cushy window office. Next day, they’re in a war zone.

Over the coming months, we’ll profile some of these remarkable people who have dual careers. First up: Tim Graczewski, a rising star at software company Intuit and  a Lieutenant in the Naval Reserve. Graczewski, 37, spent most of 2010 working as the lead economic development advisor at NATO’s Regional Command South Headquarters in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. While so many soldiers’ stories are life-changing in the worst way, Graczewski (pronounced Gra-SHEF-ski) came home to a job promotion, a Bronze Star for his military service, and new perspective on work and life. As we celebrate July 4, we’re honored to share Tim Graczewski’s story:

Coming home: Graczewski with Will and Cheryl

Many veterans come back desperate to forget. I’m desperate to remember.

Last summer at this time, I was living with five other guys in an aluminum cube the size of a one-car garage in southern Afghanistan, enduring the scorching heat, powdery dust and rocket attacks that are routine for troops in Kandahar.

I’ve been back at work for six months now. There’s one obvious similarity between my life in Afghanistan and my life in the San Francisco Bay area, where I head Intuit’s QuickBooks and Payroll products internationally: constant interaction with small-business owners. Not so obvious to me until recently are the ways that my “down range” experience resonates and shapes my life today.

Much to my surprise, my tour taught me that small-business owners across the world are pretty much the same. Those in Kandahar province may have less formal education than their American counterparts, but they are every bit as passionate. And they struggle with similar challenges: attracting and retaining new customers, delicately collecting delinquent payments, securing supplies, raising new capital, and battling government bureaucracy. If anything, these men (and they were all men) grasp capitalism on an even more visceral level than Americans do. The Afghans’ ingenuity in the face of daunting obstacles–the lack of basic infrastructure, unrelenting threat of violence–inspired me.

My tour humbled me. Many of my co-workers – both military and civilian, U.S. and allied —were on their fourth or fifth tour. They had previously served in Iraq, Bosnia, the Gaza Strip and other “garden spots” of the world. These soldiers and aid workers, most of them every bit as well-educated and competent as my Silicon Valley executive peers, are on the job seven days a week in an environment Spartan and perilous, away from loved ones for long stretches of time, all for a modest salary.

Shortly after returning home, I went on an international business trip with an Intuit colleague. We were traveling business class. As we boarded the plane, I marveled at our lavish set up – private travel pod, extra wide leather seat, soft blanket and slippers, a bubbling flute of champagne waiting to ease me into the long flight. My colleague surveyed the same scene, but disapprovingly, and remarked a bit sourly that he prefers a different carrier. I brushed it off.  After a year traveling around in windowless military airframes, strapped to a canvas webbed seat and loaded down with body armor, I vowed never to forget how spoiled I am back at home.

I’m spoiled–and lucky. Though I had a relatively safe job (as far as jobs in southern Afghanistan go), I flew in helicopters that were shot at, and once our patrol vehicle rolled off a massive IED that didn’t go off. It gave me a deeper appreciation for the fragility of life and limb.

The lasting impact of my time in Afghanistan hit home early this year when I was in northern India visiting small business owners outside of Delhi. The surroundings reminded me of parts of Kandahar City–narrow, winding, dirty streets choked with pedestrians, rickshaws, flat bread vendors and the occasional barnyard animal. Only this time, I was taking in the sights and sounds and smells through an open window from the front seat of a commercial van, rather than from 12 feet off the ground and through the six-inch Plexiglas porthole of a 90-ton Mine Resistant Ambush Protected armored vehicle.

That day in India, I felt naked and vulnerable. When the van pulled up to our destination, I was hesitant to get out. And when I did, my heart pounded, my throat tightened and my vision narrowed as I waded through the throng of curious onlookers on my way to our appointment.

All was fine, but I found that episode in India to be helpful. And I often use Afghanistan as a yardstick to ground me at work and remind me: What’s the worst that can happen to me at Intuit or any other corporate job, so long as I don’t break the law? Maybe I get fired? I’ll survive. I can still go home, kiss my wife, hug my son and go to sleep in my own bed, with a deeply bruised ego but in full possession of all my appendages and mental faculties.

Not a bad deal, when you consider what a “bad day” looks like for service members in Kandahar.

Many people at work and in my neighborhood tell me that they look at my service as sacrifice. It was, in many ways. But, on balance, I gained far more from my year in Afghanistan than I gave. For that, I’m most thankful, and I hope I never forget.

More on Tim Graczewski 

Lieutenant Tim Graczewski on patrol in Kandahar province

Raised in a working-class Connecticut family (his dad sold Ford cars and his mother packed boxes at a clothing distribution center), Graczewski earned C’s in high school while steering his energy to captaining the varsity football team. He found his calling, international affairs, in college and went on to the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) and a job at the Pentagon. Lured by the first dot-com boom,he moved to Silicon Valley in 2000. He spent seven years at Oracle , doing M&A, before joining Intuit as director of strategy and corporate development, in 2007.

It was March 2003, two days before America invaded Iraq, when Graczewski and his wife, Cheryl, had their son, Will. Becoming a father made Graczewski think about the future and his role in it. He decided to pursue a direct commission into the U.S. Navy Reserve, as an intelligence officer. Like other Reservists, he paid his dues–one weekend a month close to home and two weeks every summer away for training. Until, that is, orders came for a 420-day deployment to Afghanistan.

As the lead economic development officer at NATO’s Regional Command South, in Kandahar, Graczewski worked on various counterinsurgency initiatives–improving the availability of electrical power to Kandahar City, rehabbing an industrial park, renovating the region’s only international airport, helping farmers export pomegranates to Dubai. The latter was a big achievement, since that sort of trade had stopped 40 years before. Graczewski kept a blog, Down Range, about his adventures in Kandahar. Fans of the blog include Intuit CEO Brad Smith and Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist Randy Komisar. You can read it by clicking here.