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Jason Hardebeck: From the love of sport to infinity and beyond

U.S. Naval Academy alumnus set his sights on becoming an entrepreneur

When Jason Hardebeck entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1983, he wanted to be an F-14 Tomcat fighter jet pilot before moving on to become an astronaut. His dreams to soar were inspired by the newly released Hollywood blockbuster movie Top Gun. But much as Tom Cruise’s character Maverick’s journey didn’t turn out as planned, neither did Hardebeck’s. 

For Hardebeck, life began to change when he learned his eyesight had deteriorated to the point that he would not be allowed to be a Navy pilot. He was a junior mechanical engineering student at the time competing in the sport of high-powered rifle. It was then that Hardebeck decided to go into nuclear power and use his aptitude for engineering to his advantage. 

His 20/25 eyesight kept him out of the cockpit but not from competing as an expert marksman on the Navy’s high-powered rifle team.

“You do think of rifle as an individual sport, and there are individual rankings and competitions, but the team competition is still the aggregate of every individual,” he said. “Our matches were held on weekends, holidays and during the summer.”

As a student at a military academy, he didn’t have a lot of free time to begin with.  Having to compete when other cadets had time off was quite a sacrifice. But compete he did saying he and his fellow riflemen enjoyed the true sense of camaraderie that came naturally as members of the rifle team. 

“We did it because we enjoyed it. We were a team and we helped each other,” Hardebeck fondly recalls. 

Being a student-athlete at one of the military service academies is an incredibly demanding experience.  As students, midshipmen are on active duty in the U.S. Navy. The academics are rigorous and most know there’s no real chance to compete athletically at the next level. Like his peers, the Montana native focused on academics and competed athletically for the love of sport.

Being at the Naval Academy means being surrounded by amazing people in a highly competitive environment. About seven percent of all applicants are admitted annually and all of those who are admitted are endorsed by their local members of Congress or the vice president of the United States.  Incoming freshmen are “plebes” and when they arrive at the “Yard” in Annapolis, Maryland, they do so as high academic achievers. Many are also standouts in their high school sport. 

 “I’ll never be the fastest or smartest, but I’ll always be there hanging on the pant leg never letting go,” is how he describes himself.

Upon graduating and receiving a commission, he served one tour of duty as a surface warfare officer dealing with nuclear reactors. He then transitioned to the civilian world where he was exposed to the excitement of the startup business world by working in large and small companies in several different industries. Throughout it all, he kept his sights set on starting his own company someday.

He focused on becoming an entrepreneur because it stood out as something he could compete in and ultimately be successful.

Hardebeck has exceeded his dream of starting a business; in the last 20 years, he’s been a founder and/or early employee in several startup business ventures and in 2000, he started his own technology company. In 12 years that spanned the prosperous dot-com boom, he grew the company to the point where he could sell it while still participating on a strategic level.

Today, he feeds his entrepreneurial spirit as an an investor and a partner with DreamIt Ventures, an early stage venture firm and technology accelerator.

When asked what his go-to business advice is, he said experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want. 

Last summer, Hardebeck had laser surgery that restored his eyesight back to his pre-Naval Academy student-athlete days. When asked if he had any regrets about not becoming a Navy pilot and then astronaut, he said he’s never viewed that career-altering moment negatively. 

“Failure with a lower case ‘f’ is a lesson, an experience,” Hardebeck said.   

“If I had become a pilot, my career path would have been completely different, and I most likely wouldn’t be doing what I am now,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade my experience both in the Navy and what I’ve done after … no regrets.” 

Biography

Jason Hardebeck

Entrepreneur, businessman

Hometown: Hawthorne, Nevada and Great Falls, Montana

Current City:  Baltimore, Maryland

School: Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, U.S. Naval Academy, 1987; master’s degree in business from Johns Hopkins University

Sport: High-Powered rifle

Fun Fact:  He enjoys running and woodworking; lives vicariously through the NASA space odysseys of his former Naval Academy classmates  - Sunita Williams (former American astronaut who holds the records for longest single space flight by a woman, total spacewalks by a woman, and most spacewalk time for a woman) and Ken Hamm  (commander of two shuttle missions).