Mass shootings continue to plague the United States. Despite being a tragedy pretty much isolated to the U.S., few policymakers or law enforcement agencies have been able to come up with any meaningful solutions. Two current MBAs are spending their time in business school launching a startup that is trying to do just that.
Jake Ahle, who will be starting his second year at Harvard Business School this fall, and Tom Ankenbauer, who is starting his second year at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, have launched a company called ProtectED, which sells bullet-resistant bookcases for classrooms and office spaces.
“The bookcase does everything that it should do in that it’s a functional piece of furniture,” Ahle tells Poets&Quants on a phone call. “It doesn’t look like anything besides a bookcase, so you’re not sacrificing psychological security. Most importantly, it can be rapidly employed because it can be in every school or office building and it immediately locks down a door. It becomes an active solution to stopping an assailant from accessing people indoors.”
AN EARLY CAREER IN THE MILITARY
He’s right. The bookcases do look like normal bookcases. But they also have a built-in sheet of bullet-resistant fiberglass and can be moved easily across a room to lock in place in front of a door. Ahle says at least two major furniture manufacturers have signed on and despite being only a little more than a year into the business, ProtectED is already generating enough revenue to cover all costs.
The idea came to Ahle and Ankenbauer in a bit of a serendipitous way — while actively serving overseas for the U.S. military. Ahle grew up outside of Philadelphia in New Jersey with a single mother and older sister. Majoring in economics at the Pennsylvania State University, Ahle joined the school’s ROTC program to pay for college.
“When I originally joined the Army through the ROTC as an undergraduate it was more out of a necessity to pay for school than it was from some deep patriotic passion I had,” Ahle explains. “It was never something I saw myself doing as a long-term career.”
But Ahle ended up loving and developing a passion for the military and working with soldiers. So after college, Ahle graduated from airborne and U.S. Army Ranger school and became an Army Infantry Officer, and was deployed to Northeast Italy as a platoon leader. After those three years, Ahle completed training to be part of a specialized unit called the Asymmetric Warfare Group.
FROM THE MILITARY TO CAMBRIDGE
As Ahle advanced in his military career, he got further and further away from what he enjoyed about the military, which was working with soldiers. His passion for economics and business persisted. And Ahle knew he’d developed leadership and management chops as an Army officer. “It was a very natural transition, as many other officers before me have done, to go to business school,” Ahle recalls. “It seemed like it was the best degree or experience I could have that would pair with my leadership education from the Army to really do something great.”
Plus, Ahle says, he was tired of another aspect of the military that he thought business school could help solve.
“After years of not just listening to a boss, but actually taking orders, it was something I never wanted to do again,” Ahle says. “So I really wanted to become an entrepreneur. But I didn’t know what the hell that meant and business school seemed like the best place to figure it out.”
So Ahle applied to the major Mid-Atlantic and East Coast M7 MBA programs while deployed in the Middle East, which he says was “definitely a unique experience.” In particular, Ahle had some uncouth testing conditions compared to his fellow Americans applying to top-shelf business schools, taking the GMAT “in a classroom with a computer from 2004 without air conditioning.”
THE GENESIS OF THE IDEA
All the while, Ahle was scheming to do this with his long-term military friend, Ankenbauer. They both applied to the same business schools in hopes of both landing at the same one, or at least two close together. “That was so we could learn different things and leverage those things into starting a company that is going to have an impact,” Ahle elaborates. Ahle was accepted to Harvard Business School and Ankenbauer into MIT’s Sloan School to start in the fall of 2019.
But they both had an opportunity to deploy on one final cycle with the Asymmetric Warfare Group, which they did and deferred their admission to 2020. On one hand, that ended up being a bit of a bummer as they essentially deferred into the “COVID year” of business school. But on the other hand, the serendipitous moment happened by meeting Pete Facchini, another Army vet.
Facchini was deployed in the Middle East when he learned about the Virginia Tech mass shooting in 2007. The shooting took place in multiple buildings and over the span of hours as 32 people were murdered and dozens more were injured from shots fired or jumping out of windows to escape. Facchini learned many of the victims were trapped in dorm rooms or classrooms with no way to safely barricade themselves. Five years later, the horrific Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which ended in the murder of 20 elementary school children and six adult staff members, hit Facchini very personally as the husband of an elementary school teacher and father of three children.
APPLYING MILITARY SKILLS AND TRAINING TO A POTENTIAL SOLUTION
All the while, Facchini knew he could develop a product to solve a part of the problem. He was an expert Special Operations breacher. Like many other military personnel, Facchini knew how to break into buildings and rooms. And he also knew how to keep people trained like himself from entering into buildings and rooms. And then in late 2019, he met two young officers getting ready to start their MBA programs at two of the best business schools in the world.
“We are the people in the U.S. who are trained much like a SWAT team is trained or certain elements of a police department,” Ahle says. “We actually receive training on how to conduct these types of operations with rifles and different types of guns — this very dangerous stuff that the average person doesn’t get trained on and really doesn’t understand. We have a unique knowledge and awareness of every time there is one of these mass shootings or active shooter situations where people get stuck indoors, we understand the perspective on how it happens and how there were casualties.”
As someone who had also seen people getting caught in rooms in the Middle East and growing up in a time of mass shootings — many of which involved schools — dating back to the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, both Ahle and Ankenbauer were very interested in pursuing Facchini’s idea of putting bullet-resistant barriers into classrooms and offices.
“These shootings are happening but there haven’t been any real solutions,” Ahle says. “And we were shocked because if something goes wrong on an airplane, let’s say, everything is stopped until a solution is created and then implemented so that it never happens again. And we were like, how the hell are we still in a place where somebody can walk into a school, or an office, or newspaper, or whatever it is and still get away with this? Forget the fact that there are too many guns in the United States. That is its own problem. But until you solve that, why is there not some type of defense to protect people?”
Enter the ProtectED bullet-resistant bookcase.
ONLY EXPLOSIVES WERE ABLE TO BREAK THROUGH THE BOOKCASES
The team thought of everything they have been trained to do to break into a space and then came up with a solution to stop it. Once they had the concept and product, they began testing it. “We’ve had a few fun nights,” Ahle laughs. The team took it to co-founder and Chief of Product, Tim Cahalin’s large plot of land in the woods in central New Jersey to conduct ballistic testing. They’ve also had military and SWAT units test it during training events.
“They could not get into the room that was blocked by our bookcase until they used explosives,” Ahle says. “Only after explosives were they able to get in. Of course, our product isn’t rated to withstand rocket-propelled grenades.”
The summer before Ahle and Ankenbauer entered B-school, they took the product to a school district for the first time to see how it would look and work in a classroom setting. The superintendent of the school district happened to be in the building on the same day and asked what they were doing. The team told him. “On the spot, he said, ‘this is everything I’ve been telling my security office I’ve wanted. I want it. I want ten,'” Ahle says.
This past February, the first concept was finally ready to sell, which it did — to the same superintendent and school district. Other school districts in the area learned about the product and reached out as well. Then Colorado State University’s security office reached out about wanting some. “After one sell, we’ve had all of this demand coming in,” Ahle says.
STRONG EARLY GROWTH
Launching this company while in business school has been clutch for Ahle and Ankenbauer. “One of the coolest things is immediately applying what your learning in class and applying it to what you’re doing at night, which for us was starting this business,” Ahle says.
Besides classes like first-year accounting and the Entrepreneurial Manager, Ahle says access to entrepreneurs in residence at MIT and HBS have been helpful as well as weekly calls with the MIT Entrepreneurial Network. Ahle and Ankenbauer have also tapped into students at Harvard and Boston University Law Schools to handle all contracts and other legalities they’ve needed to work through.
Ahle says the trajectory of the company will allow both him and Ankenbauer to comfortably work full-time at ProctedEd after graduation, which is exactly what the two set out to do when they decided to go to business school in the first place.
“All of that stuff about needing to implement more psychological and mental health services or implementing more cameras, all of that stuff is true,” Ahle says. “And all of that stuff should be implemented in turn. But all of that stuff isn’t stopping people today. Psychologists can’t prevent somebody from walking into a school or office. And when the attack begins, something has to be there to protect people.”