For Empower AI’s Chuck Hicks, joining the U.S. Navy was a family tradition. His father, uncle and three brothers all served in the Navy before him, so when it was his turn, he proudly took the oath soon after accepting his high school diploma.
But signing up was a lot more than that for Hicks, who became Empower AI’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer in March 2020 (he joined the company in May 2019 as the CFO). Enlisting in the military was also a chance to leave his small, blue-collar town in Michigan and go somewhere with more opportunities.
As an 18-year-old kid, he had no way of knowing just how much the military experience would affect him.
“It has helped me in a lot of ways, including trying to live every day with purpose,” he said.
From Boot Camp to Bethesda
Hicks said that he was sworn into the Navy during a unique ceremony at a Detroit Tigers baseball game the summer after high school in 1983, where he and 82 other recruits took their oath and watched the baseball game before jumping on a bus to head to Great Lakes for boot camp.
“It was a really cool experience,” Hicks said. “Next to my family, when I think back now about graduating from boot camp, it was one of my proudest moments, and one of the best things I had done up to that point. The military experience really helped me to grow as an individual, person and as a leader.”
After boot camp, Hicks became a Navy corpsman and attended additional training at Fort Sam Houston and Portsmouth Naval Hospital. He eventually got his permanent change of station at Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he served for three years working as a psych counselor. He met with patients every day in one-on-one therapy sessions and led group therapy sessions with service members to help them work through the issues and concerns they had.
“It was very humbling,” he said. “It helped me to think about others, and how everyone responds differently to situations, based on their past experiences, or based on their DNA. It helped me to understand the uniqueness of every individual.”
Hicks explained that the experience and everyone’s “uniqueness” is one of the things he’s tried to bring to his leadership style ever since.
“You have to treat everyone differently,” he said. “You treat everyone with the same level of respect, but what motivates one person doesn’t motivate another. Or how you help one person learn isn’t how someone else might learn.”
In 1987, Hicks transferred to Bethesda Naval Hospital in a “swap” with another corpsman who wanted to be closer to his girlfriend in North Carolina, which turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to him. Being stationed at Bethesda Naval Hospital provided Hicks with the opportunity to become the Leading Petty Officer on his unit providing him with the ability to expand his leadership skills and style. It also gave him the opportunity to experience the diversity of the National Capital Area.
While at Bethesda, Hicks was awarded the Navy Achievement Medal for his performance across activities at the hospital. In 1989, he left the Navy as an “E5” (petty officer, second class) and began attending full-time classes at the University of Maryland. In addition to attending school full time, he worked full time as an adolescent counselor in a residential treatment center for the three years he attended the University of Maryland.
Hicks graduated at 27 with a bachelor’s degree in accounting and was fortunate to be recruited by the Big 6 accounting firms, partly because of his leadership and experiences in the Navy. In 1992, he accepted an offer from Ernst and Young and as an auditor where he worked for six years eventually becoming an audit manager, and his “second” career took off.
Hicks is often asked: How did you make the switch from being a Corpsman to accounting?
“They liked my leadership, psych background and maturity, because for them, success starts with client relationships,” he explained. “And I work every day to instill or portray the importance of relationships and individuality in my leadership style ever since.”
Giving Back to Those Who Served
Today, Hicks uses his military background and focus on relationships every day in his dual role at Empower AI, which he says wouldn’t be possible without the exceptional leadership across the operational and finance teams.
When asked about his dual role, Hicks said, “I absolutely love it,” he said. “The two roles together in one person streamlines a lot of action. And thankfully, I don’t have too many arguments with myself.”
He and Beth now have four children – Alex, 26, Samantha and Ben, 22, and Andrew, 19. And when he’s not working and spending time with his family, he enjoys supporting important causes, including the Boulder Crest Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans, first responders and their families deal with post-traumatic stress, anxiety and depression – a cause that brings everything full circle for Hicks since his days as a psych counselor.
“Fewer than 7 percent of all Americans today have served in uniform. We owe all of them so much for the freedoms we live and experience each and every day,” Hicks said. “I didn’t always give Veterans Day as much thought as I do today until around 2002 when I started supporting the mission of the War on Terror. Seeing the sacrifices of our military firsthand and the struggles of the veterans gave me a greater appreciation for all who served and sacrificed.”
He added: “They say that when you join the military, you sign a check for your life, and you hope it’s not cashed. So, for all our veterans, it’s an important holiday to say, thank you.”