ND Founders Profile #151: The Founder Is Leveraging His Major Career to Help Other Minorities Rise to the Challenge

Author: Melanie Lux


Company Founded: Resolve Solutions Incoporated Anticipated Graduation Year: 2025
Title: Founder & Executive Director Degree: EMNA, Executive Master Nonprofit Administration
Location: Alexandria, VA Residence Hall: NA

E. Sean Lanier, a retired major in the United States Army, founder of the non-profit Resolve Solutions and University of Notre Dame graduate student, says that every person he meets leaves a fingerprint on his life. Now it’s time to leave fingerprints of his own.

When Lanier was five years old, his father, a Vietnam War medevac pilot later with the Virginia National Guard, took him on a helicopter ride in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The “M*A*S*H” helicopter didn’t have doors. Soaring over the Smoky Mountains with his father was both thrilling and terrifying. The experience left an indelible mark. “I wanted to be a pilot.”

His mother also left her fingerprints on her son. A voracious reader, she’d take him to the library each week, where they’d each select a stack of books, igniting a love of learning. Says Lanier with a nostalgic smile, “Mine were on aviation.”

She also taught him self-confidence. Starting when he was just six, every summer she would put Lanier on a plane to Dallas, Texas, to visit family. He flew alone, without fear, focused on the journey and the fun ahead.

Throughout high school, there was never any talk of Lanier going to college, mainly because it was understood that the most realistic path to becoming a pilot was through the military requiring a four-year degree. Raised by his single mother, college seemed out of reach. Wanting to be a pilot, he decided the military was the way to go. Then, the Virginia Military Institute entered the picture, with a scholarship designated for his high school, the opportunity to run track and variety of choices of military service.

Founded in 1839, Virginia Military Institute (VMI) is the oldest military college in America, known for its rigorous academics, athletics, military training, and distinguished alumni. Among the most notable being General George C. Marshall, who was lauded for his leadership of the Allied victory in World War II, served as Secretary of State and Secretary of State, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, the only Army general ever to receive the honor. To this day, VMI’s mission is to produce leaders of impeccable character and absolute integrity.

Seeing it as an opportunity to fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a pilot, Lanier accepted PHS-VMI’s scholarship offer. Once on campus, he found out college was not all fun and games. He was academically unprepared for life as a student-cadet-athlete. He did so poorly, he was suspended for a semester.

“My friends back home blamed my failure on VMI, but it was on me. My priorities were not in alignment; I didn’t study effectively. I was blowing my opportunity to be a pilot,” he says.

Unwilling to give up his dream, Lanier persevered. He enlisted in the Army Reserves before returning to VMI, and ultimately earned a degree in History. “The experience at VMI taught me if I could overcome my difficulties, I could do anything.”

That “anything” would be tested during Lanier’s active-duty Army career, which formally began in 1995. During flight school, he again struggled. Fortunately, his instructor pilots were Vietnam War veterans, more analog in their instruction versus digital and thus better at assessing learning patterns and adjusting their teaching. Lanier made it through. It wasn’t until eight years later, in 2002, that he was diagnosed with dyslexia, which explained why he had to read things two and three times to fully comprehend information.

These hurdles didn’t hold him back, not in the least. Lanier served in leadership roles as an aviator and multi-functional logistician, and over the next 24 years he completed three tours overseas and 6 deployments. This includes South Korea, Germany, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Italy, Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan (2). With each new country, he taught himself the local language, and today, he speaks five languages. “People respect and appreciate you more when you speak the local language and immerse yourself in the culture,” he says.

During his Army career, Lanier worked under then Brigadier General David Petraeus in Bosnia. Somehow, the future four-star general caught wind that Lanier was thinking of leaving the Army and gave orders for him to return to the states, which would lead to his assignment to Germany, Italy and eventually Afghanistan. Dutifully, Lanier successfully accomplished his assignments and joined the Third Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division for Operation Iraqi Freedom where he provided full spectrum logistical support for 4,400 plus soldiers and civilians with Petraeus as the commanding general of Multi-National Forces–Iraq. The deployment would test his mettle to the core.

“Bad stuff was going on in Iraq. For the first time in my life, I was afraid I wasn’t coming home. There was no base with infrastructure, just dirt, and I was working 16- to 20-hour days, seven days a week taking care of thousands of people. Iraq is where I relearned how to be a soldier. It turned out to be the best assignment of my career.”

He adds, “While I was in Iraq, having shouldered intense responsibility, I ran into General Petraeus. He gave me a look like he knew something I didn’t. Looking back, I think he recognized me as a McGyver-type leader, having the ability to make the most with minimal resources; someone who identifies a problem and solves it, repeating that regardless of how austere the conditions and motivating others to be just as resilient.”

Shortly before retiring from the Army in 2015 with the rank of major, Lanier became acutely aware of the fact that the U.S. military, military academies, and senior military colleges like VMI, The Citadel, West Point, the Naval Academy, and others had a serious problem recruiting and retaining African-American men. Equally troubling, not much was being done holistically to change it.

“VMI hosted a diversity conference and invited me in 2013. I was one of only nearly 30 African American guys there (out of nearly 1000). There were very few women and Latinos. Later, speaking with other Black alumni, I found many were still bruised by their experiences and were largely ashamed rather than proud of the school they’d attended,” Lanier says.

Digging deeper, he determined his lack of academic preparedness for military schools was common among minorities. “The military academies and the Department of Defense were recruiting minority kids at great cost only to have them drop out of school and lose their commissions. The Army alone spends almost $300 million a year on ROTC scholarships, but only 52 percent of those students graduate and commission within a five-year period.”

Lanier continues, “I was one of the exceptions. I fell for the military hook, line, and sinker, I fought my way back to school, and had a great military career. So I committed myself to finding solutions.”

In 2018, Lanier founded a non-profit called Resolve Solutions to help under-represented and underserved kids prepare for and earn ROTC scholarships or into the service academies—Naval Academy, Merchant Marine Academy, West Point, Air Force Academy, and Coast Guard Academy—and achieving roles as military officers, captains of industry and government leaders. He began by crafting a multi-pronged platform of support adapted to each young person’s needs.

“We came up with a program to get kids through, starting with college prep that helps kids with standardized testing and finding the right schools; mentoring so there’s always someone for them to learn from and lean into. We also help with internships and professional networking to position them for careers. But one of the most valuable things we do is our Summer Bridge Programs that help kids bridge the gap between high school and college so when they step on campus freshman year; they are up to the task academically and confidence-wise.”

The Summer Bridge Program is an investment with a high rate of return. For example, the annual tuition at one of the senior military colleges is $30,000 yearly for in-state students and $60,000 for out-of-state students. The Bridge Program’s month-long immersive coaching and learning costs $3,000 in-state and $5,000 for out-of-state students. Resolve Solutions covers the cost of the program with the help of donations.

“Kids who go through the Bridge Program improve their graduation rate and likelihood of commissioning into the military to 90 percent. Investing in this preserves the ROTC scholarship investment valued at nearly $100k for an in-state student, or over $200k for an out-of-state student, instead of wasting taxpayer dollars,” Lanier says.

Another unique offering of Resolve Solutions is foreign language immersion. Students are encouraged to learn languages in high demand by the U.S. military, government, and foreign services, such as Chinese, Russian, Arabic, and Korean. Being multi-lingual enables them to compete for more advanced study abroad programs. One hundred percent of students who go overseas graduate and commission.

Says Lanier, “Learning languages and experiencing other countries changes how young people see the world. We've sent a first-generation American (of Honduran descent) girl to Portugal, which set her up to go to Brazil and law school after being commissioned as an Army officer. We sent a Black girl from Howard University to Amman, Jordan, followed by Dubai, UAE. Both young women and many others like them are now prepared to be better officers and leaders and have effectively enticed others to seek out these opportunities.”

When Lanier founded Resolve Solutions in 2018, he went directly to high schools to recommend students who would benefit from the program. The focus then shifted to college fairs to speak with school career counselors. Those who expressed interest in Resolve Solutions were prioritized as a potential funnel for students.

Says Lanier, “If you can help a principal or career counselor help a student get scholarship money, graduate, and be successful, they will work with you.”

Today, Lanier says he is concentrating recruiting efforts by working with multi-state organizations like the West Point Field Force and the National College Resources Foundation to reach more kids who need a fighting chance. While the West Point Field Force is recruiting specifically for West Point, the Foundation’s mission is to curtail the high school dropout rate and increase degree and certificate enrollment among underserved, underrepresented, at-risk, low-resource, homeless, and foster students. Both are fertile ground for Resource Solutions.

“Our goal is to reach 500 students a year,” Lanier says. “Some may think about ROTC as a path, but most are not. With the ROTC offering up to five years of scholarship money, more kids who otherwise wouldn’t have a means of going to college should consider it. We are looking for kids with resiliency and grit, who don’t quit, who are honest and smart, and who cheer for the team, not themselves.”

In 2021, Lanier realized he needed to add to his knowledge base and began researching schools that offered an Executive Master’s in Nonprofit Administration. He was looking online at a doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania when Notre Dame popped up. “I did a call with Notre Dame, and within 24 hours, they followed up with me. I reviewed the school’s values, messaging, videos, and student statements. It was the first degree I truly wanted to pursue.”

Lanier admits he was not caught up in Notre Dame’s mystique as a kid, but when he arrived on campus, it just felt right. “Everyone I met asked how they could help me. They know if you’re there, you’re there for a reason. Notre Dame does everything at a high level to help you be the best you. The hardest part about Notre Dame is that expectations are very high. Students should make the most of their time at Notre Dame.

He adds, “Which I am doing.” (Lanier graduates in Spring 2025.)

Lanier says the biggest challenge to date is one many founders will appreciate: raising money. But instead of pitching venture groups, he’s pitching individual, corporate, and philanthropic donors. He also wants to pursue more grants, which takes time and money.

“Starting a non-profit brings special nuances and complexities,” Lanier says. “People don’t understand that you need to efficiently scale up while funding to hire staff and set up and run the operation. Sponsoring kids is just part of it.”

He has also been ghosted by individuals who made verbal commitments to donate and did not fulfill their promises. “One potential donor said to return later, and he’d finalize his donation. I reached out to him two days before Christmas, and he’d changed his mind. The rejection was tough to take. Another donor backed out because of politics. I had expected to raise $300,000 and instead raised $3,000.”

The rejection was more painful because Lanier had built a plan and hired people based on the anticipated donations. “I should have scaled step-by-step. But I’m a very resilient person, and we’ve kept going. It hurts knowing we could have had more success stories if those donations had come through. You have to have staff and infrastructure to help the kids.”

The wins Resolve Solutions has achieved far outweigh the difficulties. Lanier only has to look at his undergraduate alma mater, VMI, for a huge win. “People bet against me in making VMI more diverse. The common perception was that Blacks didn’t want to go to VMI unless it somehow focused on athletics. Yet thanks in part to the efforts of Resolve Solutions, eight of the last ten years have had the most diverse classes in VMI’s history.”

He continues, “When I got involved, VMI had less than four Black students graduate and commission in a year. Now it’s up to 20 a year. Seeing the changes at VMI is gratifying. Bringing students who are better qualified and better prepared is the key. Seeing this success, we’re going to keep grinding away.”

To inspire other young people to aim high and keep going, Lanier proudly features success stories of those who have received ROTC scholarships, learned foreign languages, graduated college or military academy, and entered the military. A recent success is Mariah Woods, the daughter of immigrant parents from California. She earned a four-year ROTC and soccer scholarship to attend VMI and will start working toward her master’s degree at the Notre Dame Mendoza School of Business in the fall of 2024.

“This is huge!” Lanier exclaims. “I am so excited by Mariah and all of Resolve’s students and the stories they will tell in 20 to 30 years. We’re planting seeds for the future.”

Lanier offers this advice to those who want to start a nonprofit or for-profit company. “Know going in that the odds are against you. It’s easier to deal with setbacks when you understand that’s part of it. When you get punched in the gut, keep going.”

Originally published by Melanie Lux at ideacenter.nd.edu on March 06, 2024.