Tony Teravainen '12

Chief Executive Officer

Monday, February 17, 2020

Headshot of alumnus Teravainen
begin quoteTeravainen has received numerous honors and awards for his leadership and impact on the Southern California veteran community. As a military child and veteran himself, his story came full circle when he founded STEP.

Support the Enlisted Project

Tracing the path of Tony Teravainen’s personal, academic and professional journey is a bit like putting together an intricately designed puzzle. Even as things start to come together and patterns start to form, it isn’t until a few critical pieces fall into place that things begin to really make sense—and the essence of what it is you’re building comes into focus.

The son of a career airman in the U.S. Air Force, Teravainen’s early years were spent frequently on the move and, consequently, in and out of different schools. Recalling a popular quote from an unknown author “Military kids say goodbye more often in their first few years than the average person does in a lifetime”, Teravainen likens his transition from high schooler to electrical engineering undergrad to transitioning out of the military and into civilian life.

“I didn’t understand the culture,” he said. “It was uncomfortable—I felt like I wasn’t really like anyone else there.”

He decided to join the U.S. Navy, where he spent eight and a half years operating and maintaining nuclear reactors in the submarine force. Set to embark on his third tour, it was determined Teravainen was medically unfit for service.  

“I was 26 years old, and the only life I’d ever known had been taken away,” he said.

Teravainen took an opportunity as a maintenance mechanic at Sony Electronics, where he was able to transfer the technical skills he had gained in the Navy to the company’s automated manufacturing operations. As he worked his way up to Chief Maintenance Engineer and expanded his responsibilities, he was required to possess various degrees. Undaunted by this notion, he went back to school to earn a bachelor’s degree in both business management and nuclear engineering technology.

After 12 years at Sony, the factory was shuttered, but Teravainen then fell back on some entrepreneurial ventures he had started. Following the Great Recession, he transitioned to a consulting role at Booz Allen Hamilton. Meeting with C-level clients—many of whom possessed advanced business degrees—he realized that if people were going to be coming to him for guidance on organizational strategy, it was time to take his business acumen to the next level. But having already established successful businesses, an MBA didn’t fit the bill for what he was looking for—a program that allowed him to harness his professional experience and natural servant leadership skills to lead at his very highest level.

“That’s exactly what the Master’s in Executive Leadership program gave me,” he said.

The Master of Science in Executive Leadership (MSEL) at the University of San Diego School of Business is designed for established and emerging leaders to enhance their business acumen while also gaining a deeper understanding of who they are as leaders in order to unleash their leadership potential—an element of the program that, for Teravainen, turned out to be a key piece to his personal and professional story.

“We started by learning not just who we are, but why we are that way,” he said. “I had a lot of stuff in my history that I was still trying to deal with; I had to verbalize some of that to myself and to my classmates, who supported me wholeheartedly. That was a giant moment for me—being able to understand and accept who I am both as a person and as a leader.”

While at USD, Teravainen worked with, Operation Homefront, a nonprofit committed to helping military families. As he was graduating in 2012, he had the opportunity to take the business skills and servant leadership principles he gained at USD to start his own nonprofit serving Southern California’s young military families.  

“I now had this leadership degree with a business focus in the servant leadership form, in which influence is not command,” he said. “In order to influence people to perform in these challenging environments, it has to be through a servant leadership style, which the MSEL program solidified in me.”

As CEO and co-founder of Support The Enlisted Project (STEP), a nonprofit dedicated to helping young military families in financial crisis across Southern California, Teravainen understands the importance of leading with a servant’s heart, both in managing high-performing teams and engaging the community for fundraising purposes.

“It’s about making a business proposition that speaks to people’s hearts and inspires them to invest in our dream and vision,” he said. “It really comes back to the servant leadership principles taught at USD. We’re creating value for the community, but also all of our stakeholders, including donors, partners and the military families we’re serving.”

In founding and leading STEP, Teravainen’s story has come full circle. As both the child of a military family and a veteran himself, he recognizes the struggles his clients face, treating each family who walks through the door as if they were his own—because in a way, they are.

“I am always trying to pull together all these different pieces, and USD provided such an integral foundation for that,” he said. “Everything came into alignment—my heart, my mind, my dreams and my experiences—and cemented those pieces together, empowering me to take that next step in serving my community.”

Teravainen received the 2019 San Diego County Salute to Service Award, has been nominated for San Diego County’s Veteran of the Year for the past three consecutive years and has received numerous other honors and awards for his leadership and impact on the Southern California veteran community.

On March 11, 2020, he will be speaking at Seven-by-Seven, USD’s unique version of a TED Talk-style event in which seven notable USD alumni share their stories highlighting leadership, creativity and innovation, in 7 minutes each.


Renata Ramirez
(619) 260-4658