Harvard University campus.

Harvard University campus. Getty Images / Bill Ross

We got all six defense-industry stakeholders in a room. Now what?

A unique forum reveals rifts—and potential ways forward—in the quest to improve defense innovation.

Picture the banks of the Charles River, the vibrant hustle of MIT's corridors, the green lawns and serene brick of Harvard Business School. On a Saturday morning, leaders from Silicon Valley and Capitol Hill and the Pentagon are arriving, coffees in hand. They are here for the Harvard-MIT Technology and National Security Conference, an annual gathering that corrals the defense industry’s six types of stakeholders for the urgent quest to accelerate defense innovation.

It's widely acknowledged that the Defense Department needs acquisition reform to maintain a technological advantage over adversaries, yet change has been glacially slow. Perhaps that is because advancing complex reform will take coordinated action between the six major stakeholders: Congress, the DOD, prime contractors, investors, defense techs, and academic institutions. Coordinating efforts between these players is incredibly challenging, starting with the hassle of getting them in the same room. 

Indeed, there is no good forum for these groups to coalesce. Sure, there are large policy and strategy conferences, and vendor conferences plastered with marketing, and massive week-long conferences where everyone’s just as lost in the crowd as we are. All discuss technology and defense. What the defense sector lacks, however, are more intimate opportunities to bring key members of the above six groups together to discuss and drive solutions. 

Against this backdrop, the Harvard and MIT Technology and Security Conference plays a critical and perhaps unique role. For two years now, a small group of students at Harvard Business School and MIT have hosted a conference where we:

A. Bring together the six key stakeholders

B. Energize the structurally slower and more risk-averse stakeholders while simultaneously enabling the faster and risk-on players

C. Engender intimate but aggressive dialogue upon setting conditions A and B

Once we had all six stakeholders in the room, we noticed that they aren’t all the same. DoD, the primes, and academia: these bureaucracies naturally move more slowly. Finance and tech seem eager for the other institutions to modernize, but themselves unable to affect change, and many entities in these sectors are still not interested in contributing directly to national defense. And Congress? Well, it really depends on the member, the problem, and the political winds. But Congress has effective and growingly powerful leaders driving change, like Mike Gallagher (R-WI) who joined us in 2022. 

This conference also has a hidden benefit that is likely more valuable than its original intent: helping to address the extreme lack of diversity within defense tech. The people who comprise the above six groups—here are some demographics on military leadershipVCs and foundersCongressprimes – are predominantly white and male. The industry, heavily prone to groupthink, is not harnessing the full potential of America’s much broader workforce. 

This conference creates opportunities for the diverse, top-tier talent at Harvard and MIT—higher ed admissions has done a better job than our defense community at shaping a generation that looks like this generation of Americans—to network and find work in defense tech. Outside perspective is one our opaque industry desperately needs. 

In its third year, the conference—in early April of 2024—will continue to provide a valuable and intimate forum between the six stakeholders, but it will also refocus on specific solution development. Stay tuned for novel panel structures that push stakeholders to produce the foundations of actual policy changes that can be refined and implemented after the event. This year, the conference will be more than just a conversation, it will be a catalyst for change. 

The final question is: as conference organizers, what stakeholder group are we a part of? We are predominantly MBA students, currently in academia. Many of us will graduate to work in defense tech or finance, though few of us have backgrounds in those spaces. Many of us come from military service or defense contracting. We realized that we were the potential of the primes and of the DoD. Could we be the future too, or help shape it?

Ben Buchheim-Jurisson is a JD/MBA candidate at Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School. He currently works in Mission Development for Swarm Aero and is a former intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force. He holds an BA in Economics and Political Science from the University of Chicago.

Austin Gray is a Masters in Public Administration Candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School. He currently works in Prototyping for the Kyiv Engineering Corps and served as an Intelligence Officer in the U.S. Navy for five years. He holds an MBA from MIT and a BA from Davidson College in Economics and Arab Studies.