Erik Prince standing in front of a firetruck.

Erik Prince

Written by Nathan Prigmore

In 1989, when Erik Prince moved in across the street from Hillsdale’s religion professor Dr. Don Westblade and his wife, they thought he was a wealthy man hailing from Holland and descended from royalty—not a bad guess for what was to come.

Erik Prince graduated from Hillsdale College in 1992, and after college, he joined the Navy and the U.S. Navy SEALs. After his service, he founded Blackwater, one of the most successful private security contractor organizations in history, and today he continues to pursue similar work across the globe.

Prince began his higher education with a brief tri-semester stint at the Naval Academy, but after his freshman year, he was already considering other options. He decided to transfer to Hillsdale College, and he attributes much of his business and personal success to what he learned after transferring to Hillsdale.

“The economic and business education, even the politics side, gave me the ability to analyze economies, trends, and societies, to figure out what makes people upset, and what people will fight for,” Prince said.

The College’s celebration of free-market principles appealed to Prince, culminating in an Economics major and Political Science minor. He enjoyed reading about the Austrians and their passion for limited government intervention.

“Studying how economies are built from the micro-level, not from grand pronouncements from government organizations was key. The decisions made at the micro-level by the farmer—whether he should plant—and the shop owner—whether he should expand, what inventory to carry, etcetera—gave me a much better understanding of business,” he said.

Prince took the Foundations of the American Government course, similar to the Constitution 101 course that the college currently offers. “He knew a lot about politics coming in,” politics professor Mickey Craig said, who had Prince as a student. “Erik had a good sense of humor, but a serious purpose in life.”

Former Hillsdale College professor Alexander Stromas inspired Prince after he learned that Stromas was a Lithuanian exile during the Cold War. Stromas appealed even more to Prince after he learned that he also went to law school with Mikhail Gorbachev.

“Hearing Stromas talk about the politics of the Soviet Union, the inner circle, and the Politburo, knowing many of the people that were there, was a phenomenal insight into that major part of world history,” Prince said.

It is unsurprising that this international aspect appealed to Prince. Today, he lives in the Middle East, does business in Africa, and has seemingly been everywhere if one adds up his time as a Navy SEAL and founder of Blackwater.

Prince’s economics education also helped him take what he had learned growing up in Holland, Michigan, and apply it to the global scene.

As an entrepreneur, Prince gained much of his knowledge of how to run a successful business from his father, Edgar Prince, who founded Prince Machine Corporation in 1965. PMC became a vastly successful firm in the auto industry and employed more workers than any other business in Holland at the time.

His message to future entrepreneurs coming out of Hillsdale is simple: “You have to love what you’re going to try. It’s going to consume your time and your mind and your passions. Doing it out of college is a good idea because you’re generally single, unattached. And if it works, great! If not, there’s always the couch at your mom and dad’s house or at your buddy’s house you could sleep on. So there’s not that far you can crash.”

He added, “Work hard while you’re in school. Focus on doing the basics well. What you do over those four years heavily influences what you do for the rest of your career. Push yourself into unchartered waters, go do a foreign exchange program, learn a language, learn Mandarin, learn French, learn German. Learn as best you can how the rest of the world does business. America has to compete not only with itself, but on a global basis, and employment opportunities open up greatly if they’re willing to push out into new and different areas and understand a way to add value to the business situation.”

Prince took full advantage of unconventional opportunities during his time at Hillsdale, as his Hillsdale education was two-fold: he took on a full academic schedule and was heavily involved in the city.

Explaining his motivation for this, Prince advised students to “focus on learning, reading, and devouring information” in many different circumstances. In this way, he says, students can optimize their Hillsdale experience.

While a student, Prince devoured information as a volunteer firefighter for the Hillsdale City Fire Department and as a rescue diver for the Sheriff’s Department.

“Unless you go back to the horse-and-buggy days of firefighting, there had never been any college students on the Department,” Deputy Fire Chief Kevin Pauken said. “When he first came on, he was the first one to ever show any interest.”

Prince’s interest in the Fire Department was initially met with tension: “I definitely felt a standoff between me and the other firefighters,” Prince said. The other firefighters initially thought of him as a “snot-nosed college kid.”

“I learned to be a leader by first learning to be a follower,” Prince said. “To convince them that I wanted to join the fire department, I had to earn their confidence. I was always the last one rolling up hoses while the other volunteers would sit back and crack open a drink after a call. I learned to relate to those guys better, which helped me to better relate to enlisted guys going through BUD/S and the SEAL Teams.”

What final worldly advice did Prince have for Hillsdale students? It’s simple: “fall down two times, get up three.” Not surprising coming from a former Navy SEAL.

Source: The Hillsdale Collegian 

Nathan Prigmore is a junior majoring in marketing with minors in Latin and history. He works for the Hillsdale City Fire Department and writes for the Collegian.