Veteran Entrepreneur Spotlight:

Daniella Mestyanek Young

You’re in a cult.

It’s a phrase people casually use in reference to rabid consumers all the time. The lines of customers queuing up to upgrade to the latest Apple iPhone every year come to mind. Really, any brand or product that consumers treat not just as a product, but as part of their identity and lifestyle might spark accusations of cult-like devotion. Consumers will go to great lengths to defend such brands, no matter the empirical evidence that a competitor is superior, or that the company might have engaged in unethical behavior.

You might think “Well, that’s just hyperbole. It’s not really a cult.”

Daniella’s Military Experience

Daniella served as an Army Intelligence Officer from 2009 to 2015, deploying twice in Afghanistan with the 101st. In 2011, she was among 43 female volunteers to join the Army’s experimental Female Engagement Team (FET), which attached to combat patrol units. As a result, she was among the first female US Army personnel sent into “deliberate combat duty”, which isn’t to say women haven’t fought and died in our armed forces since the Revolutionary War, but her service represents a step forward toward by the US Army in recognizing and including women in all military operations.

When she returned to Fort Campbell after her first deployment, she participated in a research project that led to the development of armored vests fitted for Army women, which she then got to wear during her second deployment. Not long after, she separated from the Army at the rank of Captain, and married Tom Young, a helicopter pilot she had grown close to over deployment. After her service, she has made use of the VA’s Veteran Readiness and Employment Program (formerly known as Vocational Rehabilitation), a GI Bill-like program for disabled veterans seeking higher education and job training.

Daniella Mestyanek Young is here to explore what exactly makes a cult, explore cult behavior and conditioning techniques, and where it can be a positive force for society or your business, and where it can go wrong and empower bad people and ideas.

Daniella was born to high-ranking members of an authoritarian Christian cult known as the Children of God. She was trafficked around the world, living in communes known for physical and sexual abuse. She escaped at 15, putting herself through high school and college. She joined the Army as an officer, and immediately recognized many of the indoctrination techniques from her upbringing within the Children of God. Sexual abuse, too, had a strong presence in both organizations.

So, where’s the line? What’s the difference between Apple, the US Army, and the Children of God? Daniella has carved out an entrepreneurial career path for herself exploring those very questions.

Finding Entrepreneurship

After her separation from the US Army in the summer of 2015, Daniella got married and moved with her husband to his next duty station in the great state of Washington. There, she did what former Intelligence professionals often do when they don’t join a 3-letter agency, and went into corporate Intelligence. For a couple of years, she worked for Microsoft as a fraud analyst. However, after a lifetime in strict hierarchal obedience cultures, she decided it was time for something different.

Daniella left her job at Microsoft, became a mother, and took time to think about what she really wanted to do with her life, and who she wanted to be. She knew she wanted to do something that somehow included speaking to her unique experiences. She was a fan of Professor Brené Brown, a researcher, author, podcast host, lecturer, and public speaker on feminist issues, particularly on the issues of shame, vulnerability, and leadership. Daniella also knew she had a unique life experience that she felt had value to re-examining our own institutions in society. Armed with little more than that, she began searching for a way to forge a career path.

 

Connecting With Bunker Labs

It wasn’t long before Daniella found Bunker Labs Seattle, and became a City Leader (what we’d now call an Ambassador). She launched a business called Tipsy Talent, an in-home wine tasting and painting experience. That quickly evolved into Task Force Art, a consulting business applying the same concept to corporate team building.

She was also becoming a familiar face on the speaking circuit for any event that needed a woman or veteran speaker. She was featured in a TED talk at TEDx Tacoma in 2018 to discuss military transition. Her talk covered her transition to civilian life through exploring the parallels between life in the Children of God cult and the US Army, including her traumatic experiences with sexual assault, and the line between cult and culture.

 

“Bunker Labs was really helpful to me. It educated me on entrepreneurship, and I got some really amazing mentorship. In fact, it was a Bunker Labs participant that first noted to me ‘you can’t spell culture without cult,’ which is a tagline I use all the time, now. My Bunker Labs experience taught me to be unafraid of trying new things in business, how to use the many skills I honed in the Army, and that, if I had a really big idea, but not enough capacity on my own, I could find partners.”

Daniella Mestyanek Young

The New Entrepreneurship

Daniella is one of a new breed of young entrepreneurs who, in many ways, are their product. Daniella also adopted a business model and roadmap borrowed from what she’d managed to reverse engineer of Oprah and Brené Brown’s careers. She began pursuing a PHD in organizational psychology (She just earned her Master’s degree in Organizational Psychology from the Harvard Extension School) to lend herself additional authority to discuss both cults and culture. She knew the sustainable state would consist of some combination of consultancy work, paid speaking opportunities on national and international stages, and writing books where she talks about culture. She began to look at potential publishers for her first book through the entrepreneurial lens, seeing them as early investors in her business, and adapting other entrepreneurial processes to what she was trying to achieve.

It worked. 

She partnered with a former Penguin executive who also worked as a memoir consultant, and together they got the memoir drafted. Once complete, she wrote an essay for Narratively that helped her obtain an agent, who took the memoir to market. Her first book, Uncultured, initially struggled to attract a publisher. Books about women veterans rarely sell well, and publishers are gun-shy about publishing Children of God books because the abuse is just so awful. The Vanessa Guillén murder failed to attract the attention Daniella hoped such a horrible crime would merit, and Daniella grew a bit concerned she had misjudged the human interest in her story.

Then on January 6th, 2021, a number of fanatical Donald Trump supporters charged the US Capitol Building. Suddenly, learning more about cults and their intersection with the US military and politics seemed much more important. Her book sold to St. Martin’s Press (a publishing house within the Macmillan Publishing family) for a multi-six-figure deal within 48 hours, with a print run of 100,000 copies.  

Daniella’s first book, Uncultured, released in September of 2022, and is available now! It’s getting tremendous traction, including an excerpt in Rolling Stone! It was also nominated as for GoodRead’s choice awards memoir of the year, and named “book of the month” by several cult-brands, including Apple and Amazon. She’s already hard at work on her follow-up book. 

True to her envisioned career path, Daniella is diversifying the channels and mediums she can leverage to reach her audience, taking speaking engagements, and building her audience on TikTok as #groupbehaviorgal. There, she discusses ways the military can address some of the darker aspects of its culture, and also explores “culty things” present in “normal groups” to her audience of nearly 100,000 followers. Keep up with her latest projects through her website, we can’t wait to see what she does next!

It’s Your Time

Veterans in Residence is a peer-facilitated, six-month business incubator that provides veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs a networking community, business skills, and opportunities to help grow their business.

Breaking Barriers in Entrepreneurship is a virtual workshop series that facilitates business growth and support within AAPI, Black, Latinx, and female veteran and military spouse communities. The eight-week workshop is designed to create an immediate impact for early to growth-stage businesses by providing access to business tools, resources, capital opportunities, mentorship, and a stronger peer network!

As of January 2024, Bunker Labs is now a part of Syracuse University’s D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF). In addition to ongoing Bunker Labs programming, we’d encourage you to browse IVMF’s deep wealth of entrepreneurship programming, much of it available virtually or at locations across the country. Find the program to help your business take the next step today!