On a mission to gain access to a military base in the north African country of Libya, Jason Starkey and his fellow U.S. Army Green Berets had to first get through the two men who guarded the gate.
Starkey is a white man from California. The armed duo standing in his way were natives to the area and spoke Arabic. On the surface level, this might seem like a standoff that doesn’t favor the Americans seeking entry.
But Starkey kept at it, realizing that his education in Farsi, the Persian language, could be of great assistance, as the two languages have similarities, including use of the same characters.
He began writing the names of the guards in the dirt at their feet.
“They loved it,” Starkey said. “They loved that this white guy, sitting on the ground, could pull out his index finger and draw this beautiful script of their names.”
The subtle gesture went a long way as the guards, Starkey said, “not only gave us access to that base, but they were a huge asset for us on so many other levels.”
Starkey served as a Green Beret, the nickname for the Army’s special operations unit, for nearly a decade before coming to the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in 2017.
The combination of the two experiences has led to the success of Jedburgh Technology, a virtual reality language-learning application for soldiers that Starkey founded and operates.
The name of the company is inspired by the “Jedburgh teams” of the Office of Strategic Services that were sent into Nazi-occupied countries during World War II to conduct sabotage and subversion activities. The three-man teams, typically made up of a Frenchman, Englishman and an American, trained in Jedburgh, Scotland, but had to be fluent in the native language of the areas where they were to be deployed.
In that spirit, Starkey’s company, through VR, places military members in situations to simulate experiences in a foreign country.
“An intel officer, for example, they don’t want to learn a foreign language so they can order a cappuccino in France and Paris for their vacation,” Starkey said. “They’re learning a language so they can interpret what some scientist at a nuclear reactor facility in North Korea is saying – something very specific, very jargon-heavy.
“And there’s not a lot of resources out there that serve them. It’s all about how to order a cappuccino for their parents. So we built an application that puts these linguists in that immersive scenario.”
Starkey said the best resource the Department of Defense has is live language instructors to train military personnel. Jedburgh’s role, he said, is to empower those instructors with additional resources for their students.
Jedburgh supports 180 languages and can simulate up to 90 different scenarios.
“We’re focused on delivering the solution to people where the risk of mistranslation is high, where if you don’t translate it right or fast enough or accurate enough, someone dies,” Starkey said.
Jedburgh was founded in 2017 and its progression has aligned with Starkey’s time at Darden, where he graduated from in 2019. The lessons Starkey received in professor Alex Cowan’s software development courses at the business school are ongoing, as Cowan, an entrepreneurship expert, now serves as a Jedburgh adviser and investor.
“Darden was a place where I evolved in my transition from the military to normal civilian life,” Starkey said. “The relationships I built there and the instruction I got from people like Alex Cowan, I don’t know what I would do without it.”
Cowan had similar praise for his student-turned-business partner. “What I admire most about Jason is he has a dogged determination and resilience to try new things,” he said.
Starkey said he spends the majority of his days trying to find new ways to implement artificial intelligence into Jedburgh to make it a better product.
Jedburgh is now available on a mobile platform, where users can, among other options, simulate talking to a customs official through a ChatGPT bot. Other enhancements include access to a nationwide network where multiple users can collaborate on the same mission.
The consistent tweaking comes from a place of passion. Starkey, who learned Farsi in graduate school at the University of San Diego, has firsthand knowledge of the value of foreign language mastery in a potentially dire situation.
He now lives to help the next soldier.
“Most of our linguists in the military now, they’re not joining to kill bad guys – the War on Terror is over,” Starkey said. “They’re joining now because they’re smart, they’re technology literate. They have high IQs, so we built an application solution tailored to them.”