NEW YORK (Fortune) -- John Suh wanted to make a good impression on his new mentor. Before their first meeting last November, the 26-year-old former Army officer came up with a clear outline for what he hoped to get out of the relationship and rehearsed what he would say when the time came. "I went in there with a plan," says Suh. "I knew this was an incredible chance to expand my network. It's not like I have any relatives or friends who are CEOs of giant media conglomerates."
He does now. Thanks to a non-profit called American Corporate Partners, which matches up veterans with business executives, Suh is the protégé of News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch. And he says that the media mogul is hardly the imperious tycoon sometimes portrayed in the press. "Rupert was really relaxed and gracious," says Suh.
The two chatted about the World Series, their wives, and Suh's military service. "He told me that I had a lot of valuable real-world experience," says Suh, whose 15-month deployment to Iraq in 2007 included everything from coordinating air support during combat to hiring local Iraqi contractors to refurbish schools. "He said not to sell myself short."
News Corp. (NWSA) is one of 17 major companies and universities -- from Campbell Soup (CPB, Fortune 500), General Electric (GE, Fortune 500), Home Depot (HD, Fortune 500), IBM (IBM, Fortune 500), Procter & Gamble (PG, Fortune 500), Verizon (VZ, Fortune 500), and the University of Texas to, just recently, Bloomberg, Deloitte, and Harvard -- that has signed on to provide mentors to veterans through American Corporate Partners since it launched in 2008. Currently ACP has more than 500 mentors matched up with veterans. There are another 800 veterans on a waiting list hoping to be assigned executive role models.
The non-profit is the brainchild of a former investment banker named Sid Goodfriend, who spent 25 years working first for Merrill Lynch and then Credit Suisse (CS). Goodfriend, 50, has no military background himself. Prior to forming ACP, he didn't even have any close friends who had served in the armed forces. But in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he says he had developed a really deep sense of appreciation for how fortunate he's been in life and an admiration for the soldiers that serve to keep him and his family safe. "I owe so much of what I have to these young people who decide to put country first and their welfare second in a lot of cases," he says.
By 2007, the financially well-off Goodfriend decided that he wanted to leave Wall Street and spend his time giving back to veterans who have served since 9/11. The question was how? As a board member of a New York City non-profit called Student Sponsor Partners, which matches at-risk students in New York's public school system with sponsors who pay for them to attend a private school and take a role in their education, he had seen firsthand the power of mentoring. And he knew how important mentors had been to him in his own career at Merrill. He figured veterans trying to break into business could use some expert guidance.
In fact, basic career counseling is a huge need for many returning vets. While junior military officers are coveted by many big companies because of their leadership training and experience (See Battle-Tested: From soldier to business leader), many former soldiers have a hard time marketing themselves. According to a 2007 survey by Military.com, more than half of veterans were unsure of how to network, and three-quarters said they were unable to translate their military skills to the business world.
To get started, Goodfriend decided to put up $200,000 of his own savings. But he needed companies to provide executive mentors. So he started calling old clients like PepsiCo (PEP, Fortune 500) CEO Indra Nooyi, who signed up the beverage giant right away.
He also reached out to his one-time boss at Credit Suisse, John Mack. Now chairman of Morgan Stanley (MS, Fortune 500), Mack not only agreed to participate but also decided to be a mentor himself. He ended up working for a year with a 28-year-old Marine officer. "What I got out of it was a little selfish, actually," says Mack. "It made me feel good that I could show that Morgan Stanley supports these men and women who support our country, and at the same time take some of my experiences and put them into his thought process."
One Morgan Stanley employee who signed up for the program is Croft Young, a 37-year-old associate investment banker and former Marine platoon leader. After reading about the program on the Morgan Stanley website, he went to the ACP website to sign up as a mentor and realized that he qualified to be a protégé, too, so he registered for both.
"It was kind of funny," says Young. "They called and said, 'We have this software that matches up mentors and protégés, and you matched up as your own best mentor.'" Young is now being mentored by a newspaper executive at News Corp. and is serving as a mentor to a former Army infantryman who is interested in a career in law enforcement.
Each of the sponsoring companies contributes an annual fee of $50,000 to help fund ACP's operations. But Goodfriend won't accept a financial donation alone. What he really wants are mentors. And, Goodfriend emphasizes, it's not a hiring program. While companies are free to recruit the veterans, they are under no obligation to do so.
Like Mack, Murdoch jumped at the chance to be a mentor and set an example for the rest of his executives. (About 50 News Corp. execs are now mentoring through ACP.) Because of Murdoch's heavy travel schedule, News Corp. general counsel Lon Jacobs suggested that they share a protégé. Suh, who works for Goodfriend at ACP ("I'm like the Hair Club for Men guy," says Suh. "I'm not only an employee, I'm a protégé.") and is contemplating a career in media, asked his boss as a favor to be assigned to the two News Corp. executives.
So far, says Suh, he couldn't be happier with his experience. He's only had the one meeting with Murdoch. But he's been in regular contact with Jacobs, who has arranged a series of meetings for Suh with other News Corp. executives. And the Army veteran is confident that he'll be seeing Murdoch again soon when the time is right. "Rupert was interested in doing follow-up meetings," says Suh. "He said he wanted to take me with him to meet some people in Los Angeles." Sounds like his network is rapidly expanding.