Prince was born on June 6, 1969 in Holland, Michigan, the son of Edgar D. Prince and his wife, Elsa (Zwiep), and the youngest of four children. He graduated from Holland Christian High School.
Prince's father had started as a salesman making 40 cents an hour, who founded a die cast machine manufacturing firm, Prince Machine Corporation, in 1965, which became a supplier to the automobile manufacturing industry and eventually a billion-dollar company. As business "exploded" Prince began to invest some of the profit through the Prince Group into other types of car parts and shopping malls, creating a network of companies and real estate worth a billion dollars. In the early 1970s, Edgar Prince's company patented a sun visor that could light up and sold 5,000 to General Motors. In the '90s, the company produced 20,000 a day. Prince and his father toured the world together, visiting the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, a divided Berlin, and Normandy. According to his mother, these trips "made a big impression" on the young Prince.
Prince was accepted into the United States Naval Academy and attended it for three semesters before leaving, citing that he loved the Navy but disliked the Academy. He went on to receive his B.A. in economics from Hillsdale College in 1992. During his time at Hillsdale, Prince served as a volunteer firefighter and as a cold-water diver for the Hillsdale County Sheriff's Department. Prince eventually became an emergency medical technician.
In 1990, Prince secured a low-level internship in the White House under George H.W. Bush, but soon left to intern for California congressman Dana Rohrabacher, President Ronald Reagan's former speechwriter. Rohrabacher described Prince as "a bright, driven young man." At the age of 21, Prince volunteered to search for a mass grave in Nicaragua, to expose killings under President Daniel Ortega and later said that he had found one.
After college, Prince was commissioned as an officer in the United States Navy via Officer Candidate School in 1992. He went on to become a Navy SEAL and deployed with SEAL Team 8 to Haiti, the Middle East, and the Balkans. He credits the SEALs for being an outlet for his entrepreneurial spirit. In his autobiography he states that during the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s, he realized the need for private training facilities for special operations.
Prince ended his U.S. Navy service prematurely in 1995 when his father died. Erik assumed control of daily operations at Prince Machine Corporation for a year until 1996 when his mother sold the company for $1.35 billion in cash to Johnson Controls.
Prince moved to Virginia Beach and personally financed the formation of Blackwater Worldwide in 1997. He bought 6,000 acres (24 km2) of the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina and set up a school for special operations. The name "Blackwater" comes from the peat-colored bogs in which the school is located.
Prince credits the 1994 Rwandan genocide with his decision to start Blackwater. He later said, "It really bothered me. It made me realize you can't sit back and pontificate. You have to act."
From 1997 to 2010, Blackwater was awarded $2 billion in government security contracts, more than $1.6 billion of which were unclassified federal contracts and an unknown amount of classified work. From 2001 to 2010, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) awarded up to $600 million in classified contracts to Blackwater and its affiliates. It became the largest of the State Department's three private security companies, providing 987 guards for embassies and bases abroad. Prince built a shooting range on his rural Virginia land to serve as a nearby training facility to CIA headquarters in Langley, Va. In his memoir Prince says that he provided the CIA with links to Afghan warlords who helped "topple the Taliban and drive al Qaeda into hiding."
Blackwater came under increasing criticism after the Nisour Square massacre in September 2007, in which Blackwater employees opened fire in a crowded square in Baghdad, killing 17 Iraqi civilians and seriously wounding 20 more. Three guards were convicted in October 2014 of 14 manslaughter charges, and another of murder, in a U.S. court.
The criticism continued after president Barack Obama took office in 2009. Prince said he believes that much of this criticism stems from politics. "I put myself and my company at the CIA's disposal for some very risky missions," Prince told Vanity Fair for its January 2010 issue. "But when it became politically expedient to do so, someone threw me under the bus."
Nevertheless, in 2010 the Barack Obama administration awarded the company a $120 million United States Department of State security contract and about $100 million in new CIA work .
Prince has defended Blackwater's work, pointing to the fact that in 40,000 personal security missions, only 200 involved guards firing their weapons. He has said, "No one under our care was ever killed or injured. We kept them safe, all the while we had 30 of our men killed."
Prince, according to author Robert Young Pelton, reportedly thinks of Blackwater's relationship to the military as something similar to FedEx's relationship to the U.S. Post Office: "an efficient, privatized solution to sclerotic and wasteful government bureaucracy." He credits his father's competitive streak in the automotive business with the inspiration to design a lighter, faster army.
Prince resigned as CEO of Blackwater on March 2, 2009, and remained chairman of the board until he sold the company in late 2010 to a group of investors.
Prince was part of a CIA task force created to kill terrorists. Allegedly, the House intelligence congressional committee leaked his name to the press. Prince has said that he is convinced that former CIA director Leon Panetta outed him as a CIA asset, after shutting down the covert CIA training operation in 2009.
After Blackwater faced mounting legal problems in the United States, Prince was hired by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi and moved to Abu Dhabi in 2010. His task was to assemble an 800-member troop of foreign troops for the U.A.E., which was planned months before the Arab Spring. He helped the UAE found a new company named Reflex Responses, or R2, with 51 percent local ownership, carefully avoiding his name on corporate documents. He worked to oversee the effort and recruit troops, among others from Executive Outcomes, a former South African mercenary firm hired by several African governments during the 1990s to defeat violent rebellions in addition to protecting oil and diamond reserves.
In January 2011, the Associated Press reported that Prince was training a force of 2,000 Somalis for anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. The program was reportedly funded by several Arab countries, including the United Arab Emirates and backed by the United States. Prince's spokesman, Mark Corallo, said Prince has "no financial role" in the project and declined to answer any questions about Prince's involvement.
The Associated Press quotes John Burnett of Maritime Underwater Security Consultants as saying, "There are 34 nations with naval assets trying to stop piracy and it can only be stopped on land. With Prince's background and rather illustrious reputation, I think it's quite possible that it might work."
Prince currently heads a private equity firm called Frontier Resource Group and is chairman of Frontier Services Group Ltd, a Bermuda-incorporated logistics and transport company listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Frontier Services Group is backed by China's state-owned CITIC Group and Hong Kong-based investor Chun Shun Ko. Prince's ventures advise and support Chinese investment in oil and gas in Africa.
In May 2014, it was reported that Prince's plan to build a diesel refinery in South Sudan, in which $10 million had already been invested, was suspended. The halted refinery project was reported to be supported personally by the country's president, Salva Kiir Mayardit. Frontier Services Group was reported to be paid $23.3 million by South Sudan's Ministry of Petroleum to transport supplies and perform maintenance on oil production facilities.
As part of Prince's Africa-focused investment strategy, Frontier Services Group purchased stakes in two Kenyan aviation companies, Kijipwa Aviation and Phoenix Aviation, to provide logistics services for the country's oil and gas industry. In October 2014, the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority denied Kijipwa Aviation an aviation license renewal.
Prince also purchased a 25% stake in Austrian aviation company Airborne Technologies. In 2014, Prince commissioned the company to modify Thrush 510G crop-dusters with surveillance equipment, machine guns, armor, and other weapons, including custom pylons that could mount either NATO or Russian ballistics. One of the modified crop-dusters was delivered to Salva Kiir Mayardit's forces in South Sudan shortly before a contract with Frontier Services Group was cancelled. Frontier Services Group owns two of the modified Thrush 510Gs, but since executives learned the craft had been weaponized by Prince, the company has declined to sell or use the aircraft to avoid violating U.S. export controls.
In 2016 Prince supported Republican candidate Donald Trump for President of the United States. Prince had no formal role in Trump's transition. In December 2016 Prince visited the transition team offices in New York City. In April 2017 as part of a broader investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections the Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating a January 11, 2017 meeting in the Seychelles at which Prince presented himself as an unofficial representative of Trump.
Prince describes himself as a practicing Roman Catholic. He converted to Catholicism in 1992.
Prince describes himself as a libertarian. He has said, "I'm a very free market guy. I'm not a huge believer that government provides a whole lot of solutions. Some think that government can solve society's problems. I tend to think private charities and private organizations are better solutions."
Prince credits his time as a White House intern with some of his political views. He said that "having that White House internship responsibility and badges, I walked around some of these other cavernous federal agencies, and you want to talk about depressing? Walk through HHS or HUD or Commerce, you name it. Leviathan realized." Speaking of his internship, Prince said, "I saw a lot of things I didn't agree with--homosexual groups being invited in, the budget agreement, the Clean Air Act." Disenchanted, Prince became a backer of presidential candidate Pat Buchanan.
Prince has advocated for a leaner, more efficient military. He suggests several ways to make the military more efficient without compromising security. His suggestions include: greater accountability of costs, using appropriate equipment for each job, reduction of overhead, and operational and procurement reform.
Between 1998 and 2007, Prince donated more than $200,000 to Republican and third-party causes. In 2006, Prince contributed money to the Green Party of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. He has also donated to the Family Research Council.
In 2016 Prince contributed $250,000 to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, as well as a Trump-aligned super PAC helmed by Rebekah Mercer.
Prince has often donated to a number of Christian causes and supports a Muslim orphanage in Afghanistan. Prince also serves as vice president of the Prince Foundation, which his family founded.
Prince is the brother of United States Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and the brother-in-law of former Alticor (Amway) president Dick DeVos.
Prince's first wife, Joan, died of cancer in 2003. He later wrote that he had an affair with Joanna Houck, his children's nanny, while his wife was dying. Prince and Houck married in 2004.
Prince has seven children. His youngest child, Charles Donovan, was named after William "Wild Bill" Donovan.