Ask Navy veteran-turned-entrepreneur Todd Connor to describe the experience of leaving military service and his answer goes something like this: Imagine you are a successful lawyer in Seattle and then your career ends on a Friday. By Monday you’re living in San Antonio and can have any career you want, except being a lawyer. Figure it out.
Pretty disorienting, yes? About 200,000 newly minted veterans confront that reality each year, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
While leaving their personal and professional network behind can be a struggle for veterans, Connor, 41, believes the upside is that vets have a unique skill set that makes them natural entrepreneurs: discipline, leadership, expertise in team-building, making do with limited resources, an ability to solve problems on the fly and resilience, he said.
What they often lack, however, are the networks and capital to get their ideas off the ground.
“It’s not a talent gap, it’s not a capacity gap, but a network gap,” said Connor, founder and CEO of Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit for veterans, based in Chicago.
Data shows he’s correct: A November 2018 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found that while veterans are more likely to be self-employed, there’s been a noted decline in veteran entrepreneurial activity. That’s despite the fact that there’s evidence many new veterans — 20% to 25% of those just coming out of the military — want to run their own business, according to the study.
Policymakers need to pay attention to whether veterans are having a harder time accessing financing and support to launch their businesses, the study recommended. Its authors said while statistics on veterans’ access to capital are limited, “The data, for the first time, provide substantial evidence that veteran-owned businesses face greater difficulty in accepting capital relative to nonveteran-owned businesses.”
Connor, who spent four years in the Navy before his exit in 2004, in 2014 launched Bunker Labs, which has grown to 28 chapters across the country with the mission of helping vets and their families launch and grow their own businesses.
Bunker’s strategy is to connect vets with the training, funding, mentoring and networking needed to pursue their goals, through online and in-person events, corporate sponsorships and partnerships. Its roster of vet entrepreneurs is diverse: 26% female, 18% black and 20% Latino.
Since Bunker’s launch, startups participating in its program have raised more than $80 million in capital and created more than 1,900 jobs, according to its most recent annual report.
"If we can unlock their (veterans’) potential, we can have profound economic impact on this country that’s much bigger than the vet community,” Connor said.
The Tribune talked to three Chicago-based veterans who’ve recently started their own businesses and sought assistance from the nonprofit. Here are their stories:
It took Schmid Etienne two years to realize he’d been traumatized by the weeks he spent in New Orleans in 2005 as an Army National Guardsman patrolling the streets, passing out food and cleaning up debris in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city.
For Etienne, 37, it was a smell that sent his mind hurtling back to the devastation and suffering he’d seen. At a summer barbecue, smelling marinated beef thrown on a grill, he had a flashback to the front door of a pungent, flood-ravaged home of a survivor who refused to leave her house for fear of losing it.
After more than 10 years, several jobs, and hours of psychotherapy and training, Etienne has turned that trauma into what he calls his life’s work — a business that aims to teach people to use their senses to manage their trauma, stress and anxiety and achieve a sense of mindfulness.
In 2017, he co-founded R.E.S.S.E.T. Studio — the name stands for Reduce Environmental Stimuli (for) Self Evaluation Technique — after extensive entrepreneurial coaching at Bunker Labs.
Etienne said he wasn’t looking necessarily for money, but for support and guidance on building and running a business.
R.E.S.S.E.T. regularly conducts stress management seminars at law firms, and Etienne and business partner Lauren Ruckheim are pursuing universities, therapeutic practices and other corporate clients. The business has also designed a card deck people can use to help reset their mind.
Bunker Labs has helped Etienne polish his marketing strategy and his dream client list.
“We got the chance to sit down with different mentors and go through the idea," he said. "And the good thing about it is was everyone had a military mindset, so we talked directly. It wasn’t ‘Oh my God, we’re going to protect your feelings,’ it was all coming out of a space of love, like ‘I care for your business. I want to see your business succeed.’”
Army veteran Melissa Leger said she found her people when she joined Bunker Labs last year to help get her Chicago-based yoga instruction company, Mindful Yoga Chicago, up and running.
Years before, while living in Florida, Leger left a job in finance to open yoga studios, because the rat race had just gotten to be too much. “I was doing what I was supposed to do ... in the corporate world. ... I got super depressed," she said. “I was having a tough time making it through the day.”
But after successfully operating two yoga studios, the stress and lack of work-life balance returned.
When Leger and her husband moved to Chicago in 2018, she took a year off to figure out what she was going to do. She worked part-time at the Park District, she said, and decided to partner with institutions to offer accessible, affordable yoga classes for beginners, the less limber and those who couldn’t afford fancy yoga studios.
“I found there were different ways to build a community and teach people yoga without having all the extra stuff that comes with running a studio,” she said.
Leger, who turned 38 Sunday, and her team of instructors offer yoga sessions at hospitals and classes such as Yoga 101, or Yoga for Stress Reduction at Sheil Park, the Lincoln Park Cultural Center and this winter, Revere Park.
Weekly meetings with other veteran entrepreneurs at Bunker Labs last year helped Leger make connections. Now she’s helping other veterans who come to Bunker, sharing her business expertise and networking with like-minded people. “There’s a level of resilience that a lot of people in the military have, which is great for running your own business, because it’s not easy,” she said.
Air Force vet Jeff Branham’s relationship with Bunker Labs started with him on the other side of the table. A few weeks into starting his job as a consultant at Deloitte in 2015, Branham worked with Connor to expand Bunker Labs beyond Chicago
Branham, 36, always had entrepreneurial ambitions, and it was Connor who encouraged him. “I just had to find the right idea that I’m passionate enough about so I could grow it,” he said.
A longtime competitive athlete, Branham said he found it difficult to keep up his workout routine on a consultant’s schedule. “People would stay up super late. Dinner and drinks, that’s the way people would network,” said Branham, who left the Air Force in 2013.
While still at Deloitte, he offered to build wellness sessions into client conferences — carving out time in the morning dedicated to shared workouts. He’d line up the gym — finding a spinning studio or another fitness studio and send out a sign-up list. It caught on, and he decided to launch a business, MyFitlink, a fitness concierge service that works with companies to turn networking and corporate team-building and leadership events into fitness gatherings, shedding suits, ties and heels for workout gear and smoothies.
Branham works in the tech sector during the day and as a “nightime CEO” at MyFitlink.
Joining Bunker Labs’ community has been meaningful, Branham said. “The ability to say anything and ask for what you need in a veteran network is palpable, because a lot of times, other people won’t understand," he said.