Veterans Helping Veterans: How One Innovative Nonprofit Creates Opportunities for Veterans to Achieve Their Entrepreneurial Dreams
At TriNet, every day is a reason to celebrate the small and medium size businesses (SMBs) that power the nation. With Veteran’s Day upon us, now is a great time to take a deeper look at the role U.S. military veterans play in building the businesses that fuel the nation’s economy, drive innovation and help to make up the backbone of this country.
While many military veterans come out of the service eager to work for other businesses, some decide to use their skills, drive and discipline to start their own business. Todd Connor is one such military veteran. Todd parlayed his own entrepreneurial dreams and military training into creating a successful organization focused on helping other veterans become business owners. In 2014, he founded Bunker Labs, a national network that is dedicated to helping new veteran entrepreneurs start their own business. We were honored to spend some time speaking with Todd and learning about his incredible nonprofit organization.
TriNet: You are a Navy veteran who founded Bunker Labs to help other military veterans realize their entrepreneurial dreams. Can you tell us about your own personal journey from military to leading this organization? Why did you decide to branch out on your own and why did you choose this path?
Todd: For me, Bunker Labs was a passion before it ever was an organization. I had served in the Navy during operation Iraqi Freedom and, during my service, I felt energized and focused. When I left the service, I felt a void in my life. I didn’t know exactly what my next step would be but I knew I didn’t want to settle for average. In the military, I was part of something bigger than myself and I still wanted to push myself to do and accomplish more. That is what entrepreneurship is about.
I settled back in Chicago after my service and frequently found myself in a mentorship role with other veterans who also shared my entrepreneurial spirit. I started realizing there was a need for services for military veterans who wanted to start their own business and I knew that I wanted to be part of that.
TriNet: Bunker Labs serves a unique purpose in both the veteran and business communities. Why is the work you do so important?
Todd: To me the work we do is very personal and it’s very much needed for the success of our nation as a whole. After WWII, nearly half of all veterans started their own business. Today, veterans own only a little over 7% of the nation’s SMBs. When veterans are business owners, they become even more empowered members of society. This often segues into leadership roles on boards of directors, representation in public office, and the ability to achieve real economic wealth for themselves and their families. Entrepreneurship is a vehicle for creating the next generation of veteran leaders and giving them a voice in the future of our country.
The military is about performing at your peak as part of a team. However, veterans often get out of the military and find that they no longer have these reliable networks they’ve come to depend on in order to achieve their goals. Bunker Labs helps them close that gap. The veterans who come to us are at various stages in their entrepreneurial journey. Some are in the ideas stage, where they know they want to pursue a business but have no idea where to start. Some are already running stable businesses and looking to grow, while some are pursuing the next stage of raising funds. What all the entrepreneurs we work with have in common, however, is that they are military veterans or military spouses who need support in order to succeed.
Another thing that makes us stand out from other organizations that serve veterans is that our message is aspirational. We support veterans in moving forward as entrepreneurs. Our focus isn’t about what they went through during their service. It’s about their future and what they are going to do next.
TriNet: What have you noticed has been the biggest obstacle to veteran entrepreneurship and what do you tell veterans—or do to help them—overcome this obstacle?
Todd: I think most of the veterans we work with will tell you access to capital and better networks are their biggest barriers to business success. How to access capital can be learned through research or attending a workshop. However, the benefits you get from networking can’t be learned any other way. They can only be fine-tuned through mentorship and working within a community of other entrepreneurs who know what you’re dealing with.
Bunker Labs serves veterans by creating communities. In the military, you do everything within a team and are constantly getting raw feedback on your performance. You are pushed by your team to work hard and always strive to improve. These same attributes that create a high-performing military force are the same attributes that can help entrepreneurs succeed in business. Entrepreneurship can be a very solitary activity but we try to replicate that team environment where many of the entrepreneurs we work with first learned how to succeed.
TriNet: When a veteran comes to you for help getting started, what is the first thing you do? Or what do you recommend they do before they even come to you?
Todd: There are a lot of resources out there for businesses that are past the first stage, that have a business model and have laid the foundation of building their company. However, there are fewer resources for those veterans who are just taking off the uniform, putting on the hoodie and trying to figure out the next chapter of their lives. Bunker Labs provides guidance to veterans who want to chase their entrepreneurial dreams.
TriNet: What is the one piece of advice you would give to every veteran out there who has a dream of starting their own business but who just isn’t sure where to get started or is doubting that they can make it happen?
Todd: For civilians, I would say, if you want to help veterans, the best way to do so is by giving them an opportunity to achieve their goals and create the best future for themselves and their families. Better yet, give them a challenge to overcome.
I would advise veterans to not underestimate themselves. If you were successful facing the challenges you encountered in the military, you can be wildly successful operating a business.
This communication is for informational purposes only; it is not legal, tax or accounting advice; and is not an offer to sell, buy or procure insurance.
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Todd Connor is CEO of Bunker Labs, which is a TriNet client.