As we celebrate Veterans Day, let’s commit to integrating veterans fully into American society. In our experience at Bunker Labs Minneapolis, which works with veterans locally and is part of a nationwide network, lack of integration is the biggest challenge facing military veterans who are entrepreneurs.
After World War II, veterans were quickly absorbed into American society because military service was so prevalent. As a result, 49 percent of veterans came home and started a business. Today, only about 7.3 percent of Americans have served in the military, with just 1 percent of young Americans enlisting. And while 25 percent of veterans want to start their own business, only 6 percent of those coming off active duty actually do.
Yet America needs business growth, and veterans are well-suited to it: They are young, technology-savvy, smart, risk-taking, world-traveled and experienced in solving complex challenges. To better integrate veterans into business and entrepreneurial environments, we need more highly connected communities, where people of all backgrounds have access to the resources they need to start businesses. Key steps they should take include:
First, focus on building entrepreneurial ecosystems — community cultures that encourage and support entrepreneurship. These ecosystems are emerging nationwide.
Here in Minneapolis-St. Paul, one bright example of this is Twin Cities Startup Week (TCSW), which was brought to life in 2014 as a way to coordinate a small number of existing events that supported entrepreneurs. As of this October, just a few years into existence, TCSW has grown exponentially and now curates a list of more than 150 events.
Second, make sure these ecosystems are broadly inclusive. Reach out to veterans’ organizations and deliver relevant information to veterans in a way that allows them to engage with the broader community.
Third, energize talent. While veteran unemployment is declining, veterans remain a group with high turnover rates, reflecting a sense among veterans that their jobs are not always equivalent to their skill set.
Veterans are used to being involved in a team — they are naturally inclined to collaborate. They also have a clear sense of identity and purpose, ingrained by the branch of service of which they were a member. When they take their uniform off, for some the most important part of their identity is stripped away.
Entrepreneurship can be a very lonely journey, initially fraught with setbacks that can take a significant toll.
Bunker Labs Minneapolis works with a broad community to help support veterans early in the entrepreneurship process. For example, through a relationship with our founding partner U.S. Bank, Bunker Labs Minneapolis is able to access a broad network of subject-matter experts as mentors, coaches and pilot customers for veterans.
Fourth, ensure that experts in entrepreneurship, not experts on veterans, are driving the discussion. We work with veterans to realize their future, not focus on their past.
Finally, don’t make decisions about how to support veterans without veterans in the room.
Our nation needs job growth, and nearly all net new job creation is attributable to new businesses, according to the Kauffman Foundation. More than 1 million men and women will return from military service by 2022. Let’s honor them here in the Twin Cities and across the United States on Veterans Day by committing to integrate them fully into American society. Let’s put entrepreneurial ecosystems in place and ensure that they are working to help veterans realize their dreams.
Tim O’Neil is executive director at Bunker Labs Minneapolis and a Marine Corps veteran.