With a club beat throbbing through the sound system and heart rates hitting the red zone, the atmosphere at the northeast Minneapolis fitness center seemed hardly the place for discussing provisional patents and minimum viable products.
But the two dozen participants at Alchemy on this night weren’t typical entrepreneurs. They were veterans, experienced in combining the physical with the mental.
Still sweating from the 40-minute workout, the group soon got down to business — literally. Their main speaker was director of innovation at a local ad agency.
The event was part of a networking program by a local branch of Bunker Labs, a Chicago-based nonprofit that seeks to expand the ranks of veteran entrepreneurs.
Grueling workouts aren’t their only method of connecting. Every month there are get-togethers called Bunker Brews that are more schmoozing over a couple beers than tests of endurance and feats of strength.
The idea is to connect veterans interested in entrepreneurship with mentors, educational resources and venture capital.
To the civilian, the regimented world of the military may seem in conflict with the kind of flexibility and seat-of-your-pants skills needed by entrepreneurs. But advocates say traits learned during military service — such as resilience, flexibility and autonomy — are valuable to anyone wanting to be an innovator.
In fact, veterans have a history of entrepreneurship. Among the World War II generation, 49 percent of veterans started their own businesses after returning home, according to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.
Bunker Labs founder and CEO Todd Connor, who served in the Navy during the Iraq war, said traditional veterans organizations such as American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars posts no longer work for networking and community building, especially since less than 1 percent of the population now has military experience.
“You’ve got to give them ways for the 1 percent to meet the 99 percent,” Connor said. “They are going to be your investors, they are going to be your customers, they are going to be your employees.”
A chance to lead, succeed
It’s estimated that 200,000 service members will leave active duty each year over the next five years, and 25 percent of them have expressed an interest in starting their own business. Connor started his own professional development consulting business after leaving the Navy and found himself informally mentoring veterans he met.
He said some other veteran-centered nonprofits have proved effective for funders, but not for the veterans they intend to serve.
“You put up sad images of veterans and say these people deserve our help. That tugs at the heartstrings and makes you want to write a check. But for a lot of veterans its actually repulsive,” he said. “That’s not why they joined the military at 18 years old, because they wanted a pity party. They wanted to do something and to lead and that ambition is part of their core.”
Since its founding in 2014, Bunker Labs says, it has supported more than 70 companies, creating almost 300 jobs and raising more than $23 million in capital. It sustains itself largely through corporate sponsorships from companies such as U.S. Bank, Comcast and JPMorgan Chase & Co. and foundations such as Newman’s Own and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.
Minneapolis is one of 13 cities with Bunker Labs chapters. It operates out of the COCO shared workspace business accelerator on the former trading floor of the Minneapolis Grain Exchange.
It started hosting events this summer. By the second or third event, 80 percent of those attending were new faces, a sign that there was a local interest in what Bunker Labs had to offer, said Tim O’Neil, executive director of the local chapter. O’Neil, who spent seven years in the Marines as an infantry officer, also operates his own company, Fidelis Co., which makes high-end carry bags and accessories.
“Part of our role is to be able to put those folks together,” he said. “The guy that did what you’re trying to do, but five years before you did it, can really help you accelerate.”
Local participants skew toward post-9/11 vets but have ranged from retired officers with Ivy League degrees to enlisted guys with an idea and no where to go with it.
One vet has invented a spreader for gravel used on rural roads and needed intellectual property counsel. Another designed his own suite of software for the municipality he worked for and now hopes to market it to others.
Jon Redmond now works as what he describes as an entrepreneur in residence for Iowa-based TeamMD, which provides home-based and nursing home health care to elderly and disabled patients. Although he has a graduate degree in business, he said the company sought him out specifically because of his military background.
Some military experiences just can’t be taught in any classroom.
“If you’re on a mountaintop in Afghanistan, you can’t call someone else and ask them for permission to do something,” said Redmond, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger who spent 10 years in the military before injuries forced him out. “You need to make the decision, go with it, and lead through it.”
As part of his service, Redmond was stationed as a commander at the Baghdad zoo, where insurgents had opened the cages and let the animals out.
“Where’s the field manual to get the chimpanzee back in the cage? That doesn’t exist. You’ve got to figure it out,” he said. “That experience is another one for going into entrepreneurship.”