CHICAGO – 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 valuable 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 finding financing and support to launch their businesses, the study recommended.
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 expand 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 [veterans'] potential, we can have profound economic impact on this country that's much bigger than the vet community," Connor said.
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 — 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.