Bunker Labs was recently featured in a Popular Mechanics article which can be found at this link. Written and published by: Jacqueline Detwiler, Presented by Carhartt
It is warm in the WeWork on Manhattan’s 28th Street, in part because it is stuffed with people, and in part because it is also stuffed with boxes of pizza. Young men and women mill around with slices on paper plates, sloshing plastic cups of a delightful black IPA from the veteran-owned Backward Flag Brewing Company every time they slap a back or administer a fist bump. Everyone is friendlier than you’d expect at a networking event, and as diverse as a college admissions brochure. They’ve got better posture than a room full of chiropractors.
Another thing: no name tags. There’s no need. Everyone here has an automatic conversation starter. “I don’t know about 75 percent of the people in this room, but they’re veterans, and I can walk up to anybody and say, Oh, you served?” says Torie Fisher, a former Army Black Hawk crew chief and the beermaker behind that tasty IPA. Fisher has piercing eyes and a fantastic husky voice. “I’ll ask him what branch he served in. Maybe it’s the same branch I did,” she says. “He might say he’s Air Force. Then I’m gonna make fun of him, ’cause that’s what we do in the military. And he’s gonna laugh and we’re gonna connect.”
Tonight’s event, called Bunker Brews, is a meetup for a rare group of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars—those who return to the U.S. with ideas for their own second chapter in life. It’s hosted by Bunker Labs, a four-year-old nonprofit started by Navy veteran Todd Connor that offers financial and logistical support, networking events, and informational classes for veterans who want to become entrepreneurs. Split into 22 local chapters across the country, Bunker has helped more than 500 startups. It’s just one of the organizations veterans have created to help other service members navigate the tricky transition between military and civilian careers, which can be long and demoralizing and surprisingly complicated.
There are the obvious challenges, of course—service injuries, post-traumatic stress, drug addiction, homelessness—but many veterans return to the U.S. ready and able to begin productive post-service lives, only to run into problems securing a job. Most have few connections in civilian industries. They can be bewildered by career progressions that are nonlinear or based on social networks. HR representatives may not know the differences between ranks or military responsibilities. And, like ballerinas and professional football players, veterans who have spent their formative years training to be protectors are forced to contend with a sudden shift in their professional identity at a much later age than the rest of the population. As a result, one third of veterans end up taking jobs that are below their skill level, and 44 percent leave their first post-military jobs within a year. You have people in their 30s trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up.
Take Daniel Rau, a former Marine sergeant who returned from active duty in 2008, after two years as a comms technician and three years protecting embassies in India, Japan, and Yemen. “I had my plan: I was gonna get out, I was gonna study finance,” he says. Rau had always been successful in the Marines: He followed all the rules, was always in the top percentage of his peers, and was promoted every year—“all your basic Good Marine wickets that folks hit,” he says. But by the time Rau finished college, the recession had cratered the banking industry. He didn’t know anyone who worked in finance, and submitting his résumé through internet job sites was starting to feel like firing it off a cliff and then into a black hole. “My entire mental model was a bit skewed. It was something along the lines of, Get good grades, stay out of trouble, and interview well and you’ll get hired,” he says. “I was pretty frustrated.”
Rau did what a lot of veterans do when faced with such a situation. He took a job as a military contractor and went to Afghanistan. In between deployments, he completed an M.B.A. at Emory University in Atlanta, and spent long nights on LinkedIn trying to find someone to help him start his own business. Eventually, he connected with a successful serial entrepreneur named Diana Tsai—whom he went on to marry, and with whom he cofounded, along with another Marine, a tech company called Veterati to connect veterans with mentors who could help them find jobs. Today, Veterati has 11,000 users, and has partnered with companies such as USAA, Microsoft, Oracle, and Lincoln Financial Group to help attract and retain employees who’ve served.
Tom Smoot, meanwhile, says he “was a little lost” when he got home from war. He returned to civilian life after 12 years in the Army, mostly working under the Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations branch, which spent a lot of time talking to local people in towns and villages in Iraq. He was trying to complete an engineering degree while working jobs that were beneath his skill level. “I’ve taken internships, entry-level positions. I spent 12 years in the Army. I was a staff sergeant. I led hundreds of people and conducted ridiculous things,” he says. “Sometimes people look at Army guys and Marines and they think: You get paid to shoot people and work out . . . but that’s not all we do.” Another thing: Smoot had been diagnosed with PTSD. He had a lot of survivor’s guilt, wondering why he had been spared when other members of his company weren’t. He found himself avoiding fireworks. Determined not to let his diagnosis define him, he studied as hard as he could, finding, to his surprise, that the discipline of solving engineering problems was as helpful as his therapy.
In 2017, Smoot was selected as part of Bunker Labs’ first national Veterans-in-Residence cohort, a partnership with communal workspace company WeWork, which offers veteran entrepreneurs six months of free rent along with entrepreneurial seminars and resources. His company, the Lift and Shift Foundation, is a nonprofit dedicated to helping wounded veterans learn hands-on skills in the fields of science, technology, and engineering—both to enhance future job prospects, and to help the veterans themselves heal.
Smoot has a number of theories for why he and other former military members have formed company after company to give back and help other veterans succeed, but there’s one that sticks the most. When Smoot returned to Fort Bragg from Iraq in 2004, a group of Vietnam veterans was waiting to greet him on the tarmac. “They were all lined up to say welcome home with tears in their eyes,” he says. It was something the Vietnam veterans themselves never got: a group of people who understood to welcome them home.
Click here to read the entire article: Popular Mechanics — This appears in the Nov. 2018 issue.