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Expanding Veterans' Opportunities to Become Entrepreneurs

May 11, 2016

Todd Connor, CEO of Bunker Labs, begins his pitch in front of a Startup Week event in Columbus, Ohio with a compelling statistic. In the six years following WWII, 50 percent of returning veterans started their own businesses. Today, only 6 percent of post-9/11 vets do the same, despite surveys showing four times that number would like to do so.  What has changed to lead to such a contrast and entrepreneurship gap?

Connor, himself a U.S. Navy vet leaving service in 2004, attributes the opportunity shortfall to the declining roles of VFW and American Legion halls as aggregating points for the veteran community to network and support each other. In June 2014, he opened Bunker Labs inside Chicago’s bustling 1871 co-work/incubation/innovation hub to test his theory that vets would start businesses again with their own community space paired with experienced mentors and financial resources.

After its first 18 months, Connor can tout some solid outcomes to suggest he is right: veterans working in the Chicago headquarters of Bunker Labs have started companies drawing in $6 million in revenues, creating 136 jobs, and attracting $16M in early stage investments.  Connor has already expanded the Lab’s footprint to eight other locations (Austin, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Madison, Nashville, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham, Washington, D.C.). With the expansion, the Bunker Labs website currently boasts the nonprofit has helped vets create 290 jobs, achieve $17.4 million in revenue and attract $23million in investment capital.

Impressed with the results and seeing an opportunity to stretch the Labs’ reach even further, JPMorgan Chase Co. provided Bunker Labs a $1.5million grant last week to support existing efforts and to expand the program into three more cities: Columbus, Los Angeles and Seattle. 

In each city, Bunker Labs stays lean by tapping into existing regional entrepreneurial-support initiatives and successful venture development organizations, but adds a dedicated veteran focus. For instance, the Columbus location announced last week is partnering with Rev1 Ventures, a nationally recognized leader in helping innovation-based entrepreneurs to grow their companies in central Ohio.  The new Los Angeles and Seattle offices will not be launched until spring, 2017.

Bunker Lab’s commitment to support veterans interested in entrepreneurship for their next career has moved the nonprofit organization to provide a unique-to-the-field window of transparency into its structure, as well as open access tools to help any community wanting to support its hometown vets. The resource page of Bunker Labs includes all of its organizational documentation, templates and guidelines for its affiliate locations, and instructions for how to set up a Bunker Lab workshop, veteran leadership council, or assess the potential for more communities to become full Bunker Lab affiliates.