After WWII 49% of veterans came home to start or operate a business, rebuild the American economy, and earn the moniker of the “Greatest Generation.” Today’s returning veterans represent an extraordinary human capital asset for our country, but less than 4% of them will start their own business. With this extraordinary legacy of entrepreneurship, why the challenge for this generation? We launched Bunker Labs to provide an answer, and a solution, and have been on a quest to move the needle since our launch just over three years ago.
In Israel, where every person serves in the military, the notion of someone being a “veteran” as an identity is simply a foreign concept. In Israel, entrepreneurship flourishes through this ecosystem relationship to the Israel Defense Force. Even here, historically, after WWII and the Korean War, every community and most families in the U.S. were directly impacted by military service. 12% of Americans served during WWII, while today less than 0.5% of young people will join the military and serve in uniform. Even more troubling, they are increasingly coming from military families where military service is the family profession. Those with greater economic independence (including those with family legacies in entrepreneurship) are decreasingly likely to serve in uniform.
So to answer the question about what has changed for military veterans and why fewer of them are starting businesses, the answer is that fewer people serve in the military, and they are increasingly isolated from the rest of the country that did not serve in the military or have a connection to the military. This is problematic for our democracy (beyond the scope of this conversation), and it creates unique challenges when it comes to starting your own business.
It’s all about the ecosystem
Organizations like the Case Foundation and the Kauffman Foundation report that the strongest indicator of entrepreneurial success is whether founders have access to thriving, local networks, or “ecosystems.” Conversely, surveys from the Department of Veterans Affairs as well as our internal surveys indicate that the biggest challenge facing veterans is access to professional networks, further confounding their opportunity to access entrepreneurship.
If great networks are “helpful” for a job search, they are “currency” for starting a business. Bunker Labs exists to create that network where every veteran can be “one email away” from the people and resources they need to be successful. Our strategy has not been to create ecosystems (those exist or are being created), but rather to create doors into ecosystems for military veterans. We need to create a thriving ecosystem for military veterans working to start their own business, but if it lives in isolation from the local and national ecosystems being created we will not best serve our customers.
We can reverse the trend of low entrepreneurship amongst military veterans. To do so will require a strategic blend of localized activation (old fashion happy hours and face-to-face interactions) as well as sophisticated technology platforms that reduce friction for veterans to self-navigate to the people and the resources they need to be successful. And Bunker Labs chapters across the country are doing this through:
- Launch Lab Online, a gamified online entrepreneurial learning platform for veterans who want to start their own businesses and jumpstart the next chapter in their life no matter where they are
- Our monthly Bunker Brews networking events, which bridge the gap between military veteran networks, active duty, and their spouses with civilian communities
- Launch Lab, a 12-week in-person course specifically tailored to fit the schedules of busy founders who have a desire to start their own business. The curriculum is designed to help idea-stage entrepreneurs develop the talents and skills required to test and launch a business.
- CEOcircle, a monthly peer-to-peer mastermind meetup opportunity extended to post-revenue growth stage companies whose CEO’s are military veterans or spouses.
- The Bunker Labs Community Mobile App, which was designed to increase collaboration and productivity across our national network of military veteran entrepreneurs, industry experts, and business leaders.
I sometimes offer that the military is the most powerful alumni network in the world without an alumni association. With chapters in 16 cities and a waiting list of 20+ more, we can create an alumni network that not only rivals any other closed network in the U.S., but honors the service and sacrifice that military veterans have already made on our behalf.