Hispanic Heritage Month begins September 15th, and we at Bunker Labs are excited to amplify Hispanic voices within our community. Jessica van Dop DeJesus is a Marine Corps veteran, an entrepreneur, and a Veterans in Residence (ViR) alumni. Bunker Labs is proud to have recently added her to our staff, as well, where Jessica serves as our Latinx cohort facilitator for our Breaking Barriers in Entrepreneurship (BBiE) program

Interested in joining a cohort? The eight-week program is designed to create an immediate impact for early to growth-stage businesses by providing access to business tools, resources, capital opportunities, mentorship, and stronger peer networks within Asian American & Pacific Islander, Black, Hispanic, and female veteran and military spouse communities. Read more about the Breaking Barriers in Entrepreneurship program and apply today!

Growing Up Latina

If I told my 10-year-old self if I would be a Marine and later an entrepreneur, she would’ve told me I was crazy. However, the blueprint was there before I was born. My father served in the National Guard and moved from the tropics of Puerto Rico to snowy Rochester, NY, in the 50’s. My mother also moved from Puerto Rico to Western, NY as a teenager. They both struggled to speak English but broke barriers by working for the community, my mother as a case worker for community services, and my father as a foreman for the City of Rochester, NY. In the 1970s, my father opened a liquor store in front of the Gerber and Kodak factories, and my parents began their relationship.

My mother helped my father manage the liquor store while she was pregnant with me. From the womb, I can imagine listening to my parents make orders, manage inventory, and mingle with customers. Legend has it that after my birth, my parents took me from the hospital straight to the liquor store. My earliest memories come from the DeJesus Liquor Store: Getting scolded by my dad for climbing through the cases of wine to find a quiet place to draw, holding on to a Pink Panther stuffed animal one of my father’s suppliers gifted me, remembering customer’s names as a four-year-old.

My father retired when I was six, and we moved to Puerto Rico. However, those memories remain etched in my heart. You don’t realize just how much those memories shape you until years later when you reflect on your life and begin to connect the dots. My father used to say, “la libertad no tiene precio” (freedom is priceless), and entrepreneurship was a path for him to retire from government service and be independent. It took me until my mid-30s, as a reserve Marine Corps field grade officer and civil servant, to follow the entrepreneurial footsteps.

The Marine Corps

I impulsively joined the Marine Corps in 1997 to challenge myself in a way my first year of college was lacking. At Parris Island, I learned to push myself alongside 64 women from every corner of the United States. I graduated from boot camp 27 years ago, but I still consider it one of the most transformative moments of my life. After I graduated college, I became an Active Duty officer. My first duty station was Okinawa, Japan, where I led a 50-person platoon of satellite and microwave radio technicians and operators. It was my first time living abroad, and I reveled in learning about Japanese food, strolling the markets on the weekends, and cooking for my buddies at officer housing. There, I started to recreate my parents’ recipes, buying calling cards to call home and taking notes of their recipes. Little did I know I was taking steps toward becoming The Dining Traveler.

My military and civilian career took me to far-flung places like Okinawa, Japan, Seoul, Korea, and Brussels, Belgium. While exciting, being far from home and those you love can be challenging, especially for close families like mine. I built a bridge to my parents by cooking their Puerto Rican dishes like a heaping plate of arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas). Sharing a piece of my culture with my friends and fellow Marines filled that void. Little did I know food would be part of my business as I cooked Thanksgiving dinner for my friends and my NATO colleagues in 2010.

Finding Entrepreneurship

In 2009, I built a blog from scratch called “Adventures of a Puerto Rican Girl in Brussels.” Little did I know that blog would resonate with so many expats in our community. Little did I know I would become a professional writer with bylines in publications like Travel and Leisure, Eating Well, and AFAR. Little did I know I would author a coffee table book called The Dining Traveler Guide to Puerto Rico. Little did I know that in 2015, I would leave my comfortable job as a telecom analyst at the Pentagon to pursue my passion for sharing stories of food and travel, become a digital marketing strategist, and help other small businesses grow.

I’ve always been one of the few Latinas in the spaces I’ve been in: Marine Officer and civil servant in the telecom and security field. I’ll forever be grateful for the doors these roles opened and the places they allowed me to see. For a girl who grew up between a small beachside town in Puerto Rico and a snowy industrial city in Western NY, seeing places I only dreamed about, like Australia, Japan, and Thailand, are experiences that unknowingly created The Dining Traveler. However, the experience felt isolating since I felt like I couldn’t be my authentic self as I had to conform to the concrete mold of a Military Officer. As much as I enjoyed being a Marine and working for the Marine Corps as a federal employee, the call to have my own business began to ring harder. La libertad no tiene precio.

When I left my full-time job, I had a business plan and some savings I set aside to grow my business. Like many budding entrepreneurs, I learned from my mistakes and kept learning. I was still a reservist, so I had a safety net as a self-employed person, which was comforting. I saw my experience as my “insurance policy” if things didn’t work out. Entrepreneurship is like being deployed in many ways since you sometimes isolate yourself to accomplish your goals. You feel that loneliness, although you have tons of people around you. Before becoming an entrepreneur, my circle of friends revolved around fellow Marines and friends from college with traditional jobs. What I was missing was a community.

Discovering Bunker Labs

A moment or a person can change your life. For me, it was in 2018 when I posted a photo of a WeWork in Amsterdam on Instagram stories while working while on vacation in The Netherlands. The social media manager reached out, and we met in New York City a few months later. She told me about the Bunker Labs Veterans in Residence (ViR) program and encouraged me to apply. The first time I applied, Bunker Labs rejected my application. My determination motivated me to email the program’s leadership and ask why I was not selected and what I could do to be part of the program. My plea was compelling enough to be admitted into ViR, the start of finding my veteran entrepreneur community. I’ll never forget how supportive my fellow cohort members were during the launch of my book, The Dining Traveler Guide to Puerto Rico. Seeing other entrepreneurs being their authentic selves while holding onto our military roots made me feel at home.

In 2020, Bunker Labs asked if I could give a workshop on Digital Marketing and Social Media at their Women and Latinx Breaking Barriers in Entrepreneurship (BBiE) program–I was thrilled to give back as a volunteer speaker. Whenever I gave a presentation, I left invigorated and motivated by such a diverse group of entrepreneurs. I joined the Bunker Labs team as the BBiE Latinx cohort facilitator this year, and it is one of the most rewarding roles I’ve had. Our Latinx cohort reinforces the hard-working ethos of the Latino community in the United States. Our cohorts also reinforce that the Latino community is not a monolith. Our members come from Los Angeles, Orlando, Chicago, and Richmond. Some served for over twenty years, some only four. Some are first-generation, and some family lineage goes back centuries, to when Texas was still Mexico. They own businesses in areas like tech, beauty, and law. Our military experience and desire to serve bring us together.

There’s no linear route to becoming an entrepreneur. Like many of my fellow Latino entrepreneurs I’ve encountered serving at Bunker Labs, we’ve faced a winding road. However, we honor our ancestors’ sacrifices by striving to be our best selves and taking advantage of the opportunities that didn’t exist for people like my parents. When I deployed to Iraq in 2005, I vowed I wouldn’t miss an opportunity if I came home alive.

Here I am.

Bunker Labs is Now Part of IVMF

As of January 2024, Bunker Labs is now a part of Syracuse University’s D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF). In addition to ongoing Bunker Labs programming, we’d encourage you to browse IVMF’s deep wealth of entrepreneurship programming, much of it available virtually or at locations across the country. Find the program to help your business take the next step today!