This year, the United States marks 20 years since the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The events of that day changed the course of history, both on a global scale and at the individual level, including for many military members who served in combat in the ensuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We spoke with Bunker Labs founder, Todd Connor, about where he was on September 11, 2001, how the events changed the course of his military service, the post-9/11 veteran experience compared to veterans of previous wars, and his message to the military community and greater American population regarding the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and subsequent Taliban takeover.

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Rachel Keranen, Bunker Labs
Let’s start with the question we have likely all been asked before: Where were you on September 11th?

Todd Connor
I was 23 years old, and I was on board the USS Bunker Hill. I was in the wardroom, which is where the officers take their meals. I remember finishing breakfast, sitting around talking about plans for the day, laughing. We had the news on in the background. And quickly, people brought attention to the fact that one of the towers had been hit. It became a pretty surreal day.

Todd Connor aboard the USS Bunker Hill during his service in the U.S. Navy

We all gathered in the wardroom to watch events unfold, which is, I think, most of our experience, unless you were actually in New York. We observed the news, saw the first tower fall, the second tower get hit, the second tower fall. And then everything that followed after that became a little bit of a blur. 

Pre-9/11 in the Navy was such a different experience than the post-9/11 Navy. We didn’t understand at the time the gravity of what that meant. Although we knew that this had been a terrorist event, and we knew that there were going to be national security implications, and we knew that the nation was a different place, I don’t know that we understood fully what the implications were for us in that moment. 

We were activated for coastal defense in support of Seattle, and then we began to move into a planning posture to go underway and do a deployment in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. What was going to be a deployment that was six months in duration and a year and a half out became accelerated, and we were on deployment within probably five months of 9/11. We ended up being in the Persian Gulf for eight or nine months off the coast of Umm Qasr. I got back in about 2003, and I got out of the Navy in 2004.

Rachel Keranen, Bunker Labs
How did that change, or did it change, your relationship with the people you served with, and then also the veteran community afterward?

Todd Connor
Everything changed for us as Americans. I think I would first and foremost say my experience as an American changed. That was true for lots of Americans. I think my experience as a service member was amplified. And if anything, it fortified what were already really strong bonds that I’d established with the people with whom I had served. 

But I will say this, too: When you get out of the military, and when you have been in such a mission-driven environment, when you’ve been stretched to your personal capacity, when you’ve been surrounded by people with whom you have this deep love and affection—and with whom there is this implicit sense of trust and implicit sense of camaraderie, not to mention silliness and stupidity and the things that give you lots of joy—there is a deep longing that you experience to find that environment again. It’s not just heavy, serious patriotism, it’s a lot of the frivolity of being with the same people on board a ship, all of whom are characters, for nine months. You get to know people closer than the litany of friends that you accumulated throughout college, in some cases. And that is such a gift. 

For me, getting out of the military, what I felt was sort of this duality. I missed the intensity and the joy that comes from being alongside people that have a shared sense of mission. Everyday life in America is safe, joyous, abundant. But you’re missing a piece of that challenge, and you’re missing a sense of that mission, and you’re missing that sense of camaraderie with people where you share that mission. 

Those conditions, so many veterans feel when getting out of the military. They just want that sense of mission back, they want that community back, and they’re not sure how to make that translation into a civilian environment. 

I don’t think it’s as much about the economic scarcity and fear. It’s not just about a job. It’s that sense of belonging, it’s that sense of mission that I think we’re really seeking when we get out of the military. Certainly I was, and that was very much the precondition for Bunker Labs.

Announcement of “The Bunker” veteran entrepreneur incubator at 1871 Chicago, June 2014

Rachel Keranen, Bunker Labs
As you were thinking about that mission, desire for camaraderie, and to be back with people who had served, and what drew you specifically to curating that group of entrepreneurs who had that common veteran experience?

Todd Connor
It was born out of my own lived experience. When I got out of the military, I went through my own transition process. I got my MBA, got a job, cleaned up life, paid off some bills. I got what I described as settled. I felt in a really good place. I met the guy that would become my husband someday, and I lived life. It takes a minute for everyone. 

But when you get there, then you begin to look around and say, “Okay, now what?” I explored a few of the civilian-defined dreams and I realized pretty quickly, this doesn’t fulfill me. If you were looking at my life, you’re like, “He’s got a good life, there’s nothing wrong with it.” And there wasn’t. But internally, I didn’t feel a sense of fulfillment. 

That led me to pursue starting my own business. Salary, stability, etc, all got worse, but the fulfillment factor went way up. I felt like I was on a path to pursuing things that mattered to me, including starting a business, running for office, getting involved in public sector things that I cared deeply about, causes that I cared about. I was able to step a little bit more into my identity and my purpose.

The veteran community is something that I’ve always cared deeply about. It’s where I find the most joy. I like working with veterans. They get it done faster, better, and they do it with more fun. I saw an opportunity to create a support system for veterans specifically, and so we built this partnership with 1871, the incubator in Chicago. We announced that we were going to help veterans start businesses. That was the genesis of what came together. 

My entering thought was, I don’t have a strong point of view about what the programming looks like. I do have a strong point of view that we’ve got to help military veterans and military spouses and the military community, and we’ve got to speak to this fulfillment piece. 

Today, Bunker Labs is valuable when we hold true those values of honoring dreams of the people that we have the privilege of interacting with, meeting them where they’re at, telling them that their dreams matter, honoring that they have a desire to seek greater fulfillment, meeting them halfway, co-authoring that, co-signing on that, and then giving them a community that loves them, and will hold them up and hold them accountable. That’s what community does. That’s what friendship is. The end. We are at our best when we do that. And we continue to be a community, among other things. That’s our primary mission: to be that place where people can show up and find that support.

Former Illinois Governor, Bruce Rauner, cutting the ribbon to re-dedicate the ‘Bunker Labs’ 1871 space in 2015

Rachel Keranen, Bunker Labs
Absolutely. One thing I’ve been thinking about is that there was a study done by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families out of Syracuse in conjunction with Bunker Labs. It cites that after World War Two, about 49% of veterans returning from service started businesses, whereas the rate of post-9/11 veterans doing the same has fallen to 5.6%. I’m curious, why do you think post-9/11 veterans have such a different relationship with entrepreneurship or business ownership, then veterans in the past?

Todd Connor
I have a lot to say on this, and I don’t have enough time to say it all now, but there’s a lot at play. Number one, part of this is a demographic trend. The most entrepreneurial cohort in America today is those 50 and older. As people get older, they actually get better at starting businesses. And I think some of that will be true for our generation. Once they have stabilized themselves, and maybe hit a point of maturity, maybe the kids are in college, maybe that’s when they decide to start their own business and step out on their own. 

I think the bigger thing, though, is we had mandatory service during World War Two. And what it did is it created a very powerful cultural construct for us as a country where we all felt connected in ways that we didn’t feel connected before. 

If you look at Israel, that is a country that has mandatory military service. It’s a smaller country, it’s a different country, I get all that—the comparisons aren’t perfect. But part of what they have as a country is this extraordinary entrepreneurial activity. They are, as a country, a unicorn in terms of the number of new startups, the extent to which those companies find venture capital backing, and the success of those companies. The social currency of that country is military service. That’s the through-line by which deals get done. That’s the through-line by which networks get created. 

In this country, it’s usually where you went to college. If the social currency is where you went to college, or if the social currency is which Y Combinator cohort were you in, we’re going to leave a lot of people out. But if the social currency is where did you serve, I can meet someone that was prior enlisted in the Air Force, and even though we have a radically different experience, there’s something that is shared amongst us that I choose to see as relatability. I choose to see them with a certain amount of kinship. 

And after World War Two, that sense of kinship was high. That sense of community was extraordinarily strong. And people would return home and go to places like the VFW.  People belonged to churches. There was a whole fraternal and social construct of community-based membership. You had strong relatability that was through shared national service, strong levels of national trust, and this social fabric. All of that created the preconditions for strong entrepreneurial activity. 

You had other things at play too: You had more economic engagement within the community, where someone who didn’t have a lot of economic resources might know someone that did have a lot of economic resources. We don’t see that enough today in public life and civil society. 

I think it’s not about why are these veterans different, it’s really the macro conditions of our society. I think with Bunker Labs, we are chasing that opportunity to create that social ecosystem, at least amongst the military community. That community is large, it’s diverse, it includes people that are in the C-suite at the Fortune 500, it includes venture capitalists, it includes people that are classified as essential workers, it includes people that have ideas. 

My hope is that we do that well and the non-veteran community looks at that with some envy and says, “Man, they actually figured out how to create that social currency in ways that we have not.” 

I don’t think that we should have all Americans serve in the military. But I do think that we need some form of nationalized service that creates a through-line for our own identities, and for our own networks. There’s a sort of a dark void in America today, where we don’t have that shared touchdown in any form. And I think it’s really dangerous. It’s dangerous for lots of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I think it inhibits entrepreneurial activity, which people wouldn’t necessarily see as a through-line. But I see a very direct plumb line between these sorts of societal trends and the lack of entrepreneurial activity.

General Mark A. Milley speaks to a cohort of veteran entrepreneurs at Bunker Labs in 2016

Rachel Keranen, Bunker Labs
That’s fascinating. And Israel is an interesting example. I’ve always read about them as a model of innovation with the number of deals that get done, and I never thought about that common through-line. And when you’re talking about the social connectivity and the fabric of American life, I feel like now more than ever, it feels very fragmented and very, very weak. 

You referred to this a little bit about enjoying working with veterans and why veterans are special to you. But how would you characterize a veteran entrepreneur? What makes a veteran entrepreneur unique? How do they stand out from civilian entrepreneurs?

Todd Connor
Our community is a diverse community, and I would not give a monolithic assignment, but I would offer a couple of broad, not universally true characterizations. The biggest one is this: Running a startup is much more about operational discipline than it is about brilliant ideas.  

If you ask people, “What’s an entrepreneur?” People will say, “It’s someone who’s visionary; it’s someone who’s a risk-taker.” I think vision and risk-taking are—I don’t want to say they are irrelevant, but they are the lagging indicators of successful entrepreneurship. Successful entrepreneurship is people that hustle, are consistent, have incredible discipline, and, and, frankly, have good operational management skills. 

They are not insecure, brilliant-but-fragile idea people. The ones that I see just being successful, just have this dogged perseverance and they are very disciplined. If they say that they’re going to do something, they do it; they stay focused. I think a lot of folks that are pursuing ideas can get distracted, and then they kind of flame out because they’re all over the map. I think it’s really about these just core tenets of discipline, working hard, staying focused, being willing to take feedback. 

As a class of people, I don’t think there’s anything magical about military veterans. But what is shared, what is true, is they’ve all worked in a disciplined environment. They understand what an environment committed to excellence looks like: Show up on time, be respectful, be professional, do what you say you’re going to do. I think it’s those very fundamental things that make them good operators, which are the core ingredients you need to be an entrepreneur. 

Todd Connor with singer Wayne Mesmer at the Chicago Muster in 2016, part of the first Bunker Builds America Tour

Rachel Keranen, Bunker Labs
That definitely resonates with me, and my experience of watching who has succeeded. My dad is a veteran, and he ran our entire household like that for the rest of my life. And I think I’ve inherited some of that. The Bunker community includes many military family members as well, and it’s a spillover effect, perhaps, where everybody involved with somebody who’s served begins to adopt those same behaviors.

Todd Connor
Yes, they do. Whether we like it or not, it’s ingrained, and it sticks with you. And I think it probably does sort of bleed into the household, and so we’re a community of people. 

Rachel Keranen, Bunker Labs
I have one more question that I wanted to ask as we think about why we’re having this conversation. We’re approaching 20 years after 9/11. It’s a particularly weighty anniversary, both because of the 20 years mark, but also with everything that’s been happening in recent weeks with Afghanistan, the troop withdrawal, and the violence that’s ensued. 

Do you have any thoughts or words of solidarity to those who have served in Afghanistan and to the many Afghan people who have risked their lives to assist American troops?

Todd Connor
The recent events are devastating. Like just about all the veterans I know, I’m looking for ways to personally support our Afghan friends and allies, as well as our service members. I think that we all have to be asking ourselves: What can we personally do to help? 

I think the bigger question and leadership lesson for military service members, the folks that support them, and citizens of our country is this: Did we do our duty? 

What I would say is, you did your duty when you decided to join the military or join an officer training program. You did your duty when you were on deployment and overseas. Some people gave more than simply their duty. You came home, and the question is now, “What’s your duty today?”

We have a unique duty to do today, military veterans and military family members. The country is reeling. We are being pushed to the edge of our outrage with our political leadership, with our partisan and toxic system. We understand democracy is a fragile experiment. I would look to the community of people that have already done their duty in one phase of their life and say, “You have another duty to do today.” 

That duty can be as simple as role modeling, and better conversation. It can be role modeling and bringing empathy for people that those around you would rather hate. It can be you saying, “Let’s try to lead with love.” I think the duty can be to try to heal political divides. The duty can be to run for office. There’s going to be a lot of duty and obligation for the post-9/11 generation of veterans. I think that their contributions are only just beginning. And I would just say, “Thank you for what you’ve done. And your most important contributions are probably for what comes next.”