Veteran Entrepreneur Spotlight:
Comic books aren’t just for superheroes in capes and masks.
In fact, the unique combination of pictures and words taken in at the pace of the reader makes comic books an ideal medium for education. What’s more, we all know the power of comic strips and books to educate first-hand. Road signs, airplane safety pamphlets, and furniture assembly instructions all use the techniques of comics to communicate powerfully and quickly, cutting across most demographic barriers.
Stephane’s Military Experience
Stephane enrolled at West Point after participating in a summer camp program. He graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering and a concentration in biology in 2011. He then served five years as an Army Engineer Officer, based out of Fort Campbell as part of the historic 101st airborne division’s 3rd brigade combat team, the “Rakkasans”.
He served two deployments to Afghanistan, in 2013 and 2015, largely working on route clearance/IED disposal and base defense operations, and earned two bronze stars. He separated and went on to enroll at Northwestern University’s prestigious Kellogg School of Management, earning his MBA in 2019.
Using comics for educational purposes is nothing new. Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis co-wrote an autobiographical comic book, March, to tell his life story, winning the National Book Award in 2016. Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee, while serving in the Army during WW2, rewrote the Army accounting training manual, replacing much of it with comic strips to get the training time down from six months to six weeks. In 1969, comic book legend Will Eisner created the M16A1 Rifle Operation and Preventive Maintenance Manual (image above), which used comic book techniques to familiarize drafted soldiers with their weapon quickly.
So, if comics are so powerful, why don’t we see them everywhere in K-12 education? Well, Army veteran Stephane Manuel thinks we should, and launched TrueFiktion in early 2021 to explore teaching the history of marginalized groups with comics today.
Stephane is a first-generation American, the son of immigrants. His grade school education didn’t explore the history or pain points behind modern-day American racial tensions. When he was in Afghanistan he heard about Black Lives Matter protests springing up around the high-profile killings of Trayvon Martin (2012), Eric Garner (2014), and Michael Brown (2014), among many others. Stephane didn’t understand what was happening, but was very motivated to educate himself and find out.
His interest in social justice and the lost histories of marginalized groups followed him in his transition to business school. His first business idea was a more technology-driven streaming platform he wanted to turn into the “Netflix of social justice”. He struggled to gain traction, but he knew he was circling around something society needed.
Stephane had read a lot of Japanese comics (known as manga) as a child, mostly as a way to get ahead of his favorite cartoons like Dragonball Z, Bleach, and Naruto, which were adapting the comics stories. He reasoned that if comics could be so influential, maybe there was a way to harness that communicative power for good.
Stephane launched TrueFiktion in early 2021 with the goal of helping students engage with history via narratives told through the medium of comics. TrueFiktion creates and sells the comics as well as the educational curriculum around the comics. His first MVP wasn’t a particularly great comic or curriculum, but the power of comics to get young people to engage with material was apparent nonetheless. The teacher running his first MVP sessions reported “quiet” and “checked out” kids participating and engaging with the material.
Connecting With Bunker Labs
Stephane boxed at West Point, and became close with future Bunker Labs Transition Podcast host “Iron” Mike Steadman, who boxed at the Naval Academy, and make sure Stephane knew all about Bunker Labs while he was pursuing his MBA. Once Stephane formally launched TrueFiktion, he enrolled in Bunker Labs’ Veterans in Residence (ViR) program, joining cohort 21A in Chicago.
Stephane valued the community, just having fellow veterans and military spouses who shared that military cultural history and spoke that language. He credits the Bunker Labs community with helping him make that cultural transition from military life to the civilian business world. He also credits Bunker Labs with some very practical bits of education, despite his formal business education. Stephane liked the view from the trenches guest speakers his ViR cohort brought in, covering the meat and potatoes of some business skills in practice, and how they’d often give him a starting point to work toward a solution.
“Bunker Labs is a great network of support that provided me so many opportunities that allowed me to enter other key networks and access more experiences, capital opportunities, and gain social capital.“
Taking Comics To School
Since the launch of TrueFiktion and his Bunker Labs experience, Stephane has done some amazing things. For starters, he’s brought in experts to produce professional curriculum and comic books. He’s also refining his offerings, leaning into his human-centered design background. Instead of only producing the comics and curriculum internally and then trying to sell it, he’s created a more service-minded model that empowers a school to collaborate with TrueFiktion to tell local history that then rose to national significance.
Stephane has also been building traction, celebrating huge wins over the past two years. He won a $150,000 grant from NewSchools Racial Equity Investment in March of 2022. He launched a pilot program for five classrooms at Mastery Charter School Shoemaker Campus in West Philadelphia, teaching the 1944 Philadelphia Transit Strike. He also participated in Freedom on the Move, contributing the comic Jane’s Escape. The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities awarded the project as the Best in Digital Humanities for 2023.
It’s Your Time
Veterans in Residence is a peer-facilitated, six-month business incubator that provides veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs a networking community, business skills, and opportunities to help grow their business.
Breaking Barriers in Entrepreneurship is a virtual workshop series that facilitates business growth and support within AAPI, Black, Latinx, and female veteran and military spouse communities. The eight-week workshop is designed to create an immediate impact for early to growth-stage businesses by providing access to business tools, resources, capital opportunities, mentorship, and a stronger peer network!