By Ryan MacDonald
On a recent Friday afternoon, inside the CoMotion Labs on the campus of University of Washington, the UW ROTC color guard greeted a crowd of US veterans and budding entrepreneurs with a presentation of the colors.
When it was over, Todd Connor, CEO of Bunker Labs, took the microphone and greeted everyone with an enthusiastic welcome.
“Bunker Labs Seattle is open for business!” he shouted. “It’s a special day, a cause for celebration!”
“This marks our 15th chapter, and I think it might be the best,” Connor told the crowd. “I can’t wait to find out.”
And just like that, the newest chapter of Bunker Labs, a not-for-profit organization built by military veterans entrepreneurs to empower other veterans to become leaders in innovation and technology, opened its doors to the public.
Joining Connor to help commemorate the occasion was Matt Griffin, CEO of Combat Flip Flops, Kerrie Hurd, District Director at US. Small Business Administration, Alfi Alvarado-Ramos from Washington State Dept. of Veteran Affairs, Brigadier General (Retired) Carol Eggert, Senior Vice President Comcast NBC Universal, and executive chairman of Starbucks Howard Schultz.
Since 2013, Starbucks has hired over 10,000 veterans and military spouses to work side by side with regular employees, and Schultz shared one of the moments when he realized he needed to be doing more.
During a conversation with a group of veterans, one young man made a confession to Schultz that he will never forget. He said, “Mr. Schultz I have more anxiety about going to a job interview than I would if I was being sent back to Afghanistan tomorrow.”
For those who have never been to war, Schultz told the crowd, “you can’t put yourself in his shoes.”
With chapters all across the United States, including in cities like New York, Nashville, and Austin, Bunker Labs provides US veterans the tools and resources they need to take their ideas from a dream to a reality.
“We’re basically an easy entry for veterans to get into the entrepreneur space,” says Jake Tozier, the Program Director for the Seattle Chapter of Bunker Labs.
Through a series of events, online tools and mentorship programs, Bunkers Labs will provide a familiar infrastructure to veterans who may need that type of support once they are transitioning into everyday life.
“What Bunker Labs provides them is a safe place that they know that the resources and network we give them are vetted.”
Tozier, along with the chapter’s Executive Director Johnannes Schonberg, worked with the national headquarters to open this branch after they saw how the city’s tech ecosystem supports innovative start-ups such as this.
“The start-up community is so rich and it’s growing rapidly,” Tozier said about why Seattle seemed like a right fit. Along with the large population of veterans in the area coming from places like Everett Navy and Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Bunker Labs saw an opportunity for a local chapter to thrive.
To get the organization up and running, Comcast, the Founding Sponsor of the Seattle Chapter, provided a $100,000 sponsorship that the team used for the physical build out of the space inside UW’s Start Up Hall. That build out included a comprehensive tech package and office furnishings, as well as a mural painted by fellow veteran Tim Andrews – who dedicated months to designing it for free.
Being inside this location was also a big selling point, says Tozier. The veterans who visit the lab regularly will work along side traditional start-ups and other IT companies, which will provide an inspirational atmosphere for their budding ideas.
“We looked around to see where we wanted to be and we decided that Co-Motion Labs at UW was just the perfect fit,” he said.
Tozier hopes that by being in this space, the Bunker Labs workers will help change the perception of veterans in general. “Most people don’t have any kind of interaction with military. They think of a veteran, one of two things, either broken or homeless,” he said.
Soon they will begin hosting a social hour, Bunker Brew, where any veteran can come and pitch their ideas to seasoned entrepreneurs, as well as network with other like-minded people.
This fall, they will launch a 12-week curriculum based program called EPIC, which takes the more serious entrepreneurs and brings them from ideation into creation. The program will include an in person meet once a week with a mentor where they will focus on web development, marketing, advertisement and other business metrics.
“[With] a lot of veteran entrepreneurs we meet, their vision is so broad. They need help navigating and winding down what it is they need to do in order to make their business a success,” said Tozier.
For those who can’t make it in person, the team will also offer a few other programs including Bunker in a Box, an online application that provides 400 hours of content that’s entrepreneur related and will “motivate you and keep you in the game,” said Tozier.
No matter where they’re located, it’s important for the veteran community to continue to evolve and improve their skill sets, Tozier said, because with the lack of medium skilled jobs on the horizon, they will need to have other skills to stay employed and relevant.
“We’re trying to educate veterans, as well as the local community, the importance of striving after these jobs of the future.”