Todd Connor, CEO of Bunker Labs and USAA Member.
USAA member Todd Connor turned his passion for giving back to his fellow veterans into a non-profit called Bunker Labs – an organization that’s helping them start and grow businesses.
“The Bunker,” as it is nicknamed, is a chapter-based organization that supports the creation of local ecosystems for veterans pursuing entrepreneurship. Membership and all services are free. Founded in June 2014, Bunker Labs is supported through corporate sponsorships. USAA is one such sponsor.
A Navy veteran who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom aboard the USS BUNKER HILL (CG-52), Connor, 38, acknowledged that the process of starting a business is emotionally challenging. Going it alone is a tough endeavor.
“You’re putting yourself out there,” he said. “And the scary thing for entrepreneurs is that you don’t know what you don’t know. The way people get through that if they’re going to be successful is to surround themselves with people who’ve been there and have already done that.”
According to Connor, nearly 25 percent of men and women on active duty express a desire to start a business when they separate from the military. And for military veterans – particularly those who are also aspiring entrepreneurs – Connor saw an unmet need for them to access a community of like-minded individuals.
“There are a lot of good educational programs out there but to me there was a divide between traditional educational programs and actually launching your business,” he said. “Doing that requires meeting with people locally who can tell you about opportunities and resources that you might not otherwise find out about.”
That community, he added, needed to live both in person as well as online.
“We wanted to create a physical place, in addition one online, where people could show up, attend events, go to happy hour, listen to keynote speakers – surround themselves with a community of people who can help them in all things. Not just professionally in terms of starting a business, but also personally. There’s no substitute for face-to-face interactions.”
The nonprofit has nine chapters: Austin, Columbus, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Madison, Nashville, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham and Washington D.C. And while there are plans for more chapters underway, The Bunker started in Chicago – without plans to expand nationally.
“Almost immediately after our launch we started getting calls from military veterans across the nation asking us how they can get involved,” Connor said. “Looking back it should have been obvious: The military community thinks and operates nationally. The veteran leaders in other cities told us they wanted to replicate this model in their own cities.”
Connor said the demand inspired his team to create and share a chapter-launch toolkit as a resource for local leaders and organizations that wanted to create Bunker chapters.
And it’s working. To date there are 85 companies listed on The Bunker’s members page: Everything from “AG DTours” (a Texas-based international agribusiness tourism services company affiliated with the Austin chapter of Bunker Labs) to Chicago-based “Z Street Consulting” (a business-services consultancy for federal agencies).
Many of the companies Bunker Labs helped veterans create have experienced phenomenal growth and success. Prevail Health Solutions is one of them.
USAA member Rich Gengler – an F-18 Navy pilot – founded the company to help veterans address mental health issues through online programs. Connor said the platform has proven successful in clinical trials treating low-level post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), postpartum depression, anxiety and a host of other mental health issues.
After joining The Bunker, Gengler’s new networks helped open numerous doors. He connected with the National Science Foundation through its Small Business Innovation Research grant program – which essentially serves as a government-funded venture capital body.
Gengler is now giving back to the veteran community with philanthropic donations to several organizations dedicated to helping former military service members and their families.
“It’s terrific to see the evolution of a company like Rich Gengler’s – through all stages of growth and ultimately see him be able to give back to the community because of his success,” Connor said.
More success stories
Army veteran and former truck driver Sandra Edwards turned her passion for promoting vehicle safety awareness into “Wheelz On Time,” a venture helping low-income families with an affordable alternative to conventional tire financing. Her clients, many with low initial credit scores, boast a collective 97-percent repayment rate – which in turn elevates their own individual credit scores.
Sockwork is an online retailer that sends customers socks each month through a subscription and gifting service. Each pair of socks tells the story of a fallen service member, with a portion of profits sent to a different veteran charity every month.
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