About 25 percent of military service members transitioning back to civilian life want to start a business. Only about 4.5 percent of them do. Valerie Rivera wants to change that.
“Many times, veterans are serving with other veterans, so they don’t get exposed to a lot of people who are running their own businesses, and it can seem so far out there to do that,” she said.
That’s why she got involved with Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit network of veteran entrepreneurs dedicated to helping new veteran entrepreneurs start their own businesses and access the tools and resources they need to be successful.
Thursday, June 27 marks the opening of the Omaha chapter of Bunker Labs. A launch party will be held Thursday 5:30 pm to 8:30 pm at the Magnolia Hotel, 1615 Howard St. in Omaha. Registration is free and open to the public.
Rivera, a former Air Force servicemember and the founder of the workplace-culture consultancy Take Back Work, is now a city leader for the Omaha chapter of Bunker Labs. She first learned about the organization in 2016 while attending business school in California.
A guiding phrase of Bunker Labs is to “inspire, equip, connect.” The organization wants to inspire aspiring entrepreneurs with tales of successful veteran-launched businesses (such as Nike and FedEx), to equip them with the knowledge they need to achieve their dreams, and to connect them with the requisite resources to turn their ideas into reality.
Veterans are uniquely positioned to succeed in the entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“There’s a deep sense of integrity and core values that military bring to anything they get into, very mission-focused,” Rivera said. “And then we’re also very scrappy. We’re used to doing a lot with not a lot.”
Despite their many strengths and capabilities for success, veterans face obstacles even beyond the obvious ones like PTSD, homelessness, and inefficient healthcare when transitioning back to civilian life. Many times, they simply don’t know how to navigate the non-military job market or what steps to take to start their own business.
“So many veterans are not on LinkedIn until just a few months before their transitioning,” Rivera said. “They’re not sure who’s out there. But if they start coming to our Bunker Brews events, they’ll make connections that they can tap into, whether they’re looking for employment or to start their own company afterwards.”
Bunker Brews is a monthly happy hour where veterans, military spouses, and civilians alike can network with subject matter experts, investors, thought leaders, and more.
Zayn Knaub, a success manager for a San Francisco-based technology company and himself a former Air Force service member, attests to the value of Bunker Labs. When he and his wife and children moved to Omaha to be closer to his family, he began attending Bunker Brews events whenever he could.
“I went to a couple and was just blown away by the network and the impact and the vision that they have,” Knaub said. “Every time I’ve gone, I’ve met somebody that, by the end of the night, I knew I wanted to keep in touch with them and either bounce ideas off of them or be a part of their entrepreneurial journey. It’s an injection of inspiration.”
Knaub said that, although veterans transitioning out of the military do not lack ideas for businesses, they lack knowledge of the private sector landscape and the specific steps it takes to get started.
“The thing, psychologically, for veterans that makes Bunker Brews special is that you go there and you’re not meeting with venture capitalists or somebody that is there to judge your idea, it’s a welcoming embrace from people that you’ve served with, or who have served,” he added.
Thanks to his experiences with Bunker Brews, Knaub has made a strong connection with the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce’s Startup Collaborative and is working on an entrepreneurial initiative around the idea of democratizing leadership.
Bunker Labs also offers resources for the entire community, including two hours of online programming about entrepreneurship called Launch Lab Online. Rivera said users do not have to be a veteran to use the service. They only have to be interested in starting a business, or to have already started a business but want to give it some more thought.
Rivera urges the community to attend the Bunker Labs launch party at the Magnolia Hotel.
“The more we can spread the word about that, the better and richer the ecosystem we can create,” she said.
Tom McCauley is digital content producer at AIM Institute and a terrible standup comedian.
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