Business ownership helps veterans find ‘identity’ after service

By Joe Fisher

Supporting veterans and the families of veterans is about more than lip service.

That is what Bernie Stone emphasizes when he passionately discusses efforts to truly help those who have served. Stone is a U.S. Army veteran and a volunteer ambassador for Bunker Labs, a nonprofit organization that helps veterans and their families enter the world of entrepreneurship.

You don’t know what you don’t know, Stone remarks. One of the things veterans like him are forced to learn when returning to civilian life is how to choose their own mission and find their next purpose. That is where business ownership can be a perfect fit.

Following World War II, about 50% of veterans started their own businesses. Korean War veterans followed at a 40% rate. But after 9/11, fewer than 5% of veterans started businesses, according to the Syracuse University Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

“In the military they strip you of who you are as an individual. When you retire or leave, they don’t put that ‘you’ back,” Stone said. “We are underemployed or unemployed. That was my experience. I struggled because you are sort of waiting for someone to tell you what to do. When there’s a vacuum, it is really painful.”

But what does real support look like? Bunker Labs approaches support through several avenues.

The first, and perhaps most crucial, support is fostering a community. Starting a business can be difficult and lonely when those around you are not on the same journey. Mackenzie Walters discovered this when she started her marketing business StoryStruck Marketing. Walters is the wife of Sgt. Andrew Walters, a master sergeant in the Air National Guard.

Following a pivot in her young business — adding an emphasis on providing market research for clients — she joined Bunker Online and began meeting with fellow veterans and service spouses who were embarking on the same journey.

“Bunker Labs is helping me stay accountable,” Walters said. “It’s been nice to show up every Monday morning and have a group of people that are also building businesses, that are also in that phase. We’re all growing and refining and learning.”

There is a lot of learning and discovering involved in a new business venture. Even if people are running completely different types of businesses, they all have knowledge they can share and other forms of assistance they can provide.

Walters is able to bring the challenges she is facing or the questions she has to the table, and her fellow entrepreneurs listen and often offer guidance.

Community-building expands to meaningful networking, both with participants and with the broader business community. Walters said the organization has built a strong network of resources, including information about other organizations that help guide and support small businesses. 

“It’s super helpful because it can be super overwhelming,” she said. “There’s not a degree that can prepare you. The first place I went and would recommend is the Small Business Development Center. I benefited from that free service, especially when I was starting.”

Coursework is another key component to what Bunker Labs does. Online programs, including courses focusing on handling business finances, are open to veterans even if they are not ready to start a business.

Jennifer Smith, an ambassador based in Cedar Rapids and a U.S. Army veteran, said veterans have a lot to offer the business ecosystem and the community at large.

“There’s this quality with veterans that’s really just dedicated to doing the right thing for people,” Smith said. “Veterans tend to make their business truly their lives. That idea of identity becomes very personal.”

Meanwhile, business ownership gives veterans a sense of autonomy and a new way to display their leadership abilities that were built through military service.

“When you go into another organization and you’re not as high up, that can be frustrating,” Smith said. “That independence really shines.”

Every month, Bunker Labs holds events called Bunker Connects that are open to the public. A Bunker Connect is often held at a veteran-owned business and gives anyone the opportunity to meet the cohorts and learn more about the organization. 

Learn more about Bunker Labs DSM on the organization’s Facebook page:

Joe Fisher is a freelance contributing writer.