At WeWork, easing veterans into startup ventures

The Veterans in Residence program, an outgrowth of the successful Patriot Boot Camp, aims to diversity the pool of entrepreneurs by helping former military personnel get into business. 

Matt Colvin signed up to join the U.S. Air Force September 11, 2001. He served for six years, and was deployed to Afghanistan twice as an airborne linguist who flew nearly 100 combat missions jamming enemy communications.

When he emerged from active duty, he recalls, his transition to civilian life “tough ... I went back to my hometown, the one I swore I’d never live in again and moved in with my parents,” Colvin says. “I had a hard time connecting again with those who hadn’t served, including my family, no matter how genuine they were in trying. I didn’t visit the VA  [U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs] for almost five years after my service ... I didn’t have a community. I consistently felt lost; a feeling I’d never experienced before.”

In 2012, Colvin and his wife, Julie O’Neil – a freelance photographer and videographer – learned of Patriot Boot Camp, an intensive educational program — just three days long — designed to inspire active and retired members of the military, and their spouses to launch technology-focused businesses.

Jon Slavet, WeWork GM-West, and the VIR group at the program's kick-off.

Colvin participated in a 2015 PBC event in New York City and went on to launch a company, CauseEngine. He credits the program for helping himself and his co-founders refine, position and build the company.

Success stories like Colvin’s inspired PBC and its Chief Operating Officer Josh Anderson to do more. They decided a longer program could do help even more vets get a start in the a startup business.

“More than three days became my mantra,” Anderson says.

And so he set out on a mission.

The pieces came together

Coincidentally, WeWork had a similar idea. To address the challenges that American citizens face when transitioning to life after military service, WeWork – a collaborative workspace with more than 140 global locations – imagined its own new program, Veterans in Residence. The game plan included former service men and women with an invitation to find their tribe and create their life’s work. Since last October, WeWork hunkered down on a giveback strategy, providing sponsored workspaces to mission-driven operations.

“That’s how we met Josh Anderson,” says Bryn Jacobs, enterprise sales lead at WeWork.

Veterans get coaching on their journey toward creating startup ventures. The first set of participants includes Bryan Sparling, Kerrie Gill, Royce Hale, Lawerence Wagner, Blake Hansen, Nigel Keyes, Cameron Smith, Matt Colvin, and Kevin Walker.

Shortly thereafter, the ViR program was molded in partnership with PBC, officially launched at WeWork’s Union Station location earlier this month.

“I knew PBC was working on some new programming here in Denver and through CauseEngine, I met Josh [Anderson] just a few weeks ago,” says Colvin, who is today the co-founder and vice president of client services and partnerships for the young company, helping startups scale more quickly and efficiently.

“Julie and I have been actively looking for any opportunity to join in the Denver community and begin to put our roots down – having bought our first home less than two weeks ago. We’re both at new starting points here with truly no network to call upon, so Veterans in Residence was the perfect place for us to land.”

U.S. Army veteran, founder and CEO of Spark Mindset, Lawrence Wagner shared the sentiment. Forming his corporate culture and engagement consulting firm in 2016 after exiting the military 15 years ago, he now has four employees, and landed on WeWork upon moving form Colorado Springs – where, he says he felt “isolated,” – to Denver.

Inviting 10 Veterans in Residence, the group came together “organically,” Anderson says. There are a few members who just want jobs, but all are “entrepreneurial.”

The inaugural ViR class has taken over a dedicated, sponsored workspace for three months, during which the participants – including Bryan Sparling, retired U.S. Army Colonel on the hunt for his next professional endeavor; Molly Blake, a U.S. Marine Corps spouse and content creator, and more – receive one-on-one mentorship with local business leaders, entrepreneurship workshops and access to the 100,000-person WeWork network.

Participants Kevin Walker, Royce Hale, and Blake Hansen.

Formatted similarly to a startup incubator, the schedule of the ViR program includes an intensive orientation, weekly roundtables and projects. Sporadic community events, speaker series and volunteer opportunities fill the 90-day program.

As the program scales throughout the WEWork network – launching next in Austin, Tex. – Anderson says his hope is to find community members who are transitioning.
Redefining diversity

Though the conversation around increasing diversity in technology-related fields has gained momentum, veterans are largely cut out.

With a high concentration of military bases and more than 413,000 veterans, 40,000 of whom are in Colorado and served in post-9/11 war zones, the Denver metro area is ripe for recognition and action-oriented programming to draw the veteran population into the business community.

While research from the United States Small Business Administration shows that veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed that those without active-duty military experience, a stunning 49.7 percent of World War II veterans went on to own or operate a business, according to Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. So far, just 4.5 percent of more than 3.6 million people who served in the U.S. military since September 11 have launched their own companies, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some blame a lack of in-service mentorship, saying that too many veterans settle rather than find a supported path to entrepreneurship.

Community support: Denver City Councilman Chris Herndon at the kick-off event.

“For the first three years it was very difficult,” Wagner says. “There were no jobs. It took me 10 years to figure it out. I moved back [to Colorado] got my bachelors in IT and masters in business management, and once I did that I got into project management.”

Jacobs describes the problem as “under employment,” rather than unemployment.

Wagner adds that WeWork’s mission – “Do what you love,” originally hooked him on the community and later on the ViR program.

Indeed, many veterans who develop engaged, entrepreneurial networks credit factors outside the military.

There’s a “lack of social integration,” Anderson says. “Separation from service is an arduous, unsupported process. Vets tend to do whatever they can when they get out. We have to create pathways.”

Retired U.S. Army General George W. Casey Jr., who served for 41 years, lastly as the 36th Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army from 2007 to 2001, traveled to Denver April 4 for a fireside chat at WeWork Union Station to discuss how military veterans are changing the economy in the 21st century.

“You already have the skills CEOs want,” Casey told an attentive room full of professionals, many of whom formerly served in one of the five armed service branches and listing: teamwork, work ethic and values.

“The volatility of war trains these men and women for the ups and downs of business,” he added.

While Casey says the private sector of today is more engaged with the veteran population when compared to the post-Vietnam War era, supporting veterans as they reintegrate into the professional world isn’t as simple as hiring them or writing a check to a well-aligned program.

“Stigma and preconceived notions are out there,” Colvin says. “I believe veterans have an advantage in the workplace because we’ve been entrepreneurs since we went through boot camp. We’ve had to accomplish more with less in the harshest of environments under life or death conditions. We can thrive in the right environment and bring our leadership to a new mission. The fact that WeWork’s ViR is launching here is a testament to the community already building within Denver. The chance to work at WeWork with like-minded individuals and to access both WeWork’s and PBC’s programming was exactly what we needed. It couldn’t have come at a better time.”


Read more articles by Gigi Sukin.

Gigi Sukin is a Denver-based writer-editor. She currently works as an editor at ColoradoBiz and previously worked as an editorial intern at 5280.
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