From battle ready to business ready, Bunker Labs is arming veteran entrepreneurs
CHICAGO — Becca Keaty is a wife, mother of three boys and retired Staff Sergeant with 20 years of service in the Wisconsin Army National Guard. As a saxophone player in the National Guard's 132nd Army Band, she served her country with music at official military ceremonies, such as troops heading overseas or returning home, funeral programs honoring fallen heroes, activities boosting military esprit de corps, community events celebrating America and freedom, and a lot of Green Bay Packers football games.
Becca is also the Chief Development Officer at Bunker Labs, a nonprofit organization with a national network of veteran entrepreneurs dedicated to helping veterans start their own businesses. Based in Chicago, Bunker Labs launched five years ago and is currently active in 20 states and more than 30 cities across the U.S. Bunker Labs says 25 percent of service members transitioning back to civilian life want to go into business for themselves and the organization is committed to making sure each of them has the tools, resources, network and support they need to succeed.
One of three corporate sponsors, Ford Fund supports the Muster Across America Tour, Bunker Labs annual visit to U.S. cities to empower veterans seeking to be entrepreneurs, showcasing their unique skills and experiences and strengthening connections between the veteran and business communities.
We caught up with Becca in New York City, where she was attending the Bunker Labs Inaugural Gala and continuing the work of serving veterans and their families.
Tell us about the mission of Bunker Labs.
"Our mission is to empower members of the military community to become successful entrepreneurs. We believe all veterans, active duty service members, military spouses and their children have a unique and special skill set that helps them succeed with entrepreneurship. What we do is provide programming, help inspire them to consider the idea, equip them with the necessary resources and connect them through different events to explore their business idea."
What are the unique and special skills that can benefit veterans starting a business?
"Leadership is a natural one people think of, but also the ability of veterans to take risks and handle fear. A lot of our service members have been through some really, really stressful situations, and while the stress that comes with entrepreneurship may be too much for some people, for someone who has been in a war zone or had to leave their family ten times, they'll often say they've faced a lot worse. I would also add resourcefulness. People who served in the military are used to making a lot with a little and that's how you need to start an entrepreneurship. You have to break down a problem and tackle it head-on and that's what our service members are used to doing all the time."
How did Ford Fund and Bunker Labs get together?
"We saw that we had similar visions and were able to focus around the idea of advancing communities and supporting the educational components to assist the veteran community. Support from Ford and others is absolutely critical to the success and growth of our organization. We are seeking to be in all 50 states and we couldn't fathom doing that work without the support of our funders. It means we can serve everyone as they transition out of service. Over the last two years, we've partnered around pitch competitions and our national events tour Muster Across America. Ford has provided us with some critical funding for award winners of these competitions. The company with the business idea that wins the competition receives a grant that goes directly to the veteran entrepreneur to advance their business. That has been a special part of the partnership because we've seen and heard time and again the funding from Ford has changed the trajectory of a business. It has been an awesome and very impactful collaboration."
What happens at the muster?
"We use these to bring our three key words to life - inspire, equip and connect. We always have keynote speakers with inspiring stories they can share. Equip is the pitch competition at almost every event where we equip someone with funding to further their business. We also have breakout sessions on different topics, such as financing, hiring, research and development, manufacturing and some of the soft skills. We also ask if you as a person have what it takes to be an entrepreneur. And we always have a super fun happy hour for networking, talking, exchanging cards and making meaningful connections."
What do you see in the veterans who attend as you look around and engage with them?
"That's one of the favorite parts of my job. What you see are a bunch of really fired up, inspired individuals who want to solve problems, but they don't know how to get there. They are also relieved to be back surrounded by their military family. I see a group of people who feel at home, like I'm with my people, I feel safe here. I can ask questions, make mistakes and know they'll have my back. It seems simple, but it's very complicated when you get back out into the civilian world."
Why is it so difficult for many veterans to return to civilian life and how does Bunker Labs help them make that transition?
"People recognize their time in service as momentous. They've done big things. They have respect and honor, and getting out of the military leaves many with a sense of loss, like their best days are behind them. They question if they will ever do big things again. When you're in the military, you're given your network - here is your squad, here is your platoon, here is your company. You will speak only when you're addressed. There is no training on how to network and a lot of times what they are most afraid of is putting themselves out there. That's why Bunker Labs is so important to transitioning service members. We're training them how to network, and how to sell themselves and their business idea. One of the first things we work on is breaking down that barrier to gain confidence and be able to ask for things and ask for help. We show them the path to success in entrepreneurship."
Can you tell us about a special moment that inspired or touched you?
"Some of my favorite moments are when we would do Army Band concerts. We would start with the service song and a flag presentation. My favorite moment is when you would see the elderly veterans stand up for their service flag. Those who could not stand would stay seated in their wheelchairs and they just felt so honored to salute their service flag. Some would be crying, you could see how much it meant to them. It's a memory that stands out to me. I would always be crying at that point and I wouldn't be able to play it's so emotional. Some of my favorite moments."
Are there different challenges for women in the service?
"The biggest challenge for me was going through three pregnancies while serving in the military! Staying committed to the unit and the mission, while going through the pregnancy. And then afterwards passing the physical fitness exam and weight standards within months. It's a lot of pressure. One way it's the same is that it's hard to leave your small children for any period of time. It's a team effort and I'm so grateful for the support of my husband and family so I could serve our country. My husband really raised our sons when they were young. We made choices and sacrifices, but I know he would never trade those days with them. He is now a Chicago fireman and sergeant on a suburban police force, so he is serving our communities in a major way."
Military spouses play a critical support role for families and they are also included in the Bunker Labs program, why?
"A much underestimated population are the military spouses. They are keeping things together while their loved one is serving overseas or at home. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma and hurdles for military spouses when they have to move so often with their job. What we know for any business or job is that you need to have a support system around you, and at Bunkers Labs a key part of our mission is to be that support system. We want to be part of their family and ecosystem to make sure they have everything they need and help them start a small business."
What does success look like for you at Bunker Labs?
"Success looks like our organization being in all 50 states. Ultimate success is telling the stories of all the veterans we support. I want them to be looked at as celebrities. I want them to be looked at with pride and have a spotlight on the all problems they are solving."
To learn more about Bunker Labs visit https://bunkerlabs.org/.