In the military, a bunker is a harbor from the melee of combat. It is a place to regroup, to strategize and to rehearse a plan of action. It contains resources, a point of reference and camaraderie in times of duress. It’s a place where servicemen and women lean on one another, and in doing so become intimately acquainted with the value of a network.

In the civilian world, an organization—aptly called Bunker Labs—has been working to create another kind of safe haven for veterans in transition. Founded in Chicago and now with 15 locations nationwide, Bunker Labs is a 501(c)3 organization committed to the advancement of veteran entrepreneurship at no cost to veterans whatsoever. Todd Conner, founder of Bunker Labs and retired Navy lieutenant, created Bunker Labs to help veterans navigate the complicated and often discouraging process of pursuing their dreams of business ownership.

Bunker Labs Ribbon Cutting
SVP of Veterans Affairs for Comcast NBCUniversal Brigadier General (Ret.) Carol Eggert, CEO of Bunker Labs Todd Connor, WA Region SVP for Comcast Kyle McSlarrow, Combat Flip Flops Founder Matt Griffin and wife Michelle, Washington State Veterans Affairs Director Alfie Alvarado-Ramos, Bunker Labs Development Director Becca Keaty and SMB Seattle Director Kerry Hurd come together to cut the ribbon at Bunker Lab’s Seattle space. Photo courtesy: Bunker Labs

What does Bunker Labs do?

At a glance, Bunker Labs provides resources in the form of desk space, computers and printing equipment, but co-founder and Tacoma native Jake Tozier explains there’s so much more going on in this collaborative habitat. Bunker Labs works to connect veterans with vetted mentors and other proven veteran entrepreneurs who understand not only a specific market of interest, but also the unique challenge of transitioning from the structure and hierarchy of the military to the chaotic schedule and flexible roles of a small business owner.

“The organization is designed to circumvent the sometimes-confusing paper trail of information that is available, and also to match veterans with the partners, mentors and resources that will be the most beneficial to their long-term goals,” says Tozier. “We’re not a small business incubator; we’re an aggregator for entrepreneurs. We provide a solid home base for veterans, and we’re just trying to help them discover the best and most relevant resources needed to start their business.”

In May 2017, Bunker Labs launched their newest chapter in Seattle. Their University of Washington location, CoMotion Labs, is an open and industrial-inspired space. The startup-rich and tech-driven infrastructure, says Tozier, creates an exciting opportunity for Pacific Northwest vets. Complete with a mural by veteran artist Ken Andrews as well as a bar and shelving by veteran-owned Twisted Oak, the lab is equipped with all the modern conveniences. Veterans can drop in at any time to socialize, investigate opportunities and find out how to get in touch with possible mentors.

Todd Connor’s vision was to grow chapters organically. As the organization, its resources and partnerships expanded, its mission aligned strongly with the local environment in the greater Seattle area – a location with a robust ties to the tech industry. Over 8,000 soldiers transition out of the military each year in Washington via the Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Like 25 percent of all service members nationwide, many of these veterans express an interest in becoming an entrepreneur.

It makes sense, explains Tozier, that members of the military are drawn to entrepreneurial pursuits. Soldiers learn many skills in the military that translate well to business ownership, such as punctuality, professionalism, accountability, teamwork, adaptability, focus (and the ability to pivot that focus), as well as values such as learning to punch above your weight class and learning how to operate with limited resources.

Tozier is passionate about changing the cultural narrative of today’s veteran population.

“So often,” he says, “we hear about the great work that’s being done by powerful and necessary organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project. They need our support and they are vital, but the story of the wounded, broken warrior is not the only story that needs telling. There are veterans who innovate, who create and make their mark in the civilian story as well, and Bunker Labs is all about empowering veterans, encouraging them to aim high and helping them to challenge the way that veterans are often portrayed in the media and in film.”

Matthew Griffin
Veterans like Matthew Griffin, entrepreneur and CEO of Combat Flip Flops, can attest that veteran business owners are 60 percent more likely to hire veterans themselves. Photo courtesy: Bunker Labs

Helping Veterans Transition

At the end of a military career, there is a period of transition for soldiers. The armed services prepare those who serve for their return to the private sector with a five-day program called TAP—Transfer Assistance Program. This resource was created to meet the needs of separating service members during their period of transition into civilian life. It covers topics that range from job search skills to navigating their military medical and education benefits.

For the many veterans interested in pursuing their dreams of entrepreneurship, there are places to turn for guidance that most small business owners turn to. The information available is valuable, but finding the right resources and identifying the clearest path to entrepreneurship is still no easy task. Supporting veterans through workshops, events, informational interviews and networking, Bunker Labs helps navigate resources like the Small Business Administration and SCORE following through needed steps to develop a business.

“Veterans are naturally skeptical,” Tozier explains. “While you would think that we, as a country, feel an obligation to support the men and women who serve our country, the truth is that there are institutions who can and will cash in on the resources that veterans have available to them. As a whole, veterans place great value on transparency in business and ethics. Bunker Labs was created to ensure that a veteran has that, that he or she doesn’t simply exhaust their educational credit or savings as they try to accomplish their goals.”

Bunker Labs Mural
Seattle artist Ken Andrews donated his time and talent to add a dash of color to the industrial setting at Bunker Labs. Photo courtesy: Bunker Labs

Support from Comcast and Chase

A $100,000 founding sponsor grant from Comcast NBCUniversal provided seed funding toward both the buildout of the Bunker Labs Seattle chapter space at UW’s Startup Hall and to launch its programmatic work across Washington State.

Tozier explains that the partnership between Comcast and Bunker Labs, which has been ongoing on a national level, is so successful because the two institutions share visions for that meld well with one another.

Beth Hester, Comcast’s Vice President of External Affairs Beth Hester, says that the buildout of the Bunker Lab’s Seattle location is only the beginning.

“We plan to continue providing support to Bunker Labs as they gain traction. That includes introducing our network of businesses partners to the organization, contributing the time of our associates to support the organization, working together on events whenever possible: our aim is to see that veterans receive all the support they deserve. Comcast saw an opportunity to invest in the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit of our veteran community, and that’s what this relationship is: it’s not a charitable partnership but rather an investment. It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s a collaboration that will continue to evolve and provide opportunities to grow for our organization as well as theirs.”

Bunker Labs is up and running, and while they are excited about the partnerships already in place, they are equally excited about new possibilities. Any person, group or organization interested in donating time, money or expertise to Bunker Labs is invited to contact the Bunker Labs headquarters.

To learn more, visit Bunker Labs Seattle’s website. CoMotion Labs in Seattle is located on the University of Washington campus at 1100 NE Campus Pkwy #200,
Seattle, WA 98105.

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