Anthony Garcia, co-founder of startup Adjacent Applications, spent eight years in the army, flying as a medevac helicopter pilot. “We picked up the wounded off the battlefield and treated them,” Garcia says. “We medically evacuated over 4,000 people.” His boss told him he had to provide medevac coverage to certain areas, but never told him how to do it. Garcia had to develop plans and execute precisely, or risk people dying on his watch.
Creating plans under risky circumstances and executing well? That sounds almost…entrepreneurial, doesn’t it? Granted, life and death are not on the line for most startup founders.
In that way, a veteran has experience executing in much higher stakes’ environments than the average civilian entrepreneur.
Garcia thought so too. He knew he wanted to start his own company, and after retiring from the military he went to Cornell Business School. When he graduated he formed his company and built Call Dibs, an eBay-like application for military service members and their families.
Garcia isn’t the only vet breaking into Silicon Valley. When he started his company in 2010, he only knew of one or two other veteran entrepreneurs, but now he can think of fifteen or twenty. Vets are starting to flock to the startup world.
Bow Rodgers, a decorated Vietnam War vet, former Group President of Sprint, and Plug and Play’s Advisor in Residence, can think of at least 32. That’s how many companies he’s admitted to his Vet-Tech accelerator.
Rodgers founded Vet-Tech in 2012, in the hopes of helping veteran entrepreneurs get their startups off the ground, hone their business strategy, and find funding. He’s running it out of the Plug and Play accelerator offices in Sunnyvale. “You can give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a night, but I’m trying to build fishing companies,” Rodgers says.
Rodgers is taking a Silicon Valley approach to the employment challenges facing people who have served in the military when they finish their service. Said challenges are widely known.
There are one million unemployed veterans, and the rate of unemployment is as high as 20 percent for some demographics. Despite the fact that they served the country, underwent rigorous training, and developed excellent team-working abilities, vets aren’t sure how to channel their experience into a civilian job. Either that, or employers don’t give them the opportunity to prove their skills.
But vets are used to handling high risk situations and executing efficiently. Starting a company, if they’ve got the thirst for it, makes a lot of sense as a potential career.
Rodgers is hoping to help veterans see entrepreneurship as a viable option after wrapping up their active duty service. His Vet-Tech accelerator has flown largely under the radar up till now, spreading through word of mouth in the veteran community.
Rodgers attends vet events and taps his network of fellow veterans or current admirals. Through those channels he’s recruited the companies that are currently going through the program, getting mentorship and guidance in exchange for equity.
One of the company’s he’s accepted to the accelerator is former medivac pilot Anthony Garcia’s Adjacent Applications. Rodgers has helped facilitate conversations between Garcia and people who can offer funding. “The startup game is a game, it’s somewhat of a racket,” Garcia says. “It’s all about who you know.”
Garcia explained that it’s hard to get into tech as a veteran because there’s loads of misconceptions about people who have served in the military. Garcia frequently comes up against the faulty stereotype that vets only know how to do one thing: take orders. He finds it frustrating, particularly given his experience on the front-lines.
In many cases I would argue that officers in the army are starting businesses over and over again. You go from one organization to another. Organizations have a lot of turnover so you have to rebuild teams and learn new technology. You’re frequently given different missions. It’s intelligent people leading other intelligent people.
One of the other entrepreneurs in the Vet-Tech accelerator, Ryan Micheletti, agrees that veterans are uniquely well-suited to starting their own companies. “We’re not afraid to take on risk, manage it, and overcome circumstances,” Micheletti says.
Although entrepreneurship may be a natural path for many vets, the business spirit is not enough. They need the networks, guidance, and funding to get their idea off the ground, which is where Vet-Tech comes into play.
The vets in the accelerator range in ages and backgrounds, and some have served in the Vietnam War and recent Afghanistan and Iraq Wars. Rodgers says a sizable chunk are in their 30s, three to four years out from their active duty.
The accelerator helps its companies navigate challenges unique to vets in the startup world. Rodgers remembers one story in particular.
“One of the teams, the CEO had PTSD,” Rodgers says. “When he was pitching his company to VCs they asked if he had suffered it.” The CEO was honest and admitted he had gone through it but was better now. Unfortunately, the VCs took it as a red flag for concern.
Rodgers was quick to emphasize that such an instance of prejudice is unusual, and that he understands the perspective of VCs. After all, they’re taking big risks with other people’s money. They need to fund the companies they think are most likely to succeed.
But from a logical perspective, Rodgers says investors should not be so quick to discount a vet. “I think the veterans should be given the credit that they’re not often given,” Rodgers says. “Maybe they didn’t go to a fine university, but maybe the veteran has gone through the school of hard knocks. And by god, the school of hard knocks matters.”
[Image courtesy: US Army]