6/28/2018Community

After Flying Solo, Veterans Find Others Who Have Their Backs

by Charlotte Klein

Chris Martinez was facing every entrepreneur's nightmare. A software glitch caused his company to lose its entire customer base within its first two months of operation. When his last customer departed, he seriously considered giving up.

Martinez says that being a part of WeWork’s Veterans in Residence program made all the difference. Other members in the program challenged him to put his energy into finding new customers and designing a new product. Taking their advice, he transformed Vaquero Digital Services from a service-based business to a product-based one and launched a schedule optimization program called Time Wrangler.

“I would have just thrown in the towel if I didn’t have everyone from this program helping me along,” Martinez says, a 33-year-old entrepreneur who works at Denver’s WeWork Union Station. “ViR has been everything for me. I wouldn’t have even known where to look for a community without it.”

Veterans in Residence 2“What I liked was that everyone there was trying to help each other out while also simultaneously trying to grow and develop themselves,” says Veterans in Residence member Evans Wang.

A partnership with the nonprofit veterans group Bunker Labs, the Veterans in Residence program provides veterans the space, services, and community they need to nurture their own business, expand their network, or start a new career. It launched in 10 cities in 2017, and will expand to four more — Nashville, Houston, Minneapolis, and San Diego — on August 1.

A total of 100 veterans — 10 in each city — are now completing the first residency program. WeWork is accepting applications for the second residency through July 4. This program is open to veterans and their family members.

As a software developer, Martinez says that his fellow veterans have helped fill in the blanks, teaching him what he didn’t yet know about business.

“Not being a business person myself, I didn’t know other business people to work with,” Martinez says. “Most companies have several people, but right now, it’s just me.”

Finding emotional support

Renette Dallas, an Air Force veteran, also knows the challenge of being a company’s sole employee. In business since 1999, she runs two companies: a wellness brand called Life by Dallas and a nutritious snack food company called TruePop Popcorn. But what Dallas really needed was emotional support, which she has since found in the Veterans in Residence program at WeWork Dupont Circle in Washington, D.C.

“You can be transparent with the members of ViR because you know they come from the same cloth,” says Dallas, 54. “The people at ViR allow you have that vulnerability. This is a safe place.”

When Evans Wang joined the New York City branch of the Veterans in Residence program, he hadn’t yet started his own company. He took advantage of the opportunity to learn from other members as he designed and built websites for their companies.

“What I liked was that everyone there was trying to help each other out while also simultaneously trying to grow and develop themselves,” says Wang, who is on the board of advisors for Bunker Labs and runs the local chapter of the nonprofit Operation Code. “It really embodied the mission of the tribe.”

The success of other members inspired the 30-year-old entrepreneur to start EJS Development, a web development and software consulting company. He’s also recently accepted a teaching position at the coding bootcamp Flatiron School.

Zuby Onwuta has also learned from his fellow veterans. Onwuta was declared legally blind because of severe macular dystrophy in 1998, which resulted in his medical discharge from the military. He also had to abandon his plans to study medicine in America, which he had come from Nigeria to do three years prior.

Onwuta’s dream was finding ways to help people with vision problems. He started Think and Zoom, a wearable technology offering hands-free visual magnification for the visually impaired.

Working alongside other Veterans in Residence members at Austin’s WeWork Domain has helped him understand how to start and grow a business.

“I don’t have a business background,” says Onwuta, who is 42. “ViR provides access to phenomenal people who got their business training in formal settings and those who learned by trial and error.”

A place to call home

Wang says he felt a strong sense of camaraderie as soon as he met the other ViR members at New York’s WeWork West 57th Street.

“It made me feel like I was back in the military, in the sense that everyone there was going to be looking out for each other again,” Wang says.

Alicia Hanf, a member of the Veterans in Residence program in Los Angeles, says meeting others in the program was like attending a high school reunion.

“It was like I had known them my whole life,” says Hanf, who is 32. “There was an unspoken understanding that we had of being in the military before. I felt that I was exactly where I belonged.”

Hanf transitioned back into civilian life in 2012 after serving in the Army for six years. She worked with startups and eventually founded her own company, Saylo Classroom, an app that provides a collaborative workspace where teachers and students can interact.

Working mostly from coffee shops left Hanf feeling isolated. She missed the sense of camaraderie she encountered while serving in the military.

“I felt like it was just me and my product against the world,” she says. “I was so lonely and felt like I was going crazy from the lack of communication, having no one to talk to or bounce ideas off of.”

This all changed when Hanf heard about the Bunker Labs accelerator program for veteran entrepreneurs. Like many Veterans in Residence members, Hanf feels like one of the most important things that the program has given her is a place to call home.

“What I needed more than anything,” she says, “was someone to tell me: ‘You have a place, and you belong here.’”

Photos by Frank Mullaney