Anyone who’s ever stretched into uncharted territory is all too familiar with the earworms of self-doubt. To drown them out, you have to crank up your own (much louder) tune: For Mike Steadman, the CEO and founder of Newark, N.J.’s Ironbound Boxing, those resounding voices came from WeWork’s Veterans in Residence program.
WeWork’s Veterans in Residence program, in partnership with Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit aimed at launching veteran-led businesses, is in its second year and in 15 cities across the U.S. “We’ve helped incubate 400 veteran and military family businesses through our partnership with Bunker Labs so far and seen business success of all stripes during their time in the program—individual companies that have grown their revenue significantly, been able to hire people in their community, raised capital rounds, secured strategic partnerships, and successfully exited,” says Mo Al-Shawaf, director of partnerships and special projects for WeWork.
“The veteran community has historically been called on to lead and serve, and we’re excited that we’ve helped veterans entrepreneurs find their next mission as changemakers and business leaders of tomorrow.”
Steadman, a three-time national collegiate boxing champion from the United States Naval Academy, served as a Marine Corps infantry officer in Afghanistan, Japan, and the Philippines. When he came home, he knew one thing: There was a boxing gym in his future. He just had to figure out how to build it. Ironbound Boxing began as the Ironbound Boxing Academy, a nonprofit that trained underserved kids in Newark for free. These days, he and his fellow coaches also teach boxing to companies as a form of corporate wellness.
“Kids in urban environments are drastically cheated of resources, both in terms of education and recreation,” Steadman says. He hopes Ironbound Boxing can bridge that gap.
But building a business, just like boxing, takes enormous reserves of stamina and an entourage calling out encouragement from the ropes. When Steadman decided to quit his job to focus on Ironbound in the summer of 2018, some of his friends expressed concern. He found support in fellow entrepreneurs of the Veterans in Residence program. “The people inside those WeWork spaces are with you day in and day out. They understand where you are. It was nothing but words of encouragement and positivity. I found myself leaning on a lot of those relationships.”
Although there’s a sea of legacy veteran organizations offering support, he says there are few places where a diverse group of veterans can riff on creative, entrepreneurial visions as a unit—one just as intimate, meaningful, and energetic as the ones they’ve left. Steadman is now a Veterans in Residence program manager, putting his tenacity and optimism to use mentoring new members.
“When I left the military, I didn’t even know there was a veteran-entrepreneur movement,” he says. “I didn’t know there were others like me who I could relate to until we started coming together in this program. I’m still figuring things out, but I’ve learned that there are always people coming up trying to get to where we are now. There is value in helping make it real for entrepreneurs starting out.”
Mentorship is a state of flow for Steadman; it doesn’t have to be as stiff and ceremonious as one might expect it to be. “We always talk about mentorship being an older person mentoring a younger person, but that’s not always the case,” he points out. “It’s all about having value and sharing that value with someone in a transparent and honest way.”
“Finding a mentor, someone who can empower you to grow, is an investment at a personal level,” he says. When you’ve gone all-in on bringing something to life, “it’s a special thing to have that intimate relationship.”
Five must-do’s for mentors and mentees
For Steadman, there’s little difference in the mindset of mentor and mentee; both must:
- Adopt a growth mindset. Steadman believed that leaving the military was his final transition, but when he took the leap to focus on Ironbound, he found himself in transition again. When faced with doubt and uncertainty, he found: “The people that survive and thrive are those who can adapt, [who] embrace where they are right now and allow the growth to take place. Anytime I feel that way, I know that I’m pushing myself. I know that I’m still growing. Forcing action and forcing the pain makes growth.”
- Ask! Want to be a better entrepreneur? Ask around—and be specific. “You gotta put it out into the universe, and be open and honest about what you’re looking for. I think of it like The Wizard of Oz. Everyone thinks starting a venture is something so magical and special, but then you look behind the curtain and it’s one guy pulling a bunch of strings. Once you see that and put yourself in a position to see how it’s done, then you have a better understanding of what entrepreneurship really is, and what questions to ask.”
- Be coachable. “When people do connect with you, you have to be coachable. You have to be willing to listen and take advice. Sometimes people aren’t necessarily ready for that. They think they want a mentor, but they’re content doing things their way and getting the same results. I’ve always been drawn to be better, so when I have people who are committed to me, I commit to them. I think that’s my superpower: I’m coachable.”
- Share resources. “If people ask for [resources], I’m happy to share it with them: templates, pitch decks, one-pagers. You end up with a resource pool with information being shared back and forth.”
- Life’s too short. Be honest. “Everybody talks about how great their business is, but nobody really talks about the numbers. It’s always great when you can be transparent. Even if it’s just, ‘I’m just starting out, but this is how much I’ve made. It’s not a lot, but this is my plan to move forward.’”