Veteran-run organization aims to support businesses

By Assistant Metro Editor

A new veteran-run organization founded in June and officially launched in November, was created with the intent of helping veterans become entrepreneurs.

The Bunker is dedicated to growing veteran-owned digital businesses and is part of the newest technology incubator from 1871, an entrepreneurial hub for digital startups located at 222 W. Merchandise Mart Plaza. 

“The Bunker is an incubator for veteran-owned,predominately tech-enabled businesses that focuses primarily on obtained customers that are typically a year or so into [the] developed cycle,” said Thomas Day, senior advisor of The Bunker.

According to the documents provided by The Bunker, veteran businesses owners are 30 percent more likely to hire fellow veterans rather than non-veteran applicants.

“It is hard for anybody to find somebody that will want to hire me for more than $35,000  year,” said Joseph Bradley. “Looking for a job was hard because I didn’t have any education background or any high school education.”

Bradley, who joined he Navy at 17, said it was difficult for him to find a job after he returned from service. When Bradley returned, he spent time in jail. After his release, he put himself through school by earning a GED and going to college without any help from the government or veteran support organization. He said he had to do all of the own on his own, but if he had known of an organization dedicated to helping veterans get their careers on track, he would have taken advantage of such a resource. 

The documents also state that veterans representing new entrepreneurs has declined by about 6 percent from 1996—2011. 

“Illinois in particular– in spite of government incentives– has not been able to catalyze new veteran-owned businesses. A new solution is needed with advantaged market opportunities,” The Bunkers documents state.

The nonprofit organization is run by Tod Connor, an Operation Iraqi Freedom Navy veteran and entrepreneur who co-founded Flank 5 Academy, a 10-week personal incubator that helps people become self-employed. Brandon Bodor, chief operations officer of The Bunker is a graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan wars. He recently led the Serve Illinois Commission, a 40 member, bi-partisan board that meets to enhance Illinois commissions by increasing volunteering, under Gov. Pat Quinn. 

The Bunker plans to help veterans in situations similar to Bradley’s by educating them about running a business, according to The Bunker website. 

“We provide a pure learning environment where [veterans] work from one another [and] bounce ideas off of one another,” Day said.

The organization’s launch is in conjunction with 1871 2.0.  It includes an additional 25,000 square feet to 1871’s 50,000 square-foot space. 1871 2.0 will also include incubators for biotech, according to the informational documents provided by The Bunker.

The “Bunker Braintrust” is the core component of The Bunker. It allows founders and CEO’s of new veteran-run companies to meet weekly for three hours. Veterans can enhance their peer-learning and networking skills at the meetings, according to The Bunker’s documents.

“The Braintrust sessions are intense, structured and action-orientated sessions for the founders t do real-time problem solving,” the documents said. 

At the Braintrust sessions, veterans focus 1.5 hours in a Q-and-A discussion. The rest of the time is an expertise and experimental sharing process in which a founder, marketing expert or CEO may visit to speak or share their expertise.

Each new veteran-run company is paired with a senior executive. The veterans can also mentor a company for six months, allowing them to network and give input on the business.

The Bunker has a strict five-step model on how it defines success of itself and the veterans: the percent of portfolio companies that remain operating after five years, the amount of growth in revenue, the number of employees hired, the among of capital raised and a founder evaluation of The Bunker where veterans evaluate The Bunker to show The Bunker how helpful it was.

“We are building seven new bunkers in markets outside of Chicago, and we announced the creation of a $2 million expansion opportunity fund to help stand up these bunker locations,” Day said.

The Bunker has plans to expand to Tacoma, Washington; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Colorado Springs; Austin, Texas and Kansas City, Missouri. It has tentative affiliation in Washington DC, and in San Francisco.