Monthly Archives: August 2016

Military Veteran Entrepreneurs

As soon as I learned about Bunker Labs’ mission from Andrew Schwab at the First Flight Venture Center in Research Triangle Park, I made it a priority to get to know them, eager to offer my assistance.

Bunker Labs is the Chicago-based national service organization founded and built by former active duty military to help other veterans become entrepreneurs: 250,000 men and women from all branches of military service are scheduled to muster out each of the next 4 years, and 25% are interested in starting their own ventures, so Bunker Labs has a big job ahead of them.

veterans twice as likely

Founded barely two years ago, Bunker Labs member companies have generated $17.5 million in revenue and have 290 employees. Bunker Labs has local chapters in 12 markets—they were in 8 when I first introduced myself four months ago—and I met Dean Bundschu, the Executive Director of RDU Bunker Labs (Raleigh-Durham) and former Infantry Office in the Army, and Michael Penney, the local chapter’s Program Manager, a former Marine NCO.

When I found how impressive they were at telling their extraordinary stories of service to our country I invited them to speak to my Duke class last spring. They talked about their military experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and about how often they had to rely on entrepreneurial skills there and how they are making their way as entrepreneurs and creative professionals now—they each have a couple of start-ups active, Dean has a couple earlier successes under his belt—and students let me know they found them to be powerful speakers.

Later this spring Michael and I organized and I conducted an evening creativity workshop for RDU Bunker Labs member companies; along with a few other invited guests there were 25 of us who had a blast together. Andy Schwab generously hosted it at the First Flight Venture Center.

todd connor

A couple of weeks ago I met Bunker Labs CEO and founder, Todd Connor, a former Navy Lieutenant. Along with driving Bunker Labs’ growth he is the founder of Flank 5 Academy, a successful career development venture. He is a dynamic leader (everywhere I look at Bunker Labs, there’s the most generative leadership vibe happening). I learned a lot in our hour long discussion, and was so impressed with all they accomplished with their Bunker Burst, a one day innovation workshop that Bunker Labs hosted in partnership with the United States Naval Institute to spur new ideas to big challenges facing the Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard.

muster rdu

When I learned that Bunker Labs next big event is in my town I volunteered to help. Muster RDU will be a full day of programs and workshops to help veterans who are considering entrepreneurship gain access to the resources, programs and community they need to help transform their military experience into business success.

Just one measure of Bunker Labs’ success is how quickly major corporations are supporting their good work; this event is sponsored by MetLife Military Veterans Network, an employee-based diversity business network at MetLife that advocates for and supports the military community, JPMorgan Chase and Company, Cisco, and The Research Triangle Park Foundation.

Muster RDU is FREE to veterans and tickets are $50 for the general public. It will be held at the MetLife Global Technology Campus in Cary, NC on Thursday, September 22, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. I look forward to seeing you there.

Bunker Builds America – Raleigh-Durham Muster

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Who takes advantage, who creates advantage

This political season brings to mind a particular insight into creativity that I’ve been helping my Duke students make their own for the past few years.

I start by asking them to raise their hands if they like being taken advantage of and of course no one does so we talk about why that is. The general conclusion is something like: “When someone takes advantage of you, you haven’t just been defeated, you’ve been abused or disrespected.”

I’ve been defeated a bunch of times; we all have. It’s pretty clear that the more you compete the more you win and the more you lose. Over the years I’ve found the best course is to learn what I can from my losses and get on with it.

But it still bugs the hell out of me when someone takes advantage of me.

Then I ask my students to consider why it is, when an opportunity comes along, that we say we’re going to take advantage of that opportunity.

Taking advantage of an opportunity doesn’t necessarily mean I got there first so I get to take the best for me and leave the rest for you, but it’s permitted if we agree we can take advantage of that opportunity. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll skew the numbers in my favor, or fix the odds at the table, or carelessly pollute the English River upstream from the Ojibway, but we would call that taking advantage of the opportunity.

I then ask students to discuss what happens when instead of taking advantage of an opportunity we decide will create advantage from the opportunity.

Creating advantage is a predisposition to cultivating it, developing it, growing it, by recruiting the best people you can find to help make the opportunity a best version of itself for all involved and for as many as possible.

Along with entrepreneurs and engineers my classes have always had a large number of student athletes—by the way, one of the best measures of Duke is how it attracts so many extraordinary young men and women who compete at the highest levels as full time students and full time athletes, and after teaching there for 14 years with about 3,600 students/65% student athletes, I assure you it’s so, across all the sports, including football and basketball—and they will point out that taking advantage is exactly what you want to do when you are engaged in an athletic contest.

If you see any weakness in your opponents’ game you must take advantage of it; your victory requires their defeat.

After we understand the nature of that specific application of our concept, I rely on my 30 years of experience either starting companies or assisting others start theirs to help my students fast track their understanding that entrepreneurial success is not about defeating the competition; it’s about avoiding competition. My most successful ventures were those that offered an emerging market segment something they wanted and couldn’t get anywhere else, where we owned the market because in some way we created it or at least shaped it.

We did that by creating advantage for our customers, and for employees, and for my investors, so that they all wanted the success that I wanted; the harder we worked for our dealers during my Cellular One days, the harder they worked for us.

The class discussion concludes with my urging them to be intentional about this, with discipline and practice, to find a predisposition to create advantage from opportunity when they can; we practiced the discipline in my classes to help them get started.

And if I were teaching my classes at Duke this Fall on being the most creative and entrepreneurial version of yourself you can be, I would ask if this view into the differences between taking advantage and creating advantage provides a useful perspective on how we want to consider our political leaders.

When you listen to candidates talk about what they have done with their lives and how they have done it, and what they intend to do with our lives and how they will do it, does it sound like they have been and will be taking advantage of problems and opportunities, or does it seem they are trying to create advantage as we face problems and opportunities?

We’ve had presidential candidates, and not so long ago, both Republican and Democrat, some outsiders and some insiders, who led with creating advantage agendas. Some were of heroic ambition.

How would you evaluate your present presidential preference using this creative principle as a measure of a leader’s intent?

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