Meet The Brains Behind The Bunker Labs in Nashville

“Veterans get things done.”

It’s not just Jonathan Wojtewicz’s personal mantra. It’s his mission statement when cutting to the core of Bunker Labs, a growing network of innovation laboratories and centers for entrepreneurial development, focusing specifically on the talents of American military veterans.

Since its inception, Bunker Labs has focused its efforts on building that Veteran entrepreneurial community not only as a way to advocate for Vets of all kinds but to stimulate the American economy by training a specific force in the realms of building businesses and carving out spaces for Veterans since launching in Chicago and Austin.

At SXSW Interactive, we sat down with Wojtewicz, founder and executive director of the Austin Bunker Labs, and Blake Hogan, co-founder of Bunker Labs Austin and Nashville Bunker Labs, the newest installment of the larger program (brought together with the support of Comcast), to discuss the growing roles Veterans play in the entrepreneurial space.

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Forward Beat: How did you get involved in Bunker? How did the whole idea start?

Jonathan Wojtexicz: It came together for us in September of 2014. Blake and I and Joseph Kopser and Sabrina [Marshall-Wojtewicz], we got together at Joe’s company, called Ridescout. Joseph and Blake had heard about a guy and had introductions with Todd Connor, in Chicago. And so we called him up and we said we wanted to help out with Vets in transition, and we wanted to help those especially that wanted to go from job seeking to job creating.

And Todd said, “I’m trying to work on something but I don’t have it all put together yet, do any of you have non-profit experience?”        

And the answer was “No, do you?” He said “No.”

Blake’s response was “Great, let’s do this.

Blake Hogan: Yeah, so I talked to Todd on the phone and he said, “Look, guys, the mission is simple: We’re going to launch the next greatest generation. Are you in or are you out?

And I’m like, “I don’t even care what you’re doing, I’m in. I’m 100 percent in.” And so – a nod to the Marine Corps here – we spun out the Bunker Labs in Austin in  60 days.

FB: What type of organizations do you guys look for to help support the Bunker?

JW: The way we’ll be sustainable is through corporate partnerships, but with that we’ve had outreach from the White House, state government, city governments and also universities, academia. We’ve had many, many reach out to us here in Austin; the University of Texas has been really supportive of our early efforts and still continues to be.

With that, one of our oldest incubators in the U.S. is called ATI, Austin Technology Incubator. It’s been around since 1988. We met with a private team of about two, three people and they ended up bringing a team of 20 to 30 folks in, for a little meeting, and in that instance, we thought we were really part of their Friday afternoon round table and it ended up that they were there for us. They ended up whiteboarding solutions and options and introductions out for us.

FB: If I want to get involved in the Bunker, and I meet the criteria you’ve described, how do I track into that? What would happen?

JW: There’re a couple different ways to get involved. Number one is the target audience that we actually serve and that’s the military Vets and Vet spouses that have companies or they have an idea for a company. And so that’s one demographic, and the second demographic is those that want to be mentors.

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FB: And they can be Vets or non-Vets?

JW: Vets or non-Vets, absolutely. One of the things that we’re really big on is to be an active participant and have your company through Bunker Labs you have to be a Vet; to be a part of the Bunker network you do not have to be a Veteran.

Quite frankly, we don’t want to be only Vets because that’s not how we’re going to be able to continue to grow and expand and to really, really make an impact on the local communities and cities that they’re within.

The way to get involved, the easiest, is to go to bunkerlabs.org — we have a sign-up sheet on there and what are they looking to do, to apply their company to one of the Bunker member cities, or are they actually looking to be a part of the mentor network. That could mean giving their time and talent, and that could be them helping us to make introductions to other folks that they know. There’re many ways that they can actively get involved.

FB: Tell me more about the type of people involved with Bunker Labs. Starting a business takes some guts and patience and creativity. How do all these different people work together?

JW: We have two primary principles. Number one is no ego, which is really important to us. So we have some great entrepreneurs. Whether you’ve made it well in business and you’re mentoring, or whether you’ve made it great and you’ve sold your company, or whether you’ve been in the military for a decorated career of 25 years, no ego.

And then number two is we like to serve. So how do we help add value to those we’re working with, whether they’re a partner, whether they’re a mentor or whether they’re actually the company? We look for those two-way communications of value.

FB: Bunker Labs has had some impressive growth, and you’re now in two large cities. What do you see for the future of Bunker Labs and how it will continue to grow?

JW: One of the questions we get asked a lot is, from new partners, they say, “Hey, I love what you’re doing. You’re very inspirational and aspirational, but what is that we’d actually get involved with you?

Well, number one is active engagement. More and more companies are looking at, “How do we get involved in city-wide efforts, in local communities, that are actually making a difference?” Bunker Labs helps to bridge the gap between established businesses and their communities by connecting those Veteran entrepreneurs and companies.

Number two is recruitment and retention. A lot of great companies are hiring. With these 200,000-plus men and women transitioning off active duty, the ones that we particularly target, are innovators. While they may be an entrepreneur, they may be an intrepreneur. A lot of great companies like Comcast are looking for people to solve problems.

We have that. Military men and women know how to solve problems and build great teams.

Did you miss out on SXSW this year? Forward Beat has you covered. Check out who else was there along with Bunker Labs.

All images courtesy of Bunker Labs.

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