By Kevin Maurer
After World War II, almost half of veterans owned and operated businesses, according to Dean Bundschu, executive director of Bunker Labs in North Carolina.
“Now, today’s 9/11 generation, that number is down to 4.5%,” Bundschu says in a phone interview from his office at Research Triangle Park. “What Bunker Labs is trying to do is turn that around.”
Bunker Labs is a nonprofit Chicago-based accelerator program for veterans interested in being entrepreneurs. It has 13 chapters in different cities spanning from New York to San Francisco. Bunker Labs supported 48 businesses in North Carolina last year, from “an internet of things” company that produces wireless sensors to a winery.
In April, it is launching Bunker Labs Fayetteville in partnership with Fayetteville Technical Community College with plans for expansion in Wilmington and Charlotte. Veterans begin with a “bunker in a box” program, a self-taught course, before moving on to 10 weeks of night classes.
“Hopefully, we get to the point where we tell them their idea is feasible and worth pursuing or the idea sucks,” Bundschu says. Veterans who graduate from the 10-week program with a successful plan move on to a continuing education program called CEO Circle.
A former infantry officer, Bundschu served eight years in the U.S. Army, including a tour in Iraq. He left to work with veterans transitioning out of the military for Canada-based Orion International, but he always wanted to start his own business. He launched a high-school sports recruiting website (it is no longer operating) and later was invited to participate in Patriot Boot Camp, another program to help veterans find mentors, investors and other entrepreneurs. Bundschu opened the Bunker Labs chapter in the Triangle last year.
“If we would have had a normal rate of veteran entrepreneurship since 9/11, 500,000 veterans would have been employed,” he says. “I think that would have impacted the
vet unemployment rate.”
While the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans has dropped from 12.1% in 2011 to a record-low 5.1% last year, many veterans struggle with underemployment. A 2016 report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Hiring Our Heroes program found that 44% of veterans left their first job out of the military within the first year, with many saying they sought better opportunities.
There are tools for veterans. The Small Business Administration introduced a national program called Boots to Business. North Carolina’s job-search website, NCWorks, gives veterans access to job postings 24 hours before they are made available to the general public. The N.C. Department of Commerce estimates that between 2015 and 2018, more than 78,000 active-duty service members in the state will leave the military. “The biggest gap is the fact that most vets as they transition only have their immediate network of other vets,” Bundschu says. “Our ability to plug them into the community is something that hasn’t been there before.”