Allegheny County has the highest number of employed veterans in Pennsylvania.
The county is also home to several organizations dedicated to offering these veterans resources: Pittsburgh Hires Veterans, Wounded Warrior Project, Veterans Leadership Program, and more. Still, there are so many veterans in the region that “there’s more demand than [these organizations] can accommodate,” said Nate Moreno, community city leader for Bunker Labs’ new Pittsburgh chapter. There also aren’t any that focus solely on veteran entrepreneurship.
That’s where Bunker Labs, a nationwide nonprofit that aims to help military-connected people start their own businesses, comes in. Bunker Labs participants have created nearly 3,000 jobs and raised over $298 million in capital. Moreno and chapter leader Brandon Bartoldi launched the organization’s Pittsburgh chapter this month.
“Military folks are very entrepreneurial,” Bartoldi said. “They have different backgrounds and skill sets, and those often lead to entrepreneurship.”
The chapter will offer programs tailored to those military skill sets that also boost interconnectivity within the city’s military-related networks. There’s its signature Bunker Brews, a happy hour that encourages people in all stages of their business journey to connect (being held virtually for now). Bunker Labs will also hold town halls, inviting successful veteran entrepreneurs to speak – the chapter’s virtual launch event featured veteran Mott Handley, founder of PittMoss.
Bunker Labs can act as an incubator, providing coaching and sponsorship. For more established startups, it can offer connection-building via exclusive CEO roundtables, a chance to get advice from successful veterans plugged into the Bunker network across the country.
Elsewhere, Bunker and WeWork provide free office space to veteran entrepreneurs. But because WeWork doesn’t have a Pittsburgh outpost, the local chapter will provide offices in Millvale, where Bartoldi and his company, Prosper Firm, converted a former church into a co-working space.
It’s all in an effort to boost veteran entrepreneurship, which has been on the decline in recent years. Of World War II veterans, 49 percent went on to start their own business. But among post-9/11 veterans, that number is just 4.5 percent, according to a 2019 Bunker Labs whitepaper. The whitepaper notes that this low percentage may be due to a lack of relevant resources. While there is no shortage of veteran employment programs, “these are focused on more traditional forms of post-service employment. There are few programs that support military veterans who are interested in pursuing careers in entrepreneurship.”
“Bunker’s great for filling in those gaps,” Bartoldi said. “It’s empowering people. It’s equipping people to be successful and create a legacy for their families.”
Bartoldi is not a veteran himself, but he became passionate about veterans issues during his partnership with veteran real estate investment organization Active Duty Passive Income. Moreno served the Pennsylvania National Guard from 2012-2019 and was deployed once with NATO into Kosovo.
“The reason I find it so important to be able to use our title as ‘veterans’ is because there’s a common denominator we share,” Moreno said. “We all essentially speak the same language. We share camaraderie, and telling those stories about sharing the same struggles leads to a sense of trust. Trust is the foundation in which we are building each other’s success.”
Thus far, Moreno’s role has been to garner support for veteran entrepreneurship initiatives from the disparate veteran-focused organizations across the region. It’s a job he’s passionate about: “The more we advocate for and support veteran-owned business, the more it’s going to create employment. And who better to work for a veteran-owned business than another veteran?”
It’s a mission that has taken on greater importance amid the pandemic, as unemployment rates rise. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reported in late March that calls to their Veterans Crisis Line had jumped since the pandemic began. And in April, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families found that rising unemployment disproportionately affected Black and Latinx veterans.
Fortunately, Moreno noted that Pittsburgh veterans’ groups seem ready to help. “I’m overwhelmed by the enthusiasm,” he said. “Everybody has something they want to give to try to help with. It’s inspiring and motivating.”