Veterans Showcase Their Startups to Investors

Veterans pose at the end of their course.
Veterans posed with their mentors at the end of the course. (The Ink/Hasan Ali)

When James Hendon, 35, was serving in the Army in Iraq, he was responsible for firing mortar shells at the enemy. On Tuesday, he traded his camouflage for a slick gray suit as he pitched his startup company to a room full of investors.

Hendon was one of 12 veterans chosen from a pool of 30 applicants for the Veteran Entrepreneur Training Program, a seven-week course aimed at helping veterans transition into the technology industry.

The program, developed through a partnership between Prosper, a nonprofit, and New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, provides training in business and accounting concepts and methods, while also giving students an opportunity to develop their startups.

Hendon, an assistant professor of military science at the City University of New York as well as a reservist in the Army, joined the program to fulfill a lifelong ambition. “My goal is to create jobs for one million people,” he said in an interview. “This program was a forcing mechanism to really make me think through my business.” His startup, Energy Economic Development, is dedicated to helping small businesses reduce their carbon footprints.

For Brendan Hart, the founder of Prosper, it was important to find a way of altering the discourse about veterans. “At a macro level, success for us is to change the narrative around veterans from charity to economic empowerment,” he said. “On a more personal level what that means is supporting this very large community of talented individuals that is also the most diverse institution in the country.”

The course has now graduated its second class of veterans, after a pilot run from June to August last year. Derek Blumke, 35, who was in the first class, praised the program and the people he has met through it. “They put a cohort of people together who were interested in building things with all similar backgrounds,” said Blumke. “Being an entrepreneur is an incredibly lonely thing, and this group and this program gave me the support network I needed.”

While enrolled in the training program, Air Force veteran Blumke was able to develop Tripsafe, a portable security system fitted with motion censor technology that can be taken on vacations and business trips. The machine is designed to foil unwanted intrusions by alerting emergency response coordinators and the Tripsafe team who can check in with the user immediately to investigate whether there is a problem.

Being an armed services veteran isn’t enough to gain entry to the program. Steven Kuyan, managing director of incubators and entrepreneurship at NYU, looks for candidates who are enthusiastic about becoming tech entrepreneurs. “We try to put the veteran affiliation on the back track,” he said. “It’s not something that we actively promote.”

That affiliation can present challenges. Veterans excel at being both leaders and followers, he said, but aspects of their military training can be a hindrance. “It’s hard to get them to ask a lot of questions,” Kuyan said. “There’s a certain amount of initiative that a lot of them have, but they’re waiting for someone to tell them what to do.”

Nina Vizcarrondo, 26, another participant of the program, said the experience had helped expand her horizons. “It’s given me more confidence in speaking to people about my ideas,” she said.

A cook on board an army cutter before her discharge, Vizcarrondo used the program to develop Citibrew, a beer tasting service paid for by subscriptions. If launched successfully, Citibrew will send its monthly subscribers six bottles of beer from various microbreweries, allowing them to sample and decide which, if any, to buy in bulk.

In addition to the training program, Prosper and the Tandon School have launched the Veteran Incubator, which will provide early-stage startup companies with the infrastructure, space, accounting and legal support needed to grow and develop the business. The hope, according to Kuyan, is to give veterans a chance to work on their businesses beyond the short duration of the training program.

“For those who want to continue working on their ventures, we will find the different ways to support them that we can,” he said.