Veterans get support from nonprofit, local community to launch own businesses in Seattle

SEATTLE — Veterans transitioning from the military to civilian life have a access to a network of local entrepreneurs to help support them during that phase.

A national nonprofit, Bunker Labs, based in Chicago, opened its 15th chapter, in Seattle. It is owned by veterans and is headquartered at the University of Washington’s Startup Hall.

Standing united, business leaders, volunteers and veterans came together to empower veterans who want to start their own business after leaving the military.

“I’m a Navy veteran, I grew up here in Washington state, so I’m really passionate about helping veterans in our community,” said Johannes Schonberg, of Bunker Labs Seattle. “We’ve got veterans in the tech space, we’ve got veterans in biotech, veterans making tart hard cider, veterans are really doing everything.”

The Startup Hall at the University of Washington houses the space for Bunker Labs, which has programs and resources helping veterans launch their businesses and navigate the entrepreneurial world.

Bunker Labs says a quarter of post 9/11 veterans want to start their own business, but making that transition is tough.

“It took several years to go from the Army into an entrepreneurial aspect," said Matthew Griffin, who now is CEO of Combat Flip Flops.

Griffin and his wife, Michele, both Army veterans, shared their story at the launch event for Bunker Labs Seattle.

They launched their business after an idea that came to Griffin while he served in Kabul, Afghanistan.

"We make our stuff out of military spec combat boot rubber," said Griffin.

Each product they sell also puts an Afghan girl in school for a day, something they say can help fight radicalism.

"Educated families are able to resist radicalism and that way we won’t have to send our service members over there to fight radicalism," said Griffin.

The Griffins say there is support in Seattle from big companies, but still a lot of learning left to be done by corporations on the skills veterans can bring to the table.

"Amazon and Starbucks, they understand the teamwork capabilities, the leadership capabilities, and the ability to problem-solve and persevere; you learn that in the military," said Griffin.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz shared how hiring veterans added skills and an improved culture when Starbucks employees work side-by-side with veterans.

One of the people at the event was Alec Haggerty, who is transitioning out of the Army after serving for nine years.

“Currently I’m active-duty Army, serving at JBLM," said Haggerty.

He's hoping to expand on his business after leaving the Army later this year.

“Right now I own a furniture company; before that, I owned a construction company, an export-import business, a flower shop," said Haggerty.

He built the shelves and table in the space at the UW startup lab from reclaimed wood and iron.

Haggerty said he notices that more companies are more open to hiring veterans than they were a few years ago.

"Veterans aren’t looked at a being broken anymore, and that’s what I love about Bunker Labs, it's about veteran empowerment," said Haggerty.

Empowerment, he said, is another thing he's passionate about.

“I want to start businesses so I can hire vets and give them a place where they can feel that brotherhood that I was speaking of, a lot of times that’s lost, that camaraderie is gone after you get out," said Haggerty.