Always Bet on the Vet

Pathfinder, One of the First Graduates of NYU Tandon’s VET Program, Is Flourishing

Elana Duffy, a combat veteran with more than a decade of service in the U.S. Army, had no doubt that she could make it through the NYU Tandon School of Engineering’s new Veteran Entrepreneurship Training (VET) program in 2015. “I reasoned that if I’d managed multiple deployments, getting blown up, daily convoys, and other high-pressure assignments, I could manage this,” she says. “And if I couldn’t, my team members from the class would understand and give me a hand because we were all in the same boat.”

Duffy’s confidence was well-placed. She not only completed the free, 12-week program – which covered such important topics as prototyping, customer channels, business models, and legal and accounting matters for startups – the company she subsequently launched, Pathfinder, is growing steadily in size and reach.

Pathfinder is an online platform that allows veterans to rate, review, and connect with local community resources, so that they can find the services, benefits, and opportunities they need, and it uses artificial intelligence to help organizations improve their delivery of those resources. She explains that the name was inspired by the military pathfinders assigned to long-range surveillance detachments, airborne and air assault infantry units, and special operations, who lead the way for the mission and ensure that everyone who comes after them is taken care of.

Since getting its start as part of the VET program’s first cohort, Pathfinder has made such impressive progress that the Sierra Club recently approached the company to conduct a year-long assessment of its Military Outdoors program, measuring satisfaction with events, determining how participants are benefitting, assessing markers like stress levels and needs through natural language processing algorithms, and developing ways to improve the group’s volunteer leadership recruitment from the veteran community.

Along with that new and prestigious client, Duffy has been raising Pathfinder’s profile by organizing a series of presentations and panel talks on topics of importance to veterans, nonprofits, and other audiences. Recently, for example, she joined Derek Coy of the New York State Health Foundation, New York Regional Director of Blue Star Families Marie Roker-Jones, and Pathfinder CDO Michael Thorne to discuss how organizations could use data and analysis to make targeted improvements to programs and services; attract funding; improve their communities; and solve challenging societal problems. “Companies can use data to make money, of course,” she explains. “But it can’t just be about that. Data provides a way to do good and effect change.”

Duffy acknowledges that the VET program gave her the push she needed to take Pathfinder from dream to reality. “I feel useful, I feel driven, and more motivated than I have in a long time,” she had said when she graduated. Those who support the program, including Assemblyman Joseph Lentol, have asserted that veterans are, indeed, natural entrepreneurs who need little more than some targeted training to take the reins and run with their ideas, given their leadership skills, adaptability, and work ethic. Lentol has said, “What better way to promote business here in Brooklyn than to train and hire the most reliable workforce we have–our veterans!”

Surveys show that more than a third of all returning vets harbor entrepreneurial ambitions, and NYU Tandon is devoted to helping as many of them as possible to realize their vision, just as Elana Duffy has so successfully done.

Other Veteran Resources at Tandon

With the support of New York State and corporate partner Barclays, NYU Tandon has launched the Veterans Future Lab, a business incubator open to VET graduates, early-stage veteran-owned companies, and seasoned veteran entrepreneurs willing to mentor others. Additionally, veterans are eligible for scholarships to enroll in “A Bridge to Tandon,” an intensive program that prepares those with non-engineering degrees for master’s degree in select fields such as bioinformatics, computer science, and cybersecurity.