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From Serviceperson to Entrepreneur

The NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering’s Veteran Entrepreneur Training (VET) Program Is Giving Former Military Members a Path into the Business World

Group of Veterans at Poly

There are many causes in which NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering Dean Katepalli Sreenivasan believes. “But while I’ve been very happy to give money, I’ve never considered sacrificing my life,” he told his audience. “That is why I have the utmost admiration for those who serve in the military and why I’m happy that the School of Engineering is helping make sure that returning veterans don’t suffer professionally and financially because of their years out of the workforce, defending the country.”

Sreenivasan was speaking at a ceremony celebrating the first graduating class of the Veteran Entrepreneur Training (VET) program, developed by NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering with support from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and funding secured by New York State Assemblyman Joseph R. Lentol. The 10-week course covered a range of topics including prototyping, revenue models, accounting, marketing, and fundraising.

It was an entirely new set of skills for the vets, who publicly pitched their ideas for the first time during the event. Still, facing potential investors and customers was far from an insurmountable challenge to former military members who have faced actual battle.

New York City Mayor’s Office of Veterans Affairs (MOVA) Commissioner Loree Sutton, a retired U.S. Army brigadier general who was at the graduation ceremony to lend her support, opined that veterans possessed characteristics that gave them a ready-made edge in the business world. “We’re competitive, but we have each other’s backs,” she said. “And we were also the ones brave enough to raise our hands when few others did.”

The business ideas bravely and eagerly put forth by the participating teams addressed real-world problems with a mix of practicality, ingenuity, and ambition.

Derek Lemke, a U.S. Air Force veteran who co-founded a mobile security platform called TripSafe, recalled, for example, staying at motels in questionable neighborhoods and thinking that if he felt unsafe, how much worse might it be for a woman traveling alone or a young man on his first-ever business trip. (His partners in the venture are Army vets Barrow Reedy and William Holley.)

Elana Duffy, an Army intelligence officer, returned to civilian life after a decade of service only to find a bewildering array of programs and organizations aimed at helping her during the transition—and no way to evaluate them or navigate the maze. Discovering that many other vets—including fellow program graduates Michael Cessaro and Christian Jaramillo—had the same problem, she founded Pathfinder, a platform for peer-to-peer reviews and information sharing.

From dealing with inefficient medical billing (DaVinciBA, founded by Eugene Oliva, a service-connected disabled Marine vet, with the help of National Guardsman Matthew Milano and Army nurse Tiffany Lopez) to mitigating the effects of neurological surgery or Alzheimer’s through gaming (Project Carbon, founded by Alexander Bartkow, a vet who himself has recovered from neurological surgery) to applying a military ethos to team building (Core Leader, started by Army aviator Christopher Shaw and Marine Special Ops officer Billy Knapp)—each start-up filled a needed niche, and some have already been incorporated.

Lemke injected a thought-provoking note into the graduation ceremony when he quoted Greek philosopher Thucydides, who said, “The nation that will insist on drawing a broad line of demarcation between the fighting man and the thinking man is liable to find its fighting done by fools and its thinking done by cowards.” All of the participants, who as a group presented their instructors with certificates of appreciation, praised the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering and the Veteran Entrepreneur Training program for giving them the chance to demonstrate that they were, indeed, both warriors and thinkers.

The next cohort of aspiring entrepreneurs is expected to begin classes in the fall, and word is spreading; the founders of Pathfinder have listed the program on their site, and already reviews are stellar.