Veterans Future Lab honors VET program graduates

Lorree Sutton

Brigadier General (ret.) Loree Sutton, MD, who served as the army’s highest-ranking psychiatrist and is now founding commissioner of the NYC Department of Veterans’ Services, delivered the keynote speech at the VET program graduation

On the evening of August 8th, a community came together to celebrate. The Veterans Future Lab commemorated the graduation of its fifth Veterans Entrepreneurship Training (VET) program cohort, and veterans, entrepreneurs, and advocates gathered at Sunset Park’s Industry City in Brooklyn to honor a new generation of entrepreneurs.

The VET program is for veterans transitioning into entrepreneurship and technology, and this year’s class of 17 graduates included vets of all ages and stages in their ventures. The valedictorian for the evening, George Baez, 60, founder of Hermes Drone Services, said, “I came into the program not really knowing what I wanted to do as far as the whole process to start up a business. I had the idea and I had done the research, but I had no idea what to go through. This program gave me the A-Z.”

Grovert Fuentes, cofounder and CEO of subscription service Fit Lifestyle Box, said “I was further down the road in my business, and [VET] allowed me to go back to step one and figure things out from scratch. I’m actually reassessing […] all the basic things I thought I had figured out.”

As much as the evening was about entrepreneurship, it was about community. In her keynote speech, Brigadier General (ret.) Loree Sutton, MD, who served as the army’s highest-ranking psychiatrist and is now founding commissioner of the NYC Department of Veterans’ Services, discussed collective, continuing responsibility. “We have got to work together to upend the prevailing narrative of veterans and their families,” she told the audience. “Tonight, you saw what veterans and their spouses are all about.”

Supporters of veteran entrepreneurship also came on stage to say a few words. New York State Assembly Member Joseph R. Lentol, who encouraged us to start the program with NYU Tandon Future Labs three years ago, said, “When I began this effort, I knew in my heart that this was something that we should do as Americans […] We owe it to our veterans who have given of themselves and have given so much to our country to have a program like this when they get out.”

The graduation was the last officiating duty for NYU Tandon’s Dean Katepalli R. Sreenivasan, who has been among the strongest advocates of the Future Labs. “If our program has done something useful for veterans,” he said, “I regard it as our direct contribution to the bravest among us.”

Partners of the Veterans Future Lab spoke about their commitment to veteran entrepreneurship and the impact of a program like VET. Andrew Kimball, CEO of Industry City where Veterans Future Lab is housed, traced the growth of business in Sunset Park after decades of silence. At the heart of the change, he said, was “the kind of entrepreneurs that are in this room today. Starting small businesses on the ground, using new kinds of technology to drive change in this economy, and creating good paying jobs for people who needed them the most.”

Representing Barclays, the founding sponsor of VFL, was managing director Adam Yarnold, who discussed how the program represented important corporate values of the firm, including its commitment to veterans and innovation. As a veteran himself, he said he knew he did not need to advise soldiers – but acknowledged that success “takes a little bit of luck, too. And how do you make that luck happen? I’d say networking […] Make sure you are exposed to opportunities via the network you build.”

The Future Labs team reminded graduates that the incubator’s commitment to their entrepreneurial journey was lifelong and that their network had grown. Steven Kuyan, managing director of NYU Tandon Future Labs, said, “This is what you will refer to in many years as the origins story. Where you started from and what you had to do to get your business up and running. Your journey will be tough […] Remember you have resources available to you with this great city to make sure you’re not doing it alone.”

James Hendon, director of Veterans Future Lab and VET lead instructor, reminded the graduates, “You are not alone. This is not a journey you are doing in the darkness or by yourself. When you go into the endeavour of becoming an entrepreneur, know that we’ve got your back.”

It’s this active and supportive network of entrepreneurship that continues to be a pillar of the VET program. Monique Porter, VET alumna, cofounder of Thermo Clear, and now incubating her startup in the VFL’s Apex program, had been a guest speaker at VET the week before. At the graduation, when asked why she remains involved in the program, she recalled drawing inspiration from VET alumni and “seeing that people [who] came before us were actually successful in their ventures in one way, shape or form. So I hope we bring that same hope to the new class. That’s the one thing that’s constant: the previous class brings hope to the new class.”

Elana Duffy, VET alumna and founder of Pathfinder, was also in attendance after having been a guest speaker the previous week. “It’s awesome to see the new projects coming out of the program — I’ve actually made partnerships that way. Pathfinder wouldn’t be here without [Veterans Future Lab] and I owe it to them to help out in whatever way is possible for giving me what I hope will be a lifelong and sustainable business. We’re doing great things for veterans, and I want to keep doing that, both independently and as a partner of  NYU.”