After serving our country, many veterans want to take on the challenge of creating opportunities for themselves.
New York University has started some outreach to help former servicemen and women among its student body learn about becoming entrepreneurs. Last week, the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute brought together a panel to speak to veterans about using their skills to lead businesses of their own. The event was part of the NYU Veterans Initiative, a new advocacy organization formed to support student veterans.
Until now, there had not been a consolidated place at the university for such efforts, said Benjamin Duchek, the head of the organization. He said there are 264 veterans among NYU’s students, and he wants to see those numbers grow. The NYU Veterans Initiative “can ask corporations [to sponsor] scholarships for students, and work on admissions policy for selective colleges,” he said. “How do we get veterans into NYUs, the Harvards, the Princetons, and Stanfords?”
Duchek was a platoon leader in the Army’s 10th Mountain Division who commanded howitzers and soldiers in Afghanistan. He is a principal with Socialgence, a consulting firm based in New York. Duchek said veterans want to see more Yellow Ribbon scholarships, which cover tuition costs that exceed other benefit programs for veterans. “That affects students lives individually,” he said.
Last week’s discussion was held at the Leslie eLab, which NYU created this year to be the focal point for entrepreneurship across its schools.
Brittany Laughlin, general manager with Union Square Ventures, moderated the panel comprised of Mark Rockefeller, CEO and co-founder of StreetShares; Reshma Saujani, CEO and founder of Girls Who Code; and Alex Patterson, a vice president with Tough Mudder.
Rockefeller, who was an an officer in the Air Force’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, representing the coalition forces in court in Iraq, said StreetShares is a bit like “Shark Tank” meets eBay for doling out loans to small businesses. “It’s a way of getting debt capital to earlier stage businesses,” he said.
While pursuing his military career, Rockefeller said, he had underlying ambitions that led to him becoming an entrepreneur. “You carry lessons learned in the military into being an entrepreneur,” he said. “Ex-military folks make outstanding entrepreneurs.”
In spite of landing a high-paying job at a Wall Street law firm, Rockefeller decided he wanted to build something of his own. StreetShares, based in Reston, VA, lets small businesses pitch themselves to others who may offer a portion of the debt financing they seek.
The other panelists shared stories about risk and failure, having set aside their prior careers and taken the plunge into new endeavors. Patterson said he joined Tough Mudder when the Brooklyn-based company had just a few people on staff, requiring him to fill many roles at once. “If you’re looking for a career change, go to someplace where you need to do five jobs and see which one you’re best at,” he said.
Saujani, who ran—and lost—in a bid for the House of Representatives and then for public advocate of New York City, said she believes in disruption, whether it is in politics or the career world. Coding may be a 21st century skill set that is in demand, Saujani said, but it still takes extra effort to overcome gender bias in the technology field.
Her nonprofit, Girls Who Code, runs programs to encourage more young women to learn technology skills and pursue related jobs. Saujani is trying to address the declining number of women in such roles. “In the 1980s, 40 percent of computer science graduates were women, but today that number is 18 percent,” she said.
The NYU Veterans Initiative is still in its infancy, Duchek said, and is still feeling out how it can further aid veterans on their journey to entrepreneurship. He wants to expand into more programs and events to inspire entrepreneurs to emerge from the ranks of former military personnel. “To have a university in the heart of this city, it should be one of the country’s best schools for veterans,” he said.