Bunker Labs: On a mission to help veteran entrepreneurs

The Tampa Bay area has a new resource to help entrepreneurial-minded veterans launch a business.

Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit in which veteran entrepreneurs guide new veterans through the startup journey, has established a Tampa location at Hillsborough County government’s Entrepreneur Collaborative Center in Ybor City.

“It’s veteran entrepreneurs supporting veteran entrepreneurs,” says Valerie Lavin, a retired Army First Sergeant and the Founder and CEO of Luminary Global.

Lavin is one of three veteran entrepreneurs who serve as “city leaders” for the Tampa site. IMMERTEC CEO and Marine veteran Erik Maltais and Bill Quigley, an Army veteran who partnered with publisher Global Village World on coffee table books on military innovation, round out the leadership team for Bunker Labs Tampa.

Lavin says surveys reveal that 25 percent of military personnel leaving active duty for civilian life have an interest in starting a business. That’s where organizations like Bunker Labs fill a need.

“There are quite a few veterans interested in starting their own business, they’re just unaware at the time of the type of opportunities and resources that are out there to support them,” she says. “It’s a matter of knowing what’s available. When you are serving in the military your life is behind the gate. You are very hyper focused on the mission at hand, the unit you are assigned to and the requirements placed upon you in that environment. When you leave the service, you are very naive about everything that is going on outside of post.”

In Lavin’s case, she retired from the Army in 2014 with no intention of launching a business. In 2016, she was a grants manager for an entrepreneurship program funded by Veterans Florida in the Tampa Bay region when she decided to launch Luminary Global, which provides emergency preparedness and prehospital supplies to the military and first responders.

“The opportunity to work helping other veterans realize their entrepreneurial aspirations motivated me,” she says. “I also grew up in a family of entrepreneurs. I’m not surprised I started my own business.”

Lavin and others also decided to do more to help aspiring veteran entrepreneurs. They found out about Bunker Labs through Veterans Florida and approached a representative about starting a chapter in Tampa. Working with businesswoman and military spouse Rosie Lee and Army veteran and entrepreneur George Zwierko, Lavin also launched Action Zone in 2018. That nonprofit group helps veterans with the ideation phase of launching a business with tools such as a curriculum for developing a business plan. Action Zone and Bunker Labs have complementary roles and are co-located at the Entrepreneur Collaborative Center.

“There were programs we did not have in Action Zone so we were looking for a collaborative partner that serves the same community of veteran and military entrepreneurs,” Lavin recalls. “We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. We want to collaborate with organizations that have different resources to provide complete support.”

Bunker Labs, which now has 27 chapters nationwide, has programs such as an online launch lab and educational platform, the Bunker Brews networking and learning event series and CEOCircle, a support network for businesses showing a higher level of growth.

Lavin says the city leaders want to raise awareness that there is a large community of veterans seeking to start businesses here and that there are organizations and resources available to assist and guide them.

“I think there should be more collaborative relationships between organizations like Bunker Labs and Action Zone and the military installations in the communities where we launch chapters so that these aspiring veteran and military staff entrepreneurs are aware there is a resource that they can get support through,” she says.

For more information on the organizations in this story, please go to these links: Bunker Labs, Bunker Labs Tampa, Action Zone.

Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. Chris spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys our local music scene, great weather and the wealth of outdoor festivals.
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