Ex-Marine Helps Fellow Vets Start BusinessesJanuary 26, 2017 | :
by Jennifer Larino, Associated Press
NEW ORLEANS — For close to a decade, Robert Armbruster woke up and put on the U.S. Marine Corps uniform. The uniform was more than cloth and thread — it was a visual reminder that he was a part of a mission larger than himself.
Armbruster, a captain with the 3rd Battalion 23rd Marines in New Orleans, said he struggled to hold onto that sense of purpose in 2003 after he injured his knee while on deployment in Iraq and was sent home. The injury forced him to leave the Marine Corps on medical retirement a year later.
Back in New Orleans, small talk with neighbors and friends about desk jobs and football games could be mind numbing. He remembers the fog that seemed to settle in around him after getting the first call about a Marine he knew from his years at the U.S. Naval Academy who was killed in combat. There would be two such calls.
Armbruster was a Marine; he always would be. At the same time, he wasn’t anymore. Not in the career sense. He needed his next mission.
“All I knew was that I wasn’t ready to go to work for someone else,” Armbruster said.
Armbruster, who started his own construction firm after leaving the military, has since met dozens of ex-military who went through the same struggle. He started VetLaunch in 2014 to help link veterans with resources to ease the transition from military to civilian life.
VetLaunch runs the Landing Zone, a 20,000-square-foot co-working space at the corner of Celeste and Religious streets with discounted rates for veterans, and a business accelerator for veterans and spouses of veterans looking to turn entrepreneurial ideas into startups.
The VetLaunch accelerator has graduated around 16 companies so far. Another 11 are going through the program this year. Serial entrepreneur and U.S. Navy veteran Lisa Lloyd, an alumnus of the popular Shark Tank reality TV series, joined in 2015 as lead mentor.
To Armbruster, entrepreneurship is a natural fit for veterans. The military teaches recruits discipline, leadership and how to work under pressure – all ideal qualities in a business owner. Still, he thinks too many veterans settle for jobs that don’t take advantage of all of their skills. VetLaunch aims to change that.
“What they’ve been through in life is so much different,” Armbruster said. “That’s why entrepreneurship is a good thing. You can create your own destiny.”
Veterans more likely to be entrepreneurs
The number of majority veteran-owned businesses in the United States fell in the wake of the recession, down from 2.4 million in 2007 to 405,235 in 2014. Today, roughly 7.5 percent of all U.S. firms are veteran-owned.
Still, research suggests prior military service can be an entrepreneurial driver. The Census Bureau found the self-employment rate for veterans in 2015 was 7.1 percent, compared with 6.4 percent for non-veterans. The country had 18.8 million military veterans total in 2015, including 1.6 million men and women under age 35.
“As veterans, we’ve been in charge of multimillion dollar pieces of equipment and responsible for other people’s lives,” said Canaan Heard, who served 10 years in the Marine Corp Reserve and later founded Protac Fitness, a New Orleans-based physical training business.
“We don’t want to sit behind a desk and crunch numbers all day,” he said. “To some of the guys I know that’s the worst thing possible.”
From battle to business, an instant bond
Veterans thrive when they can learn the ropes of building a business around peers who have tread a similar path, said Lisa Lloyd, inventor of a patented hair barrette for styling French twists and a range of other successful consumer products. Lloyd is entrepreneur-in-residence at VetLaunch in addition to running her consulting business.
Lloyd, who served in the U.S. Navy during Operation Desert Storm, said military service teaches discipline, leadership and teamwork, but veterans need to be pushed to challenge norms and use creative thinking. It is easier to get that push from a fellow veteran, she said.
“In the military you do what you’re told and you don’t really ask questions,” she said. “A good entrepreneur’s number one characteristic is that they ask why, they push the limit.”
Lloyd recalled one Marine she mentored who kept a meticulously labeled binder of notes, but needed help thinking about new ways to reach customers and grow his real estate business.
“It’s not just helping them build their business plan, but helping them build the entrepreneur inside of themselves,” she said.
Veterans in business have an instant bond with each other that makes it easier to network, said Heard, who graduated from the VetLaunch accelerator program in 2016.
Things you have to explain to people who have not served – what it’s like to live in a war zone, for example – are simply understood, he said.
“We have a different way of looking at the world,” he said.
Heard was a sergeant in the Marine Corps Reserve when he was deployed in 2007 to Anbar Province, Iraq. To stay in shape and prevent injury, Heard and other troops used sandbags, rocks and whatever else they could find to do weight training exercises.
The experience inspired Heard to pursue graduate studies in human physiology at Tulane University, as well as research military conditioning and injuries.
He used that knowledge to start Protac Fitness, which specializes in combat conditioning and athletic training for clients ranging from soldiers to college athletes. Heard designed the workouts so they can be done just about anywhere using rifles, flak jackets and other standard military issued gear for weight resistance.
Heard said VetLaunch offered an active support network that was hard to find in academic settings where he was often the only veteran.
Veterans “have a unique way of seeing the world and an ability to adapt and overcome anything that is thrown at them,” Heard said.
He added an entrepreneurial adage he has adopted: “Being a good entrepreneur is building your business with the bricks people throw at you.”
‘YOU’RE NOT ALONE’
The VetLaunch accelerator welcomed 11 ventures into its newest cohort in January. The 12-week program gives startup founders training on a range of topics, including how to choose a legal structure, market their products and raise capital.
It culminates in a business pitch event at New Orleans Entrepreneur Week in March, where the startups will compete for a $25,000 prize. The panel judging the pitches will include celebrity chef John Besh, a former Marine, and Kirk Coco, a Navy veteran and CEO of NOLA Brewing Co.
Robin Corradi, a member of the VetLaunch cohort, started a local Young Rembrandts franchise in 2013 after 23 years of active and reserve service in the U.S. Army. Corradi operates youth art classes at 15 area schools. She hopes to triple that number and hire more part-time teachers with the help of VetLaunch coaching.
Corradi said her fellows at VetLaunch like to rib each other and take jabs at the other forces. In the end, though, they have each other’s backs.
“We have a lot of the same goals, a lot of the same struggles, a lot of the same fears,” she said. “You’re not alone.”
WORK AS THERAPY
The treatment of American military veterans returning from war faces increasing scrutiny, particularly after 2014 revelations that veterans nationwide were waiting as long as 16 weeks to get a health care appointment at some Veterans Affairs clinics. Armbruster is among those who see access to business resources as a key ingredient to better serving vets back home.
Armbruster would know. He started overhauling old homes in the New Orleans area in 2004 to keep busy after his retirement from the military. That work grew into a construction firm that specialized in historic renovations and employed 70 people at its peak.
He credits his venture with helping him reset his sense of purpose following his retirement from the Marine Corps. Armbruster ended the business in October to focus on growing VetLaunch and the Landing Zone.
In coming years, Armbruster wants to expand VetLaunch services to include a comprehensive job training and placement program for veterans.
“A lot of our vets who come back need to feel utilized,” Armbruster said. “Work is the best therapy.”