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***Reposted from www.combatveteranswithptsd.org/blog with author’s permission***

For those of you who don’t know, my passion for entrepreneurship was born at the inaugural Lehigh Valley Startup Weekend in 2012.  It ignited a passion that still motivates me today.  It motivated me to pursue social entrepreneurship and to found my nonprofit.

One of the things that I have noticed, though, is how few veterans I run into at these events – and that really confused me.  According to the SBA, approximately 40% of returning veterans would prefer to start their own business or ‘not work for anyone but themselves’.  Veterans who start businesses are twice as likely to grow a successful business when compared to those who have never served.

So why do so few veterans participate in Startup Weekend?  I have my theories, but they’re not substantiated by any research and fact.  Instead of focusing on why veterans don’t attend, I thought I’d present my top five reasons why our local veterans SHOULD attend.

So Here Goes…

1. Startup Weekend is a Great Way to Test Entrepreneurship Waters

I know there are a lot of veterans who consider starting their own business or have great ideas but never test the waters because they are too risk averse or don’t know if an idea is value-added and marketable.  Startup Weekend is an opportunity to test ideas and test the waters, with no strings attached.  You get to learn about the culture, the energy, and can discover whether entrepreneurship is something that kindles the creative fire inside you.  At the end of the weekend, even if your team wins the competition, you can walk away if you find that the environment doesn’t work for you.  The only thing that is asked of you is that you focus and dedicate your time for one weekend.  Where you take it from there is completely up to you.  The worst that can happen is you find out, one way or the other, whether entrepreneurship is right for you.

2. The Positive Environment Helps Transitioning Veterans Connect with Like-Minded Professionals

Startup Weekend has an amazing energy.  A very talented pool of people get together for a weekend to generously offer up their talent to develop new applications, manufacture revolutionary new products, and more.  It provides a natural feeling of camaraderie that will feel very familiar to veterans.  This makes Startup Weekend an ideal environment for veterans transitioning out of the military.  It’s non-threatening and everyone appreciates what you can contribute, regardless of your level of experience.  Not only that, participants break out into small teams of competent people to work on separate projects and depend heavily on each other to work autonomously on their portions of the work.  Talk about an ideal setting to soften the cultural blow for veterans just transitioning back into civilian life.  Additionally, veterans will meet like-minded people that they can relate to and share their passion with, making it that much easier to overcome the cultural divide between military and civilian life, allowing civilians and veterans to better understand the value inherent in their respective backgrounds.

3. Companies Are Starting to Recognize that Startup Weekend is a Treasure Trove of Hidden Talent

Very early on, organizers recognized that getting local companies and highly visible large enterprises (think Google and Coke, for example) had a vital role to play in supporting and sponsoring Startup Weekend.  Successful local entrepreneurs were enlisted to be mentors and judges for the events.  What those sponsors, mentors and judges discovered in short order was the inordinate amount of hidden and grossly underemployed talent attending these events.  Over time, Startup Weekend has become not only an event celebrating the entrepreneur in all of us but a hotbed for hiring talent.  I’ll extend it a step further and tell my story.  In early 2012, I attended a hackathon organized by a local teach group called LV Tech.  It was there that I was first exposed to the generous and lively spirit common at other entrepreneurial events.  While there, I started talking to a guy that I quickly found out was a fellow vet.  He spoke very highly of hackathons and especially Startup Weekend.  After the event, we kept in touch and that fall, I attended the inaugural Lehigh Valley Startup Weekend.  It was an amazing experience and our team came in third. The team that won later became one of the most promising startups in the educational space, by the way.  Well, over the course of that event, I’d proven myself to be adaptable, reliable and motivated.  I made connections there that I still maintain to this day.  Time passed and the guy who had introduced me to Startup Weekend back in 2012 reached out to me earlier this year.  He had started a business.  He had a need for someone with proven writing skills and the ability to learn quickly on the fly to help with technical writing.  What started as a trial run for ten hours a week quickly morphed into a full-time transition.  He brought me on as his first W-2 employee just a few months later and I am now the Capture Manager for the company.  He saw my potential –  a potential in the intangibles that never get seen when large companies are screening thousands of resumes.  And it all started with an innocuous conversation and a Startup Weekend.

4. Veterans Provide Skills and Valuable Lessons Learned Stemming from Military Service

Veterans have a very valuable set of ‘soft skills’ that have been ingrained in them as a result of their military service.  Among these skills are adaptability, autonomy, teamwork, professionalism, decision making, and laser-like focus on task and mission.  These skills are a value added proposition for any team or company and especially valuable in the accelerated setting at Startup Weekend.  I have yet to run into a team that hasn’t found working with veterans extremely rewarding and productive.  Many have come to realize this and have openly lamented the limited participation of veterans at these events.

5. Veterans in Attendance Help to Break the Stigma Surrounding PTSD

The stigma surrounding PTSD affects all returning veterans.  About five years ago, there was a concerted effort to dramatically increase the awareness of the prevalence of PTSD in veterans returning home – approximately one in five veterans of the current conflicts is returning home with some degree of PTSD.  This was done very irresponsibly.  They succeeded in raising awareness but never followed up with educating people on how PTSD impacted our veteran community.  As a result, the prevailing stereotypes about PTSD that dated back to the Vietnam War are what the uneducated ended up believing.  The stigma has become so strong that they have actually given this PTSD-specific stigma a name – ‘The Rambo Effect’.  As a result of the increased awareness, this stigma now negatively impacts the lives of all returning veterans.  Employers don’t want to hire young veterans because they fear that they may be introducing a destabilizing element into their workforce.  All of the positive qualities I spoke of in the previous point are either forgotten or summarily ignored as a result of this stigma.  Veterans, with and without PTSD that attend these types of events, demonstrate the positive qualities that employers used to highly value.  By just being themselves veterans can prove just how wrong the prevailing stereotypes are – without ever even mentioning PTSD.

So There You Have It…

Veterans have a lot to offer.  I hope that the reasons I have listed above are motivation for more veterans in the Lehigh Valley to attend this year’s event.  Lehigh Valley Startup Weekend takes place this November 14th – 16th.  As one on the organizers, and a fellow veteran, I’d love to see you out there.  For more information please visit their website.
I’d love to hear feedback from anyone reading this. If anyone has any questions or comments, don’t hesitate to reach out to me!

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Max Harris