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ChangeWorks: VetLaunch - veterans helping veterans

Not-for-profit organization Vet Launch helps vets transition from military life in to new civilian careers, specifically focused on entrepreneurship. Pictured: Vet Launch business accelerator fellows hard at work in their collaborative space at Launch Pad.

Not-for-profit organization Vet Launch helps vets transition from military life in to new civilian careers, specifically focused on entrepreneurship. Pictured: Vet Launch business accelerator fellows hard at work in their collaborative space at Landing Zone.

One of underrated perk of military life for VetLaunch founder Robert (Bob) Armbruster was its impeccably structured trajectory.

That path was straight, the landmarks were clear, and the map was detailed and organized.

First, you’d graduate. Next, eight years of service. You’d get your teeth cleaned on Monday. Tuesday you’d move to a new base.

But what happens when the map is snatched from you and given to a new, younger version of, well, you? How does one walk with no map and no path?

These are the questions that Armbruster hopes to help veterans answer through VetLaunch, a not-for-profit organization devoted to furnishing vets with entrepreneurial skills, resources and connections that will hopefully aid their transition from the military to civilian careers.

Armbruster, a retired United States Marine Corp captain, says the lack of structure in civilian life is a daunting task for veterans.

“You’re leaving an environment where you’re told what to wear, when to eat and everything,” Armbruster explains. “Then when you get out it’s like, ‘wow, no one’s telling me what to do.’ That’s a tough transition for some people.”

VetLaunch’s mission, he says, is to help vets figure out that scary next step -- whether that be launching a business startup or training for a new career -- through a network of resources and support. A group of five veterans recently completed the organization’s first accelerator program, in which the vets were coached on how to start a business, choose a legal structure, decipher accounting requirements, marketing, social media and raising capital.

The program ended with a live pitch competition as part of New Orleans Entrepreneur Week on March 23. The winners, Mitch and Kay Champagne, took home a $25,000 prize pack to help launch their collaborative makerspace, or studio, NOLA Tchoup Block.

Vets are often pushed towards careers in law enforcement or commercial flying for those leaving the air force, but starting a business, Armbruster says, meshes well with both the veteran mind and skill set.

“Entrepreneurship is a great avenue for vets,” Armbruster said. “Maybe because of some of the things that they went through, being your own boss is a good fit.”

Though vets come into entrepreneurship with skill sets they developed during their military careers, the transition, even with the help of VetLaunch, is not without its challenges.

Jeff Widenhofer was one of the five veterans to go through the accelerator program and pitch competition. As a professional guitar player, Widenhofer writes and records for movies, TV shows and commercials and has used the VetLaunch program to help start his own production company, Madjac Music.

One of the challenges Wildenhofer found during this process was the idea of pitching himself to others. The ability to talk about yourself and your skills, he says, runs counter to everything he was taught in the military.

“When you go into service, you lose your individuality,” Widenhofer points out. “And with almost every job in the service, that mentality maintains throughout. I wouldn’t say it’s a brainwash, but it’s about what you value. You’re taught to value your group’s goals far above your personal goals.”

But that does not mean these sorts of transitional hurdles are insurmountable

In fact Armbruster’s goal for VetLaunch, he says, is to “let other vets know that it’s possible to do it. You can do this; you can start your own business. All of the things you learned, all the traits you got in the military -- a lot of that can be transitioned and make you build, develop and operate a good business.”

While Idea Village and Propeller offer similar accelerator programs for budding entrepreneurs, VetLaunch is made up entirely of veterans. A common feeling among veterans, Armbruster says, is a longing for the familial aspects of service. That bond, that brotherhood, can’t be replicated in the civilian world.

It’s vets helping vets.

“I think when we all share that common bond of service, we’re much more open to discuss what we need and the help we need with someone else,” he says.

Armbruster’s goal is to put 10-15 vets through the accelerator program -- headed out of their collaborative workspace, Landing Zone -- every three to six months, producing 25 veteran-owned businesses in the first year. Those businesses would then hire vets to work for them and five years down the road, Armbruster hopes for 150 businesses employing 1,000 vets.

The road for veterans in New Orleans, once dark and ominous, may have a new shiny compass to guide them to successful reintegration.

“Hopefully we can give these young guys coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan a sense of purpose,” Armbruster adds.