Bunker Labs nurtures veteran entrepreneurs in Philly

Bunker Cohort huddle at Saxby's corporate headquarters. From L to R, Joe Witte, Bunker Labs Executive Director; Jeremy Mock, CEO of EGA Associates; Preston Forchion, CEO of C.A.R.S/Forchion Group; Robert Land, Forward Thinker CEO; Jean South, CEO of Hire Served

When Jake Murphy deployed to Kuwait in 2011, he could hardly have imagined that he’d be leading a company a few years later that is on track to serve 1,000 customers in Philadelphia by year’s end.

“It was tough,” remembers Murphy. “But you just keep your nose to the grindstone and soon you start to adapt.”  

Bunker Labs is a national nonprofit that helps active and former servicemen and women like Murphy build new companies. The group, headquartered in Chicago, has independent local branches across the United States, including in Philadelphia. 

One firm in Bunker Labs is the South Jersey-based veteran head-hunting company Hire Served, founded by former FBI special agent and military spouse Jean South. Hire Served matches small businesses and other groups that need veteran skills or special security clearances.  

There’s also Jennifer Gallagher’s GoPaperboy, which helps users find talented local children for homework help or tennis instruction.

And Preston Forchion sought out mentors at Bunker Labs to build his vehicle crash safety investigation firm Comprehensive Accident Reconstruction Specialists (CARS). The former Air Defense Artillery officer was stationed in Germany for four years before beginning a multi-decade career in law enforcement. There, he developed an expertise in the scientific analysis of car crashes. He now teaches basic and advance crash reconstruction at Kean University.

CARS, which provides services to lawyers, insurance companies, fleet managers, and other parties, was founded in February 2016. It plans to hire three employees by year's end. It booked $10,000 in revenues last year and forecasts consulting fees of $100,000 by the end of 2017. 

Forchion thanks Bunker for assistance with branding and mentorship in navigating his weaknesses. “Bunker helped me put down a gun and put on a suit and tie to run a business,” he said.

Philadelphia’s Bunker efforts are led by executive director and  Iraq war veteran Joe Witte. A retired Army captain, Witte cofounded the city’s chapter in 2016 and has since helped more than 20 early-stage veteran-founded companies and engaged with more than 300 veteran business owners. Bunker Labs does not take equity in the companies it mentors; it relies on donors and corporate sponsors to finance operations.

The program's core is the 18-week EPIC program. Eight to 12 veteran entrepreneurs are selected for each cohort and receive advice on nearly every facet of building a company. This can range from advice on culture or sales, to selecting the right office space or making introductions for raising funds. 

“We cast our net wide and don’t have one specific industry focus,” Witte said. “Success for us is in seeing our cohort members build self-sustaining companies.”

The nonprofit also holds monthly meetups called Bunker Brews that give attendees a chance to hear from thought leaders. The event, held at Benjamin’s Desk, typically draws 50 to 70 veteran entrepreneurs at a time.

These monthly gigs lead to the annual Muster event, this year on Sept. 27 at the Pennovation Center. At last year’s meetup, more than 300 people came out to hear Mayor Kenney and Michele Jones, the first woman to become a command sergeant major in the U.S. Army Reserve.

“Our goal is to encourage veterans to talk about their journey, share their experience, hardships and successes,” Witte said. 

Bunker Labs’ efforts are attracting corporate support, such as the $1.5 million that JP Morgan Chase provided. Bunker used the funds to launch a 10-month tour, holding events and opening new chapters across America.   

“After World War II, nearly half of returning service members started their own businesses,” said Jon Cox, a Navy veteran and executive director of JP Morgan Chase’s Small Business & Strategic Initiatives in Military and Veterans Affairs. “We fast-forward to today and 25 percent of veterans say they want to start a business, but only 6 percent do because they lack access to capital.”

Because nearly 10 percent — or 2.5 million — of the nation’s small businesses are veteran-founded, the work has macroeconomic impact.    

“We work with Bunker Labs because they provide an excellent platform for veterans to get help with starting a business,” he said. “Not only is this the right thing to do, it’s great for the U.S. economy.”