Veterans Take on a New Mission—Entrepreneurship

George Washington University hosts Semper Startup, a conference that aims to create a network of “vetrepreneurs.”

(From left) U.S. Army veterans John Gossart, Craig Cummings and Steve Carroll discuss RideScout, a mobile app that shows users a collection of transportation options, with Michael Beirne, founder of Mission Entrepreneur.
October 20, 2014

By Brittney Dunkins

In 2013, Joseph Kopser, Craig Cummings, John Gossart and Steve Carroll—four U.S. Army veterans and former West Point professors— found themselves in the position of many entrepreneurs.

They had a great idea for a transportation app. But the company bank account totaled $719.

“We never considered that we wouldn’t make it,” said Mr. Gossart, vice president of business development for RideScout, a mobile application that shows users a collection of transportation options. “It’s a quality that you see in a lot of veterans—failure isn’t an option.”

Through the support of the veteran community, angel investors and start-up incubator 1776, RideScout stayed afloat and expanded to 69 cities. It now boasts 10 employees and was recently acquired by German automotive giant Daimler AG.

Michael Beirne, founder of Mission Entrepreneur, says that RideScout’s success story is emblematic of a rising class of veteran entrepreneurs, dubbed “vetrepreneurs.”

Veterans, he said, are uniquely qualified to launch and run businesses because of their experience serving as effective leaders, team members and problem solvers under pressure.

“Investors know that vets are a smart choice,” Mr. Beirne said to an audience of veterans, entrepreneurs and investors who attended Semper Startup, a conference held Wednesday at the George Washington University.

“Veterans are better equipped to start businesses, but they need to know that they can,” he said.

GW Private Equity & Venture Capital Club—led by Elliott School of International Affairs senior Antwain Thomas—and Mission Entrepreneur presented Semper Startup with support from more than five university departments and organizations.

The program included lessons from experienced entrepreneurs such as the RideScout founders, mentorship sessions for fledgling business-owners and investment tips from experts such as angel investor Roger London, chairman of American Security Challenge, a technology scouting company.

Former U.S. Army infantryman Sam Altman, M.S. ’14, is an Army Reserve staff sergeant and co-founder of Mission Entrepreneur. He said the organization was born out of a need for a comprehensive support system for veteran entrepreneurs.

“A lot of veterans don’t realize that starting their own business is a natural transition when they exit the military,” Mr. Altman said. “They have the ability—they can operate under pressure—but they don’t have the same support system that they’re used to.”

He added that because “no one takes care of a veteran like a veteran,” entrepreneurship could have a positive effect on high veteran unemployment numbers.

Lex McCusker, the new director of the GW Business Plan Competition, announced a $5,000 prize for the 2015 competition that will be awarded to the best veteran-founded startup or to the best product or service for the veteran community. 

The veteran unemployment rate has been consistently higher than the civilian unemployment rate for the last several years. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2013 there was a 9 percent unemployment rate among post 9/11 veterans. The civilian unemployment rate hovers around 6 percent.

Victoria Pridemore, associate director of the Office of Military and Veteran Student Affairs, said that often veterans have trouble communicating their skills to civilian employers.

“Veterans, especially those recently discharged, often have a hard time translating the valuable skills they learned into civilian skills,” Ms. Pridemore said. “A lack of resume writing and interview experience also can be a big hurdle to finding a job, but there are many benefits and transition programs for veterans to use in this process.”

President Barack Obama created the Interagency Task Force on Veteran Small Business Development in 2010 to support entrepreneurship as a solution for veteran unemployment.

To that end, the Small Business Administration provided $2.1 billion in lending to 2,800 veterans in 2012 through grant programs like the Patriot Express loan.

In addition to government assistance, there has been an increase in private funding and education for veteran startups through organizations such as the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

In 2011, the foundation launched the FastTrac Veteran’s Initiative and trained more than 300 veterans to start their businesses.

A network of universities including University of Connecticut, Syracuse University and Southern Methodist University also has created incubator programs to support vetrepreneurs.

During the conference, Lex McCusker, the new director of the GW Business Plan Competition, announced that for the 2015 competition the university will award a $5,000 prize to the best veteran-founded startup or the startup that provides the best service or product for the veteran community.

Mr. Altman said that he is excited to see GW’s veteran community get more involved in entrepreneurship.

“It’s gratifying to see the university get behind the movement to support veteran entrepreneurs,” Mr. Altman said. “There are a lot of systems in place for veterans who want to work in the public sector, but we want veterans to realize there is a place for them to lead in the free market.”


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