When Jim Raschella first got out of the military, he heard other veterans lament that the most exhilarating days of their lives were past them.
In comparison to the high stakes of a war zone, the trappings of civilian life were dull, they said.
“That really hit home for me,” Raschella told a group of veterans in Raleigh on Thursday. “I was 24 years old and a cabana boy ... in Florida. I was unfulfilled.”
It wasn’t until he entered the startup world that he begun to recapture the rush of adrenaline he used to have.
“Nothing really compares to shooting ... a mortar,” he said, “until I found entrepreneurship. It’s not the same, but it’s taking risks and there’s a lot of excitement that keeps me going.”
Now Raschella — who started the company Off Duty Blue — is helping other veterans similarly navigate an entrance to the startup world.
Raschella is the city leader for WeWork’s first veterans-in-residence cohort in Raleigh, a program that will bring together eight startups led by veterans or spouses of veterans and help them access resources and mentorship.
The program is run by Bunker Labs, a national nonprofit that helps veteran entrepreneurs, in partnership with WeWork. As part of the program, the startups will get free access to WeWork’s One Glenwood space for the six months they are part of the cohort.
Raleigh is the 15th city where Bunker Labs has helped launch a veterans-in-residence program with WeWork. The city was so impressed by the organization that it gave Bunker Labs a $25,000 impact grant for its work.
Many veterans, the organization says, want to start businesses after leaving the military, but without guidance and a network the idea can be too daunting or confusing.
Raschella said Bunker Labs helped him build credibility in his startup, which helps police departments schedule off-duty events, like handling security at an event.
“I think it brought my business to the next level,” he said. “And it helps just having people around to motivate me to get better.”
Dean Bundschu, the Atlantic regional executive director for Bunker Labs, said programs like Bunker Labs are important because of the declining rates of entrepreneurship among veterans.
Nearly 50% of World War II veterans started their own businesses after returning to civilian life, Bundschu noted. But that rate has taken a nosedive, dropping to around 12% in the 1990s and now under 5% for post-9/11 veterans, he said.
Bundschu wants to get that number back up to the 10% to 15% range, which he thinks is possible with a robust entrepreneurial network for veterans. Bunker Labs, he said, is projected to have operations in all 50 states in the next 18 months.
“A lot of veterans tell us that the thing that they were lacking ... in the entrepreneur community was not being around other veterans,” he said.
“Who is equipped to hire veterans? Other veterans are,” he said, recalling that he worked for two veterans before launching his own startup. “People don’t understand how the soft skills gained in the military can translate to the workplace.”
He hopes that Bunker Labs can become something akin to what VFW halls were for previous generations of veterans. A place for community, yes, but also a place where you could further your career.
“I am a member of VFW, a member of the American Legion,” he said, “but the way those organizations are structured and what they offer just doesn’t feel like they’re for 9/11 veterans.”
“For a lot of us,” he added, “just being around other ambitious veterans with big ideas is attractive. It’s more than just showing up somewhere to drink.”
This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate