Startup Incubator Teaches Military Veterans in NYC

Last weekend, one of my favorite organizations, the Patriot Boot Camp, swung through the Big Apple to throw a three day shindig of startupy goodness. I popped by to check out the action.

For those not familiar, the Patriot Boot Camp (PBC) is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization led by startup accelerator Techstars. Founded by entrepreneur Taylor McLemore and co-piloted by Air Force vet Sean Maday and military spouse Charlotte Creech, PBC brings together tech industry heavyweights, startup leaders, and vet entrepreneurs for short and intensive conferences focused launching scalable businesses.

Quietly standing in the back corner of the large, amphitheater-shaped conference room at Goldman Sachs' headquarters, I watched things kick off as Uvize co-founder David Cass stepped onto the raised platform at the front. Dropping the formulaic niceties typical to entrepreneurial lectures, he dove straight into the gritty, exciting, and excruciating details of launching a startup. Punctuated with jokes about getting [lovingly?] punched in the helmet by a Marine Cobra instructor, the tone and raw honesty wasn't the only thing unique about talk. He spoke not simply as a fellow founder, but a battle buddy willing to step into the trenches with each vet in the room.

This mentality proved the norm and was fully displayed on Day 2, during the mentor sessions. See, Techstars paired PBC participants with mentors from across its network, and the country. Each vet received five 20 minute one-on-one sessions with an expert who could help them with specific areas where they needed advice. Whether it's figuring out how to scale manufacturing, work through a legal issue, or achieve product/market fit, they had an experienced specialist and/or influencer there to help. The coolest part? These mentors, there on their own dime and without fanfare, took time out to support vets without asking for anything in return.

I shadowed mentor Mark Rockefeller, an Air Force JAG lawyer turned co-founder of StreetShares, as he sat down with Navy vet KC Chhipwadia. KC is in the early stages of developing a mobile app to help student athletes prepare for, and manage, their athletic careers. For KC, the challenge he wanted to solve and audience he wanted to target were clear. The question was how best to organize his product. Chatting with him afterward, he said excitedly "the session was awesome. Having Mark there to work with me through the different models was great." KC continued with a smile, "I like how he asked questions instead of telling me what to do; 'Let's peel back the onion together.'"

The conference concluded with a pitch competition judged by folks from the leadership teams at Softlayer, Goldman Sachs, and the Institute for Veterans & Military Families. At stake? Pride. And new iPads. The competition was pretty fierce, with folks like Sockwork co-founder and Army vet Mario Barrett having cut his teeth at SXSW's recent Eat-A-Habanero-And-Then-Pitch-While-Everyone-Cracks-Up competition (probably not the official name), and a tag team trio from Cause Engine having ducked out of the previous night's happy hour early to prepare. In the end, the latter edged out the former and 10 other teams, but all walked away with actionable pitching guidance from the three judges.

As the three days drew to a close, I asked Mario whether the event lived up to the billing. "[PBC] was so much more than [my co-founder/wife and I] ever anticipated," replied the West Point grad. "We came in with an open mind and were blown away by the mentors and speakers. We're walking away with a much bigger network of people experiencing the exact same pains we are." Looking to scale his high-end subscription sock service and launch a Kickstarter campaign this summer, that network will likely come in handy for early supporters.

When asked about PBC, Cause Engine co-founder and military spouse Mackenzie Padell declared, "If I could drop the eff bomb, I would. It was beyond amazing." "When we came to PBC we didn't know what we didn't know. [PBC] has the ability to provide you with the info you didn't know you needed."

And so wrapped up three days of instruction, mentorship, pitching, and happy hours. With ambitions to host similar events around the country in 2015 and beyond, I'm looking forward to see where PBC rolls out next.