Military experience is helping entrepreneurs flourish in Columbus.
Demetrius Curry had it rough growing up on the South Side of Chicago, shuttling back and forth between a difficult family situation and foster homes. He was a smart but unmotivated student who eventually dropped out of high school and spent some time on the streets, homeless and hustling to survive as a self-described “street-level entrepreneur.”
His life began to change after he joined the Marines Corps. “I realize, looking back, that I needed to go into the Marines to learn the lessons I was supposed to learn about myself but never did,” says Curry, 46, of his 1990-to-1994 stint as a leatherneck.
A hitch—or a career—in the military has helped straighten out countless men and women, teaching them to find the best in themselves and how to lead others. The military also seems to be a great incubator of determined, driven entrepreneurs who can turn their dreams into successful businesses.
There are currently about 2.5 million veteran-owned businesses in the United States, which represents 9.1 percent of all businesses, according to a 2016 studyby the Institute for Veterans and Military Families. The study also found that veterans are 22 percent more likely to be self-employed than their civilian counterparts.
Curry is one of the many local entrepreneurs with a military background. He is the CEO of CollegeEase.com, a website that connects high school students with colleges and is a potential lifeline to higher education for underserved populations.
Shaun Hansel, an Air Force master sergeant in the finance department of the 121st Air Refueling Wing at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base, is also using the skills he's learned in the military to build a business. He's the founder of Attract Iron and recently completed a Kickstarter project that raised $29,766 for his company's first product, called AFIXIT. “All this money goes to buy the raw materials for my first manufacturing run and fulfilling the orders [from the Kickstarter campaign], and maybe creating some inventory,” Hansel says of his new business venture.
Kimberly Tapia, meanwhile, is a master sergeant in the Army Reserve and has started a couple of companies under the umbrella of the Polanko Group, which is based in Bexley. Her mission: “I want to develop a culture within my companies that is positive and focused on the team aspect … and that is very much inspired by my time in the military.”
Several organizations are devoted to helping veterans and active-duty service personnel scratch their entrepreneurial itch. There are about 20.4 million veterans in this country, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and the unemployment rate for all veterans was 3.7 percent in 2017, down from 4.3 percent the previous year.
In central Ohio, Bunker Labs Columbus has become the go-to group for Curry, Hansel, Tapia and scores more. The local branch of the national nonprofit organization provides meet-and-greet events to connect veterans, active-duty personnel and first responders; hosts educational seminars; and offers online tutorials that cover a wide range of business-related topics. Bunker Labs has 18 chapters throughout the country.
The reason so many veterans are determined to start their own companies is simple. “They're used to leading people in the military,” says Michael McNett, executive director of Bunker Labs Columbus. He spent 29 years in the Army, retired as a lieutenant colonel and has plenty of leadership experience. Once soldiers leave the military, “they have a natural tendency to want to continue to lead their own teams and build their own teams, build an organization and make a name for themselves,” McNett says.
But here's the thing: being an entrepreneur is extremely difficult, especially for younger veterans, and success is anything but guaranteed. “You're basically jumping out of an airplane and trying to build a parachute on the way down,” Curry says.
Veterans seem to feel more comfortable around other veterans, which is one of the reasons so many have become part of Bunker Labs Columbus. They went through many of the same experiences, speak the same jargon and face many of the same difficulties readjusting to civilian life and starting companies. “There's an immediate trust with your fellow veterans … until they prove you wrong,” McNett says with a laugh, adding this trust factor is why there are about 1,600 military men and women in the Bunker Labs Columbus network, and plans to expand the local organization statewide.
“There's something very comforting about being around people living what you're living,” Tapia says of her connection to other service personnel. “We may have different businesses, but at the core of it, we're all in this entrepreneurial boat of chaos.”
Here are the stories of Curry, Hansel and Tapia: the ideas that drive them, the business plans they've put together and the dogged determination and leadership skills they learned while serving their country and put to the test each and every day.
Suit Up for Success
“Not every tech startup founder looks like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg,” says Curry, an African American who frequently wears a well-tailored suit, a habit that began in the Marines when his uniform was always as sharp as a tack. “Your uniform is your brand, it's a representation of how well you take care of yourself,” Curry adds. “You have to keep your uniform crisp, everything on point, ironed and fitted just right.”
Curry took a few years to find his entrepreneurial calling.
After his discharge from the Marines, Curry eventually earned his GED, attended but didn't graduate from Northern Illinois University and began working in the financial-services industry in New York, climbing his way up from the customer-service department of a Wall Street firm.
He came to Columbus in 2005 to visit a friend and never left. Curry continued to work in the financial world. “I also enjoyed working with kids and wanted to help them not become the same kind of kid I was,” he says. “So many wanted to do something better with their lives, but they didn't know how.”
This observation planted the seed that gradually grew into CollegeEase. While there are a couple of competing websites that connect students and colleges, Curry's goal from the start was to do it better and try to level the playing field for lower-income and minority students by making it easier for them to learn about and communicate with colleges that seemed like a good match. High school students in this country and abroad can punch in their interests, achievements and preferences to determine the schools that best suit their needs and then start an online dialogue. CollegeEase has been described as a LinkedIn for high school students, and it also includes information on scholarship opportunities.
“I used to be an admissions officer at West Point and immediately thought this is something they can use,” McNett says.
Curry says his lack of educational achievements and his minority status made everything, including attracting venture capitalists, more difficult. “We've had the same hurdles everyone else has, and we've had to jump over some extra hurdles,” Curry says. “It's hard to break subconscious bias and perceptions. … You have two choices: Let it jade you and make you bitter and quit, or you store it all away in the back of your head and take everything that's ever been said to you and use it as fuel.”
Minorities, especially African Americans and Latinos, are slowly becoming business-owning entrepreneurs at a higher rate, according to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families study. “But there is still a relatively large gap between entrepreneurial activity and business ownership,” the study states. “More research is needed on their challenges, successes and motivation.”
Curry's motivation is to help others avoid the mistakes he made. “If you understood my struggle, you'd understand my hustle,” is how he describes his daily grind. Curry is an engaging speaker who is equal parts preacher, poet and salesman. He's not afraid to let his emotions simmer to the surface as he describes his goals for his tech company.
And after years of what Curry describes as a “gorilla-lean operation,” CollegeEase now seems poised for success. The company has signed agreements with Blackboard, Clever and Castle Rock Research—companies that use technology to connect with, engage and educate students. “This is our year, and everything we've done to get to this point makes it all so worth it,” Curry says, adding CollegeEase is free for students and revenues comes from school districts scattered across the country and from U.S. colleges interested in finding domestic and international students.
“We have deals in place this year worth $6 million,” Curry says. CollegeEase is based in a shared office space in Gahanna, with plans to add more employees: sales people and tech support.
“I may not be around to see the full impact of this,” Curry says. “But I see myself on top of a mountain, kicking a rock that keeps rolling and rolling.”
It wasn't so much a great business idea that propelled Shaun Hansel into the entrepreneurial world, as it was a challenge from a fellow airman. “He said, ‘Do you have a 5-year goal, a 10-year goal, a plan for your life?' ” Hansel says of this life-changing discussion in late 2015. “I said no, I didn't, and he said that I really should.”
This talk changed everything for Hansel, who has been in the Air Force for 14 years, alternating between active duty and the Air Force Reserve. He deployed to Baghdad in 2009 as a firefighter on a flight line. The Chillicothe native and his wife, Brittany, have two children, Vincent, 7, and Scarlett, 4.
“I started setting goals and changing my life and getting focused,” Hansel says. Working out at the gym has always helped him think and plan, and it was at the gym that he came up with the idea for AFIXIT, which he calls “the ultimate magnetic bottle holder.”
When Hansel set his water bottle down on a bench and began hoisting some weights, “someone came over and said, ‘Are you using this bench?' The one with my water bottle on it,” Hansel recalls. “I said, ‘No, I wasn't.' ” The experience sparked a question: Was there something Hansel could use to wrap around his bottle so he didn't have to set it down on equipment or the ground?
One idea led to another, several prototypes were tested and tossed aside, adapted, improved … and then inspiration hit Hansel like a 10-pound weight. “Everything in here is made of metal,” he says of pretty much all the equipment in virtually every gym everywhere. This led to AFIXIT, a sleeve that can wrap around any bottle and includes an industrial-strength magnet that affixes to gym equipment. It's one of those ideas that seems so logical and basic that it should have been invented years ago but wasn't.
Hansel got some help early on from Bigger Tuna, a Columbus innovation and product-development company. He began making some prototype AFIXITs on a 3D printer but struggled with how to go from great idea to mass production, sales and distribution. Then he heard about Bunker Labs and contacted McNett.
“I'll listen to anyone who has more information and knowledge than me,” Hansel says. “I'm a shut up and listen kind of guy.”
McNett filled him in on Bunker Labs and told Hansel about an upcoming get-together featuring Tom Burden, a mechanic in the Air Force Reserve and a local entrepreneurial star. Burden invented Grypmat, a bright-orange and flexible tool mat that adheres to curved surfaces—such as an aircraft, car or boat—and can withstand high temperatures. He raised $113,433 in a Kickstarter campaign and was a contestant on “Shark Tank,” where three of the sharks teamed up to pay $360,000 for a 30-percent stake in Grypmat.
McNett introduced Hansel to Burden, who in turn introduced Hansel to someone who could help him create his own Kickstarter campaign. “Tom's created this network of entrepreneurs, and we all meet at his apartment and do give and takes,” Hansel says.
The push from Bunker Labs, McNett and Burden was exactly what Hansel needed. His Kickstarter campaign was successful, he's about to start production and has big plans for his company. “[AFIXIT] is just the first product,” he says, adding that, “I don't want to say what the other ideas are just yet.” He did hint that one of his ideas is a carabiner that will make it easy to hook an AFIXIT to a gym bag.
Hansel plans to continue in the Air Force and put in 20 years of service, although he's not sure how much longer he'll remain on full-time, active duty. “If I feel the business can't be successful, if I can't put in the amount of time it takes, I'll know when that happens and could switch to a more traditional Guardsman [with a one-weekend a month commitment].”
Time is a precious commodity for Hansel, who works full-time at Rickenbacker and hustles home after work to spend time with his family. After the kids go to bed, he spends the next few hours working on Attract Iron. “I get maybe five hours of sleep,” Hansel says.
Nevertheless, he's in no great rush to leave the Air Force, the source of so much of his success. “I've learned so many different skills, especially leadership and the management aspects of running something and creating a structure for myself and others to be successful,” Hansel says.
Kimberly Tapia is full of energy, optimism and has a long list of short- and long-term goals. She serves in the Army Reserve's 643rd Regional Support Group in Whitehall, has been deployed to Iraq, participated in training exercises in Egypt and has been mobilized all over the United States. While serving her country, Tapia also started the Polanko Group, which has several business lines, and has managed to find the time to earn a Master of Business Operational Excellence degree from Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business.
“You do have to make a lot of sacrifices,” says Tapia, 32. “I'm single, with no kids. I can't think about that right now, I'm so busy with my businesses.”
The Polanko Group is named after her mother. “It's my mother's maiden name, but with a K instead of a C,” Tapia says. “The K sounds stronger, more impactful.”
Sounding strong and impactful is something women have to consider, as they make their way in the male-dominated military and business worlds. They're making strides, according to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families report, which found that the number of businesses owned by female veterans was about 350,000 in 2012, up from 130,000 in 2015. However, the report also found barriers: Women business owners “are more likely to experience forms of discrimination, particularly around financing their business.”
Tapia understands the hurdles women face and has learned how to maneuver through this tricky mine field. “It really does exist and early on, in my military career, I didn't handle it so well,” she says. “But I've learned how to set a goal and how you can't allow these barriers to prevent you from achieving them.” About 10 percent of all veterans are women, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Tapia grew up in New England before moving with her family to Atlanta. “I essentially joined the military to pay for college, and here I am, 14 years later, still in,” says Tapia, a graduate of Troy University. “Something got me hooked, and I plan to stay in for at least 20 years.”
The Polanko Group is growing. Polanko Cleaning specializes in post-construction cleanup at commercial sites and has more than 30 employees. Polanko Consulting offers financial and accounting analysis to small to mid-size companies, as well as strategic planning. Tapia is also in the midst of creating a venture capital arm of the Polanko Group. “I can't reveal the companies yet, but we're going to make investments in two small businesses and provide them with support.”
Tapia has become a mentor for other women with military backgrounds, serving on the board of the Ohio Women Veterans Advisory Committee and as a project coordinator for The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that helps veterans make the transition back to civilian life. “Some veterans think they can completely control their own destiny and do everything on their own,” McNett says. “They gradually learn they may need some help.”
Polanko Cleaning is the foundation of Tapia's growing business, and the cleaning company has contracts for several local construction and renovation projects, including a couple on the Ohio State campus. “At this point, Polanko Cleaning is very stable, and there's a nice cash flow that's allowing us the opportunity to get into these other ventures,” Tapia says.
Helping other companies grow and devise long-term business plans is Tapia's passion. “What inspires me is being a resource who can add value to a company,” she says, adding it's difficult to create and maintain a company. “Every new business goes through and hits these peaks, where your bandwidth is tested. What happens next?”
Most small business, Tapia says, never recover from these stop signs. This is where Polanko Consulting can help. “I want to help companies develop a sustainable growth plan and overcome the peaks and valleys.”
Tapia has participated in a couple of Bunker Labs Columbus events, sitting on panels, discussing her companies and sharing her business philosophy and strategies for sustainable growth. When asked what advice she would give other female entrepreneurs, Tapia quickly ticks off two items: “Know your numbers and know the power of no.”
Saying no is the more difficult lesson to learn, especially for new entrepreneurs—female or male—struggling to get their new companies up and running and bring in some much-needed cash flow. “As a woman vet, you are your brand,” Tapia says. “If you're authentic, people will buy into that. Don't chameleon yourself to male clients to show that you can do it all. That doesn't work out. Be authentic to yourself.”
Steve Wartenberg is a freelance writer.