Helping returning veterans land capital, launch start-ups

Tech industry opens door to veterans
Tech industry opens door to veterans   

While returning vets may turn to careers in law enforcement or criminal justice, as they seem like natural fits for the skills they've cultivated during their service, Donald Coolidge said they should consider the start-up world. After more than eight years in the Marine Corps, he launched his tech company, Majestyk Apps, in 2012, to help companies design, develop and scale their platforms.

"Start-ups are generally really lean companies. You need to find creative solutions, and the military really helped with that," Coolidge, 28, said. "The advantage that veterans have is that their time in the military helps them build some traits that translate well into technology. Creative problem solving, teamwork, leadership and [being able] to really think on their feet, think fast and make a decision."

New York-based Coolidge stumbled upon a group, VetsinTech, while attending one of their events in New York last year, and said he was drawn to the energy within the crowd. Instead of a typical job fair, the veterans were being taught how to raise capital and become their own bosses within the tech space.

"The hardest part for veterans looking for jobs once they get out of service is not knowing where their skills are applicable," Coolidge said. "Technology is a great space to be in; it's growing fast and there are good-paying jobs that are looking for the skill sets veterans provide … and leadership just inherently comes with being a veteran."

VetsinTech was started two years ago by Katherine Webster, who said the organization focuses on the "three E's": education, entrepreneurship and employment. They have worked with more than 2,000 vets at their events, including VetCap, which helps veterans connect with funding sources, and the first all-veterans hackathon.

VetCap was inspired by the group's entrepreneurship workshop at the White House earlier this year, and the group held the first-ever, all-women's veteran hackathon at Facebook in August.

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Webster says she was inspired to start the nonprofit, which has close to 4,000 members, after seeing how many vets struggled to find work after returning from war. In 2013, the jobless rate for all veterans was at 6.6 percent, down from 7 percent in 2012. For those who served since Sept. 2011, the rate was at 9 percent in 2013, down from 9.9 percent in 2012.

"I was sitting in the tech ecosystem in San Francisco thinking that's kind of crazy, because these veterans are more tech savvy than ever," she said.

Today, VetsinTech is working with a dozen big tech names, including Facebook, Cisco, Intuit, HP and more.

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Rocktech CEO David Gowel (right) conferring with one of his employees, Air Force veteran Kevin Panneton.
Source: Christy Schmidt
Rocktech CEO David Gowel (right) conferring with one of his employees, Air Force veteran Kevin Panneton.

Rocktech CEO David Gowel, 34, was an Army platoon leader in Iraq and founded his tech start-up in 2010. The Cambridge, Massachusetts-based company's software is a performance overlay meant to make the business web easier to use for big companies, including General Electric, international law firm Latham and Watkins and more. He is a VetsinTech member who is also paying it forward by seeking out military vets who fit what the company is looking for.

The state of small business
The state of small business   

"Veterans need mentors that can help them figure out what they want to specialize in, and then find an expert group that has the experience, network and capabilities to arm those veterans with what they need in that specialty," Gowel said. "That is one of the core elements that I am excited about, is helping to seed the tech industry with early employees now that can become leaders and ultimately mentors to help all of the droves of veterans transitioning out in the coming years."

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And while entrepreneurship is inherently risky, VetsinTech's Webster said these vets are up to the mission.

"We find about 45 percent of veterans would prefer to start their own business," she said. "They're not afraid of risks, because as you know, they have already faced the biggest risk out there."

—CNBC's Karen Stern contributed to this report.