Bunker Labs

A Navy veteran opens a network of business start-up incubators to help military veterans realize their entrepreneurial dreams.
Bunker Labs

Written by Todd Connor and the Bunker Labs Team

For four years, I proudly served as an Officer in the U.S. Navy onboard the USS Bunker Hill (CG-52). When I had fulfilled active duty and returned to civilian life in 2004, I knew I wanted the next challenge in life and decided to become an entrepreneur. I launched two small businesses— a management consulting business focused on helping companies better engage their employees, and later an executive education business. The work I was doing and the success I had experienced with these businesses attracted the interest and curiosity of other military veterans around Chicagoland who were also interested in figuring out their careers (and lives) after the military. And before I knew it, veterans far and wide were coming to me to ask for career mentorship and guidance—a sort of “how-to” roadmap for navigating professional life in their strange, new non-military world.

It occurred to me that there was a real need to help veterans around the country harness the entrepreneurial potential of their military experience and talents. Skills developed and honed during military service—like setting and realizing goals in support of a single mission, pivoting on strategy at a moment’s notice, and exercising resilience in the face unexpected challenges—are invaluable for business success. But without professional networks or dedicated entrepreneur resources, veterans often don’t know how to channel their skills into actionable business plans and start-ups. That’s when my idea for Bunker Labs was born.

Bunker Labs provide access to critical educational resources that give veterans a foundation on which to launch successful small businesses. Sometimes the smallest bit of shared information can mean the difference between a startup success and failure. Bunker Labs connect veteran-led startups with small business mentors who have proven success as entrepreneurs. We offer an entire educational curriculum, including weekly forums and meetups, night classes, and seminars on best practices in entrepreneurship. We even help veterans get their foot in the door with angel investors, venture capital, and alternative investment opportunities. And we now have 13 chapters around the country. Our vision is that every person who has served in the military has the support community, the professional network, and the business resources to realize their full entrepreneurial potential.

To bring our vision to life, we knew we needed to create a special space that speaks to today’s veteran: young, technologically savvy, active, and social. The environment would need to be built for ideation and collaboration. It would need to host anything from a 30-person workshop to a two-person mentor session, from a one-person ideation activity to a 45-person wine and cheese reception.

Thanks to the generous support and creative muscle of Perkins&Will, today, our flagship space on the 12th floor of the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago does all of those things and more. Life pulsates throughout it at all hours, beginning with buzz over coffee and laptops at 7 a.m. and continuing to buzz well into the afternoon and late night. The space even doubles as a film studio: we shoot five to seven inspirational and educational videos every week (usually at night) to share with active duty personnel who are thinking of starting a business when they get out of the military.

Throughout the entire design process, Perkins&Will was thoughtful, creative, and fast-acting. The result is a place that not only defines our brand and engenders pride among our staff and members, but also empowers veterans to pursue and achieve their wildest professional dreams.