Inaugural class of Veteran’s Entrepreneurship Program graduates
by Holly Bieler
Aug 18, 2015 | 5027 views | 0 0 comments | 59 59 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Soon after Derek Blumke began working for a New York City start-up, the retired Air Force staff sergeant encountered a conundrum with which many a traveling businessmen will undoubtedly be faced: the really bad hotel.

In the Houston area for a meeting, Blumke said he ended up at a hotel in a dangerous part of town with no lock on the front door, and when he got to his room it was obvious the door had been kicked in. Soon, frustration gave way to legitimate worry.

“I started thinking what if something happens,” he said. “I called my brother, and let him know where I was. I was that concerned about my surroundings.”

While Blumke left unscathed the next morning, that feeling of danger, and his inability to do much to protect himself save for jimmying a chair underneath his doorknob, stuck in his head.

“I started thinking, if I’m that concerned, I can’t imagine being a young woman, or younger person in that situation,” he said. “To be someone that’s not like me, 33 and former military, but is instead 22 and has never been out on their own before, I would be terrified.”

It was this idea that led Blumke to begin developing TripSafe, an app and series of safety tools aimed at giving travelers peace of mind when they end up in less-than-ideal lodgings.

He soon gathered a group of friends equally passionate about his idea, however he still needed a bit of entrepreneurial guidance and connections to see his project fully realized.

Enter the NYU Veteran’s Entrepreneurship Program, a free ten-week course in which veterans work closely with NYU professors and other mentors to develop unique business plans that they can eventually pitch to investors. Blumke, along with five other teams of 13 veterans, graduated from the inaugural class last week.

Assemblyman Joe Lentol, who helped establish the course and secure funding for it, said during last week’s graduation that even as the government has continuously stressed the importance of helping veterans once their service ends, very little has been done to proactively utilize their talents.

“[The government] gives a lot of lip service to providing jobs, but the kinds of jobs might be what you left before you went into the service, or might be [menial], rather than taking advantage of your skills,” he said. “The skills that were learned by you in this room about being a leader, about having skills to fight in combat, and fighting for what you believe in, that’s what its like in the street, that’s what it’s like in business, and that’s what it means to be an entrepreneur.”

The five business ideas, presented as part of the graduation, were tremendously varied.

Spurred by her frustrations in getting straight answers about which veterans services were worth utilizing after she left the army, Elana Duffy created Pathfinder, a website which allows veterans to post and read reviews of various services and agencies.

“I got out and I had a piece of paper in my hand with some resources and I didn’t really know what to do with it,” she said. “I came home and I just started trial and error. That was taking so much time. I watched [other transitioning veterans] around me get frustrated, I was getting frustrated, and I realized I really wasn’t alone in this.”

Aided by two other veterans met at the program, as well as a professional graphic designer Duffy connected with through the program, Pathfinder is currently in its beta stage.

Other business ventures from the inaugural class include DaVinciBA, a payment system for private practice physicians, and Carbon, a video game aimed at Alzheimer’s patients.

Blumke said that while he and his business partners had been working on TripSafe for six months prior to joining the program, the mentorship had helped him focus on key aspects of his business plan.

“The program really accelerated the project from just an idea,” he said. “[The professors] were absolutely incredible in helping us identify our customers, making sure we understood who we were actually targeting.”

He said the app component would be in the Apple store in the next couple months, and prototypes of the physical components would be available soon.

Mayor’s Office of Veteran Affairs Commissioner Lorree Sutton, a former Brigadier General in the army and herself an entrepreneur, said at the graduation that the skills military service fostered were major assets as students embarked on entrepreneurial ventures.

“It strikes me that when it comes to entrepreneurship, we veterans have a real edge,” she said. “First of all, we raised our hands when very few people in our country raised their hands. We’re used to working in teams, to living by a code of values, to thinking about core leadership skills and team building. We’re used to forging paths, and we’re used to finding new ways to solve old problems.”

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