#Tech4Vets: MassChallenge Startups Aid Veterans

| MSNE Staff

Per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces who served since September 2001 — 71% of which are between the ages of 25 and 44 — experience an unemployment rate of 5.1 percent.

With a majority of our veterans being among working age, and with incomparable skills in the workforce, you’d expect it would be easy for veterans to find employment after service. But the transition to civilian life is a bit more difficult.

“People who are in the military — especially coming straight from high school or without work experience in civilian jobs — attach identity to what they do,” explains Conrad Hollomon, CoFounder of Operation Code. “When that identity is removed either because of injury or time served, a lot of folks end up being a bit adrift. What is my identity now? I’m not the uniform. I’m not the job. I’m something more than that. A lot of people ask themselves that question.”

So how do we make this transition easier for veterans? That was a big question for this year’s MassChallenge cohort, as various startups at MassChallenge — like Operation Code — were geared toward veteran transition. As a proud MassChallenge partner, we were honored to work alongside some of these startups and get to know the brilliant minds behind them.

Hollomon served in Afghanistan in 2010-11, where he worked alongside tech teams and learned the importance of teamwork from a technology perspective — for him, he says, working with this team showed him how rare it is to find a team that really clicks. After he came home, he sought out that same team and learned that they were working minimum wage jobs and living in low income housing. And he wasn’t letting that fly.

Hollomon took a handful of broken laptops he had in his attic and re-imaged them for his former tech team, guiding them with tutorials. He connected with David Molina on a web page talking about getting veterans in the tech industry, and soon — despite never meeting in person — the two had laid the bricks that would lead to them founding Operation Code together. Now, Operation Code connects veterans with programming skills that they can apply on the job as software engineers around the country.

“The thing that drove me was the idea that the military is a way out for a lot of people,” Hollomon tells us. “If you serve a tour overseas, you come home and the military will pay for your college education. Maybe these veterans are someone that can’t pay for a four-year institution. Maybe they come from an area that doesn’t allow them to learn the skills they want. The military will give you a salary and give you a skill. You lose years off your life for it — you lose your youth. But at the same time, it gives you the opportunity to make a life for yourself.”

Alex Stone, Founder and CEO at Athletes of Valor, has a similar story. Having enlisted as a junior in high school, college athletics — and college in particular — wasn’t a top priority. After serving, he didn’t know that college sports were an option for him. And now, he’s helping veterans make the transition into college utilizing athletics as a linchpin.

“The question is, ‘how can I market myself not only as a potential student but as a potential athlete?’ There should really be a streamlined process for veterans to follow that route,” explains Stone.

Athletes of Valor uses athletics as a retention tool for veterans in higher education, combining two highly-sought out things in the workforce: military skills and league athletics.

Through MassChallenge, these two startups have been able to make marketable success with their respective veteran communities — with Athletes of Valor taking home a $50,000 prize at this year’s MassChallenge Awards. Both founders credit MassChallenge for teaching them how to stand out in the busy startup world, and for empowering them to make change.

“MassChallenge has been tremendous for helping us build relationships in the area, as well as helping us refine our message,” Hollomon tells us. “You want to change the world, make it a better place. Maybe the whole world isn’t a great place to start… maybe you just need to focus on a corner of it first. That’s been a hard lesson to learn.”

Stone credits Athletes of Valor’s recent successes to MassChallenge’s massive community; from providing mentors to finance to investors, Athletes of Valor dove headfirst into the startup community — which may have lent to their $50,000 prize.

Moving forward, these two startups (and others like it) are working to shrink that 5.1% unemployment rate — and are looking toward the military itself to help change that. Through the military spirit of teamwork, self-reliance and commitment to completion, veterans are poised to make an impact in the startup world — they just need the avenue to do so.

“Most of the skills the military teaches you are blue collar and will be phased out in civilian life,” says Hollomon. “We’re taking the new skills economy the world is leaning toward and giving them to veterans.”

Learn more about Microsoft’s commitment to veterans at Microsoft Software & Systems Academy (MSSA).

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