On the last weekend in July, active duty military members, veterans and their spouses from all over the country will converge on Chapel Hill for a startup weekend unlike any other as The University of North Carolina hosts Patriot Boot Camp.
Patriot Boot Camp is a not-for-profit organization sponsored by the national chain of startup accelerators called Techstars, and it's designed to equip military members and their families with the necessary skills and resources to become successful tech company founders. The program takes place over a three-day weekend and features prominent guest speakers, workshops and intense mentoring sessions. The event in Chapel Hill will be the sixth event the organization has hosted and the first in the Southeast—the inaugural event was held at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. Check out the video above for an overview and history by Techstars CEO David Cohen.
It's obviously a feel-good story. Everyone loves helping veterans. People want to give back to the people who have sacrificed for our country. But for Matthew Rascoff, vice president of learning technology and innovation for the UNC system, it’s not about seeing vets as charity cases, but as valuable assets to the University and the state. According to Rascoff, UNC has a role to play in supporting military veterans and entrepreneurship.
“We’ve made huge investments in these people. The question is ‘what are we going to do now?’ he says. "Are we going to let those investments whither or are we going to double down and really help the state succeed and help veterans succeed and make a big impact.”
Rascoff oversees the system’s 337 online degree programs. He says a big benefit of Patriot Boot Camp is that UNC can showcase its growing and increasingly flexible course offerings.
“The goal is to demonstrate to the military community how many high-quality, flexible online degree options we have here at the University of North Carolina and to encourage them to check out what we have to offer," he says. "Historically for-profit universities have marketed very heavily to the military.”
Transformation as entrepreneurs
For past attendees of Patriot Boot Camp sessions, the experience was nothing short of transformative personally and professionally.
“They call it boot camp, and I thought that that was maybe a bit of a stretch, but it’s totally not,” says Bridget Platt
, the wife of a Marine and founder of Daddy’s Deployed
Platt founded her company a couple of years ago after her daughter was born and realized that her husband would be away for much of her early childhood. Platt sought educational materials that would help her daughter understand why her father couldn’t be around. After finding nothing, Platt took it upon herself to create a solution.
Attending the New York event in 2014, Platt says camp started at 8 a.m. and lasted until 8 or 9 p.m. every night. The sessions were so intense and the information so useful, Platt says she filled an entire 180-page notebook full of notes over the course of the weekend on everything from legal advice to business strategy.
Platt says she also made valuable connections that are still paying off today. One of those is Anthony Pompliano, a product manager at Facebook and former Army sergeant. A former Raleigh resident, he'll be at the event in Chapel Hill also.
While they can speak ad nauseam on the quality of the mentoring they received, perhaps the biggest takeaway for attendees is the intense sense of community that Patriot Boot Camp offered.
“It’s like you’ve been lost in the woods and all of a sudden here you are. It was so embracing and we had never even met these people before,” says Rebecca Antonino
, who founded FieldVine
, a mobile project management solution, with her husband Ray. Both attended Patriot Boot Camp in New York in 2014.
Platt concurred. “My favorite thing was the camaraderie between everyone that was attending. I left with 79 new best friends.”
The power of shared experiences
For Platt and the Antoninos, it was uniquely powerful to be around people who shared the dual experiences of being veterans and entrepreneurs. Few people know what it’s like to serve their country and spend sleepless nights building a business from the ground up. Patriot Boot Camp provides that community.
Not to say that Patriot Boot Camp is simply a support group for veteran-entrepreneurs. Both Platt and the Antoninos say that the weekend in New York changed the trajectory of their businesses.
Ray says his biggest takeaway was to realize his technology was never going to be perfect and that he should “quit lollygagging around and go get customers, go get users, get feedback, make adjustments.” After his shift in focus to customer acquisition, FieldVine has seen rapid growth.
Platt and Ray Antonino both plan on attending Patriot Boot Camp in Chapel Hill in July. Rebecca Antonino will be unable to attend. She’s currently at the Iron Yard Accelerator in Spartanburg, SC working on a new startup called ProAlert,
a mobile app that provides data to first responders. She credits the lessons she learned at the New York event in helping her and a partner with the new venture.
Platt says she even volunteered to put together welcome packets this time around. “I believe so much in what they’re doing that I’ll do whatever I can to support and help out anyone else that’s gone through what we’ve gone through,” she says.
While she says the opportunity to attend and help out the next group of recruits was impossible to pass up, she’s also excited to see old friends and hear from a lineup of impressive guest speakers.
As for advice for future attendees, Ray Antonino says to come prepared to be actively engaged for the entire weekend.
“Be open, be prepared to listen, be prepared to ask questions and engage,” he says.
He also advises attendees to research mentors beforehand and take a strategic approach to their sessions. Attendees will receive rosters prior to the event and will have the opportunity to schedule several 20-minute meetings. It’s important to meet with the people who can bring the most value to your venture.
The deadline to apply to Patriot Boot Camp is Saturday, June 12. If you are an active duty military member, a veteran or a spouse, you can apply here.
If you are a venture capitalist, tech executive or other expert and would like to volunteer as a mentor for Patriot Boot Camp, contact Matthew Rascoff.
Below is the current list of speakers and mentors lined up for the July event:
• Rob Johnson
, Managing Director, Techstars METRO in Berlin (also a Veteran)
• Tommy Sowers
, Founder and CEO, SOLOpro; and former Asst. Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Dept. of Veterans Affairs.
• Greg Coleman
, President & COO at Nexercise, Inc. (Veteran and PBC alumni)
• Dave Cass
, CEO & Co-founder, Uvize, Inc. (Veteran and PBC alumni)
• Tak Lo
, Director, Techstars London (Veteran and PBC alumni)
• Many of the speakers above
• Scott Connolly,
Veteran and Employment Attorney, Morse, Barnes-Brown & Pendleton, P.C.
• Joe Martinez,
Corporate Attorney, Morse, Barnes-Brown & Pendleton, P.C.
• David Jones
, General Partner, Bull City Venture Partners