During his time serving his country, both domestically at Kentucky’s Fort Campbell and in Afghanistan, U.S. Army company commander Tim Horan wasn’t exactly sure what he would do once he was ready to transition back into civilian life. In what career field would the skills he had learned — operational excellence, efficiency, culture building and leadership — translate to make him successful?
Following an eight-year period of service, Horan decided it was time to move on to a new phase of life. He contacted his former West Point professor, Tommy Sowers, who had left the service and gone on to found and lead a venture-backed tech startup. Sowers, who also served as North Carolina’s assistant secretary of veterans affairs, understood the importance of giving transitioning service members a chance and helped Horan secure a fellowship at that startup, real estate platform GoldenKey.
“During that time I was able to prove myself and to find a spot on the team — and ended up running operations for the company,” says Horan. “I had an advocate in Tommy and I found a place for myself.”
Now, Horan wants to help transitioning service members follow a similar path at the startup center he’s called home — Durham’s American Underground (AU), the largest tech hub in the Triangle — as their new Veteran-in-Residence. Horan will lead a new program that will aim to provide a pipeline of service members to fill jobs at AU’s 275+ companies.
It isn’t the first VIR program in the country — WeWork launched a program in 2017 to provide veteran entrepreneurs free workspace for up to six months — but it has the potential to make a big impact in a state for which military is one of the top two industries. Each year, 20,000 service members in North Carolina transition out of the military.
Many of those come from Fort Bragg, an Army center just 90 minutes from Durham and AU. They often go into the state’s other largest industry, agriculture, or into programs to help them go back to school. But, Horan says there’s still a gap in education and access for transitioning service members to go into business or entrepreneurship.
“Speaking from my own transition, you have experience and skills from being in uniform, that you might have trouble transitioning to not only ourselves, but to civilian employers,” he explains. “There are government programs specifically designed to hep service members and employers who may be hesitant to bring on a veteran employee without any industry experience, but many of them are underutilized and relatively unknown.”
Horan’s task is to create a “talent bridge” between Fort Bragg and AU, which will allow veterans to see tech companies as a viable career option and companies to see them as potential employees. He has visited the center a number of times to learn more about what their needs are.
“Again its just 80 miles away. If this is going to happen anywhere in the country it should happen here,” Horan says. “We want to raise awareness at AU for entrepreneurs and hiring managers to see this huge talent pool that they have just down the road.”
Horan points out a number of areas he thinks a veteran’s unique skills would be well-suited at an early-stage company — namely HR, sales, and operations.
“My favorite thing about serving in the military was building a culture and developing leaders. I think one functional area that service members can really thrive in is people operations. It’s all about winning teams and building culture and building trust.”
“As startups grow and bring in more talent, keeping their culture becomes more difficult to do, and bringing in a service member who lives and breathes that is a great thing to do,” he says.
And once they’ve gotten a taste of startup life, Horan’s goal is for some of those veterans to take it a step further, becoming entrepreneurs themselves.
“Those same traits — building teams and people operations, being able to identify and make processes more efficient, and the competitiveness and discipline that makes someone a great sales leader, will also make someone a great entrepreneur,” he says. “In the military, we bring people and processes together to unify purpose and effort. I think that is a trait that will make any service member successful in entrepreneurship.”
Currently, six AU startups are veteran-led. Horan and the AU team want to double that in two years.
It makes sense for AU to be the driver of such a program, explains Horan, because of the tech hub’s commitment to reflecting the diversity of their community. The Google for Entrepreneurs hub, which now has four locations throughout the city, touts their impressive membership statistics — about 30 percent of their member companies are led by a female founder and 30 percent by a founder of color. That’s important, according to the organization’s team, considering the history of Durham as a center for black-owned businesses.
In an interview with Hypepotamus, AU director of communications and member experience Phillipe Charles explained how the team takes all that history into account. “We have to be consciously thinking about how we are engaging the larger community, what opportunities we are creating for them to come into this space and realize that entrepreneurship has been happening in this city before tech got here,” Charles said.
The Veterans-in-Residence program is the next step in AU’s aim to build “the counter-story to Silicon Valley,” as it professes on its website.
They’re not working in a silo. Horan partnered with non-profit, veteran-focused entrepreneurship incubator Bunker Labs, which has a chapter in Raleigh-Durham, on their kickoff event earlier this summer. Last year, Bunker Labs Raleigh-Durham executive director Dean Bundschu told Hypepotamus that the chapter had supported over 250 veteran-owned businesses.
North Carolina’s Department of Military and Veteran’s Affairs Secretary Larry Hall also visited AU to learn about the program.
With all this forward momentum, Horan says he expects to begin building the talent bridge and seeing the first veterans employed in AU companies by the end of the summer.
“AU is part of Durham, part of the Durham story, and AU’s approach to the VIR program has that same approach to community,” says Horan. “In this community, the more communities we bring together, the stronger each of them are and the stronger the whole of Durham and North Carolina become.”