Upon his return from deployment in Afghanistan as a sergeant in the Marines, Brett D’Alessandro had a tough time re-integrating.
“I went through hell, as a lot of vets do,” he says.
With medical help and that of organizations such as the Starlight Military Program, Veteran Racing Team and Operation Rebound, D’Alessandro recovered, but on the way to an appointment, he spotted a homeless vet.
“I went to my motel and pulled together a backpack filled with hats, gloves and warm clothing layers, and brought it to him,” he says.
Days later, “I saw him with a little boy, his son, who thanked me for the pack and said he didn’t have to go to school with books in hand. I thought about other vets suffering out there. There are so many resources, but a big disconnect between vets navigating them and finding them,” says D’Alessandro.
Inspired to help, he and his girlfriend, Alexa Modero, created Backpacks for Life, a 501c3 nonprofit organization that collects toiletries and basic supplies in backpacks and distributes them to needy vets with the help of Stand Down events, veteran service organizations, first responders and police officers. They also coach and mentor homeless and at-risk veterans.
Since launching his nonprofit in 2014 and leaving the military in 2016, the charity has given out 5,500 packs. To create revenue, they have developed personalized packs equipped with a locking cable and reflective material.
Then, in August, they were accepted to the Veterans in Residence program at WeWork. This nationwide effort was launched in 2016 by the global network of workspaces and Bunker Labs, a nonprofit that helps vets and their families start and grow their businesses.
Through the partnership, WeWork builds specially designed quarters with dedicated lounges and meeting rooms, providing vets with six months of free access to workspaces, facilities and services of WeWork’s community, which is currently over 300,000 strong globally.
With their Bunker Labs affiliation, each local group meets weekly with a team leader to work on business plans and to support one another in growth efforts. Citywide networking events with other veteran entrepreneurs are also hosted. Today, there are about 150 Veterans in Residence across 14 US cities.
“We host about 60,000 events per year, including fireside chats with famous veteran chief marketing officers or CEOs,” says Padden Murphy, WeWork’s global head of policy and impact.
Since every entrepreneur’s journey is different, “we’re trying to leverage and activate member companies and members to help folks build a product, a team, help with product launches and form strategic partnerships. If you’re a Vet in Residence, your story is our story.”
If, after their six-month program, vets need more time, “we are experimenting with extending for another six months,” says Murphy. “Vets make amazing entrepreneurs and business owners. They have ideas to help their communities. The number of vet-owned businesses is impressive and large — about 9.1 percent here. About 5 million people are employed by them and their payroll is about $200 billion. They are a core part and natural drivers of our economy.”
Nancy Preston, an Army veteran and West Point graduate, can attest to that. After leaving the military in 2009, Preston worked in the corporate world for eight years before deciding to start Milk Money Kitchens Inc., a consulting and coaching firm for food entrepreneurs.
“Cooks just want to cook,” she says. “Many have no idea what their numbers are. I wanted to help them start and run their businesses, optimize efficiency and make them more profitable.”
Preston joined Veterans in Residence in August, and the benefits are invaluable.
“The relationships I’ve built with other companies and their networks expanded mine by five times. I’ve generated good leads. Through lunch-and-learns and happy hours, the program organizers have put me in front of real-estate investors and legal firms, helping me to structure my company better. There’s been measurable progress,” she says.
Another advantage is the legitimacy the workspace offers, says Preston.
“Before, I was conducting business meetings in restaurants and coffee shops. Being able to meet clients at any of WeWork’s offices has earned me new revenue.”
Veterans can apply for the program at WeWork.com.