Editor’s note: Jim Roberts is the Community Development Director at Bunker Labs RDU , the founder of Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington (NEW) and the Manager of the Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs (WALE). Jim has been a connector and a resource for startups in North Carolina for the last 17 years. He also is a frequent contributor to WRAL TechWire.

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – After generous donations and grants from JP Morgan Chase & Co., MetLife, Wege Foundation and Grant Thornton Accounting, Bunker Labsin North Carolina has taken serious steps towards sustainability in our second year. The sold out one day startup conference called the Muster, was held at MetLife office in Cary with 250 attendees last week had 75 percent veteran attendance and over 75 veteran owned businesses represented.

To be sure, the establishment of the Bunker Labs brand and growth in event audience size has been a challenge due to the competition among the 35 entrepreneur support organizations in the Triangle region of North Carolina. Bunker Labs has recently become the first non-profit, non-government entrepreneur support organization to have regularly scheduled events across North Carolina.

Bunker Labs has improved the impact of our programming for the veterans we work with so they can hire more veterans who historically have challenges finding full time employment after active service. This veteran hiring topic was a popular panel at the Muster conference with Scott Moody of K4 Connect, Tim McClain of MetLife and Ted Studdard of Home Depot.

The momentum of Bunker Labs was palpable in the buzz created at the end of the 2nd annual Muster conference when veteran, entrepreneur and NC Representative Holly Grange from Wilmington gave closing remarks. Many civilians who attended mentioned the main reason this conference had a different feel was because of the camaraderie between the military veterans at the event despite the fact that most of these veterans had never even met before last Thursday. Great connections happened all day with a wide variety of panels where veterans met private sector leaders discussing available capital and sales opportunities that would help grow companies in North Carolina.

OoRah! (Marines)

Larry Hall, the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, was the perfect fit for opening comments as he gave an energetic speech about how he is working on behalf of Governor Roy Cooper to improve the opportunities for the high number of veterans and active service soldier in North Carolina. As a Marine, he actively promoted his branch and had some fun with members of other branches of the military. This back and forth teasing between the branches of the service lasted all day stoked by new Director of Programming for Bunker Labs, Nick Bradfield, a proud veteran of the Marines, OoRah!

Hooah (Army)

Morning opening keynote speaker Art Pappas gave a substantive speech about how his Vietnam era leadership experience as a veteran has translated into his private sector success. Mr. Pappas has a long history of success as a Life Sciences executive including GSK and Dow Chemical and now with Pappas Ventures as one of the highest profile venture capitalists in the South, as he jokes, not just in his native south Bronx. Mr. Pappas shared some great picture of himself in full soldier uniform and of a recent high profile ceremony that honored his military leadership. He truly set the tone of the day where the morning audience could truly imagine the real potential of veterans as entrepreneurs who could make a huge impact on the American economy.

Hooyah (Navy)

Two Navy veterans took the top two prizes at the very competitive startup pitch presentations. Josh Robertson of Ryker USA won the top prize with an impressive presentation of the FistGrip product. The 2nd place winner was Ed Hall of Petrics of Wilmington, a Navy veteran and who is now a veteran of the startup ecosystem of North Carolina after raising capital for the last year for his Internet of Things product for the pet health industry. The startup pitch competition sponsored with a $5,000 cash prize from the Carolina Small Business Development Fund, led by Army veteran Lenwood Long Sr..

Identity After Service

How do professional athletes and military veterans build a new identity after that experience of camaraderie of teams and troops? The lunch keynote was former NFL player Marques Ogden, former member of the Baltimore Ravens and brother of Jonathan Ogden, member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Mr. Ogden became an entrepreneur after his football career in the construction business. He gave the veteran entrepreneurs in the room several tips about knowing more about who you do business with and the emotional and financial challenges when things can go wrong.

Believing in the Journey When the Fuel is Low

Probably the most anticipated speech appearance of the day was Daniel Alirik. As a civilian myself, I was not aware of the Grunt Style clothing brand. But the company got my attention when I saw their logo after a recent very high profile championship fight in Mixed Martial Arts. Mr. Alirik is a legend among veterans who are entrepreneurs and now I understand why with his $100 million business. The most relatable story he told was about being low on funds with $1,200 yet pushing send on ordering more inventory. Of course, that order paid off towards more sales and the rest is entrepreneurial history. Alirik has been traveling to speak at most of the 16 Bunker Labs chapters across the country building his successful brand.

How Can You Get Involved?

We are all grateful for the service of the veterans and of course we are eager to say “Thank you for your service” or buy a meal, or an adult beverage or give up a better seat on the airplane for veterans. But if you would like to do more, Bunker Labs is starting an End of the Year Fundraising campaign where you can donate toward the programming of Bunker Labs in North Carolina which we hope we create additional jobs for additional veterans not quite ready for the entrepreneurial journey. (You can donate here: http://bunkerlabsrdu.org/donate/)

Or you can participate in our programs as a veteran, military spouse or as a civilian mentor as your experience is still very valuable as business lessons are similar whether you are a veteran or not. My value to the Bunker Labs participants as a civilian is the variety of my business contacts across the southeast who can assist new entrepreneurs. Or you can help us find more veterans of the Coast Guard and Air Force to participate in Bunker Labs events so we will be all inclusive of all of the military branches in future events.

The next Bunker Labs event is our introductory event in Greensboro on Oct. 5th. Details at: