As the co-founder and CEO of a tech startup, Air Force veteran Robert Thelen knows what it means to work long, hard days.
He’s heard “no” more often than “yes,” and while he’s had plenty of successes, he’s familiar with failure, too.
“It’s easy to get really, really low on fumes,” said Thelen, whose company, Rownd, helps businesses register and retain more users through frictionless sign-in across their websites and apps.
But for Thelen and hundreds of entrepreneurs in the military and veteran community, there’s one place they know they can always go to refuel: DAV Patriot Boot Camp.
“This is our recharge, it’s our topping off of the tank,” Thelen said during the first boot camp of its kind at DAV National Headquarters in Erlanger, Kentucky.
“You top the tank off with the fellowship, with the mentorship, with this ability to be around other entrepreneurs, to be around amazing speakers that just inspire you to get back out there and do it again.”
Founded in 2012, Patriot Boot Camp provides training, networking and mentorship for current and future business owners in the military and veteran community. More than 1,000 alumni have raised over $150 million in venture capital and employ over 1,900 people. DAV acquired the charity in January, significantly expanding the organization’s mission to help veterans build meaningful, fulfilling lives after service.
In July, 13 alumni reunited for the first ever DAV Patriot Boot Camp event since it became a DAV program. Over the course of two days, participants were connected with investors, subject matter experts and mentors. The boot camp ended with a pitch contest.
Some alumni, including Thelen, returned in different capacities, serving as speakers, panelists and mentors. That spirit of coming back to give back is ingrained in the program’s culture and part of its mantra: “pitch, ask, give.” Participants are bonded by sharing their ventures, telling others in their cohort where they need help and sharing what they might be able to do to assist one another.
“What that means is that everyone embraces sharing of their network and their resources when someone else asks for help–without an expectation of something in return,” said Taylor McLemore, one of the original founders of Patriot Boot Camp and co-chair of DAV’s National Veterans Entrepreneurship Council. “And the beautiful thing that happens is that when everyone does this, what you feel that you’ve given actually doesn’t feel that big, but what you receive feels massive.
“And so the sum of the parts is significantly larger than what each individual contributed, and the community as a collective rises.”
Army veteran and alumni Shawn Shivers II brought a new business idea to the event: a crowdsourcing app that will allow truck drivers to communicate with one another ahead of picking up and dropping off deliveries. The goal is to create a safer, more efficient experience for drivers.
“I’ve met people that can help me in legal, I’ve met people who can help me in funding and I’ve met other founders who have been in my shoes,” Shivers said. “And they’ve been able to coach me and mentor me, and give me the guidance that I need to be successful.”
In the world of DAV Patriot Boot Camp, anyone can ask and anyone can give, whether it’s a participant or mentor. Entrepreneurs swap business war stories, share contacts, spread resources and figure out how they can help one another.
“Being an entrepreneur is never a straight line,” said Marilyn Jackson, a program alumni, serial entrepreneur, Air Force veteran and CEO of UnderGrid Networks. She also serves on DAV’s entrepreneurship council. “Reengaging on a return basis is very important, because you’re never going to be where you were before.
“I’m still mentored today, because I think in every phase, there are certain things that you discover that you don’t know.”
Air Force veteran Emille Bryant participated in the very first Patriot Boot Camp in 2012 and again in 2021. Bryant, the founder of go:IKIGAI–a consulting firm that helps small businesses with strategy, vision and leadership–returned to improve his skills, but also to help his fellow alumni.
“I’ll do this again. I’d do it again next year,” Bryant said. And he may not be alone. The event exceeded a 90% satisfaction score from participants.
Alumni say the keys to creating such a strong fellowship are trust and vulnerability. DAV Patriot Boot Camp is unique in that it is for and by people in the military and veteran community. Participants start with a base understanding of their peers’ experiences and values.
“You’re in a place where you’re both a founder and a veteran, and you can just let all those barriers down,” Thelen said. “It’s so critical.”
The next DAV Patriot Boot Camp will take place Oct. 20-22 at DAV headquarters in Erlanger, Kentucky. Learn more at patriotbootcamp.org.