When Army veteran Trevor Shirk started his digital marketing business, the reality of civilian business life hit him hard.
“In the military, you step into a role and there’s already a team built around it,” says Shirk, 31. “But when you start a business, you’re an army of one.”
Shirk’s Denver-based company, Strattex Solutions, has taken wing in part due to his joining the WeWork pilot program — which rolls out nationally Veteran’s Day — that provided him with free office space, a special networking gathering spot and access to various mentorship programs.
“The synergy is really powerful,” says Shirk, who helped hunt for improvised explosive devices in Afghanistan as a U.S. Army engineer in 2010 and 2011. “I met other veterans and other entrepreneurs in the program, and I felt less like an island.”
Every six months for the coming few years, the new WeWork Veterans in Residence program will give free work spaces to 100 vets spread out evenly between 10 of its U.S. work space locations: Los Angeles, Austin, San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit and Denver.
The initiative, which will take applications online at www.we.co/veterans, also includes on-site business counseling from Bunker Labs, a national non-profit focused on helping veterans and their spouses launch their own businesses.
“They gave to us, now we’re giving back to them,” WeWork CEO Adam Neumann told USA TODAY. “It’s not just about providing a work space that hopefully is inspiring, it’s also about sharing ideas and being part of a community.”
Although WeWork rents space by the desk and office, its aim is to create the feeling of a high-tech incubator where new ideas can spark from random encounters. Some locations feature lounges, ping-pong tables and beer on tap, and workers can opt into organized gatherings that range from cheese tasting to networking.
Bunker Labs CEO Todd Connor says veterans should feel right at home in such a collaborative environment given that many return from service deployments with deep organizational skills and a global perspective.
“At 18, many of these people made a bold decision to do something ambitious,” he says. “Now they’re back with experience, leadership skills and a strong work ethic just looking for their next mission.”
Connor notes that during the Denver pilot program, WeWork veterans were able to not only connect with other veterans but also make valuable contacts among people with experience building start-ups. “Veterans only talking to veterans is a disservice, it keeps them bifurcated,” he says.
Kerrie Gill, 28, spent part of 2012 in northern Africa as part of the Ohio Air National Guard. That experience led her to found Savanna Sandals, flip-flops made from recycled tires, which she incubated during the WeWork program in Denver.
“I sold many pairs to people around the (WeWork) office, which allowed me to get direct feedback on the product all summer,” says Gill.
Rent free, then 25% off
Those eligible for the WeWork program include all veterans and military spouses who want to start or scale a new business. After completing the six-month program, graduates get 25% off their rent for a year. Independent of the initiative, WeWork is offering all veterans and veteran-owned businesses with fewer than 10 employees the same 25% off rent for 12 months.
Recent veterans could well use the break. Unemployment rates for all veterans was 4.3% in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But among the 3.9 million classified as Gulf War Era II veterans (September 2001 forward), the combined unemployment rate for men and women was 5.1%. The national unemployment rate is 4.1%.
Veterans increasingly have been a target for assistance from big companies and startups alike, ranging from Microsoft’s 18-week training program to San Francisco-based Shift, which bills itself as a recruiting pipeline for veterans. There’s also a VET TEC Act bill making its way through Congress, which in a modern twist on the G.I. Bill would seed a veterans computer education program with $75 million.
Neumann won’t say how much WeWork is investing in the new program. WeWork, which was founded in 2010 by the onetime Israeli Navy officer, now has 170 locations in 58 cities and 19 countries.
In anticipating a sea change in the way work space is perceived by a new generation of millennial workers — with its shift from private offices to collaborative open spaces — WeWork has become a commercial real estate force with a $20 billion valuation thanks in part to a $4.4 billion investment by Softbank last summer.
The company recently bought the fabled Lord & Taylor department store in midtown Manhattan for $850 million and plans to use it for office space as well as its global headquarters. WeWork has thrown lavish parties with performers such as Wyclef Jean, and has even announced plans for a kindergarten that is part of a larger education vision.
WeWork’s high-flying ways has drawn questions. A recent Wall Street Journal article posited that WeWork had echoes of other overvalued tech startups, noting that its valuation was equal to that of Boston Properties, which has five times the office space.
“There’s no need to justify our valuation,” Neumann says in response to questions about whether it can live up to that premium valuation. “Our investors are among the smartest in the world, and we have the biggest demand to put money into our business. Most offices out there are not inspiring. The ‘We generation’ is asking for more meaning and impact from everything, including their office space. We’re building communities.”
For newly minted marketing CEO Shirk, his experience at WeWork has not only broadened his network but has also yielded tangible results. He says four or five fellow entrepreneurs who allowed him to test his platform have now become clients.
“It’s like a fishing hole for potential clients, one that’s helped me double my business in just months,” he says. “In the end, I’d say that the entrepreneurs I’ve met are similar to the average veteran. If you’ve got into business on your own, veteran or not, I have respect for that.”
Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter.
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