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May 25, 2017 | Tom Ballard

“Bunker Labs Nashville Muster” was not your typical pitch competition

Bunker Labs NashvilleBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

From the opening ceremony to the closing announcement, Wednesday’s “Bunker Labs Nashville Muster” was different from most of the pitch events that we have attended over the years.

Sure, there were the traditional pitches, but not as much of the “Power Point by death” that is frequently found. The pitchers seemed more relaxed, and the 14 who presented their ideas were slightly older than the average you find at other competitions. That’s understandable; they did their military service and are now civilians.

The all-afternoon combination of pitches, panel discussions and brief talks started with the presentation of the colors and the singing of the National Anthem. Those would not be typical at most pitch competitions, but “Bunker Labs” is a national organization with 15 locations promoting entrepreneurship among military veterans.

And, the event ended with a special financial announcement after the prize money had been dispensed. That announcement was a $50,000 contribution to the “Bunker Labs Nashville” organization from Knoxville’s Randy Boyd who noted that he was honoring his father, another long-time entrepreneur and veteran.

About a third of the entrepreneurs were gender and/or racial minorities, and all of them embraced a recurring theme throughout the afternoon of leadership, commitment and service. We also witnessed an amazing amount of comradery, something that you would expect to be on display when former military officers and enlisted men and women gathered. After all, it’s about the team.

Held at Vanderbilt University’s new The Wond’ry facility, the second annual “Bunker Labs Nashville Muster” was less about the prize money – $5,000 was split by the top three presenters – and more about helping the entrepreneurs make connections or raise funds elsewhere.

“Today is all about connections,” Blake Hogan, Executive Director of Bunker Labs Nashville, said as he opened the event. Larry Felts, a Principal at PYA, the power behind and also a sponsor of the Muster, reinforced that point as he introduced a number of the entrepreneurs by listing ways those in the audience could help them advance their start-up.

The 14 pitches were interspersed with panels and short talks featuring some of the pitchers as well as others whose organizations play entrepreneurial support roles like Charlie Brock, President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Launch Tennessee; Robert Grajewski, Executive of The Wond’ry; and Andrew Goldner, Founding Partner of GrowthX.

Perhaps the most distinctive of the presentations came from Keni Thomas, a county music singer and former Army Ranger who spoke for a few minutes, then sung one of his singles – “Not Me” – to relate a key leadership principle and challenge. You can find the lyrics here.

Thomas was a member of Task Force Ranger during Operation Restore Hope in Somalia. The most well-known of their combat missions occurred October 3, 1993 when Thomas and fellow Task Force members were involved in the Battle of Mogadishu that was later immortalized in the book Black Hawk Down.

So, you get the picture. It was a non-traditional, inspirational, motivational and patriotic event celebrating entrepreneurial pursuits by military veterans. In the end, the audience decided which of the 14 presenters shared the $5,000 in prize monies donated by Gulf Coast Mobile. Those winners were:

  • First place and $2,500 – Kyle Willkom, CEO of Smart Choice Sitter, a company that connects parents seeking sitters with reliable college students;
  • Second place and $1,500 – Dan Berry, CEO, and his team at Oaken Shell Meadery, a Chicago-based company that will soon start distributing its craft mead beverages in Nashville and elsewhere; and
  • Third place and $1,000 – Marie Vasquez, CEO of Photo Booth of Clarksville, a photo booth service to add spice and create special memories at events ranging from birthday parties to retirement celebrations.

For more information about Bunker Labs in general and the Nashville activities, click here to access our recent three-part series.

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