On the upper floors of a building above Washington, D.C.’s historic Dupont Circle, hundreds of businessmen and women gather at the coffee bar, on couches and in conference rooms.
Some wear suits and have lavish offices; others come in T-shirts, setting up shop wherever they can find an empty seat. Throughout the day and after hours, the unlikely co-workers ― who come from a variety of different industries and from companies of all sizes ― will meet to share drinks, play pool or help each other with their work.
WeWork, the company that operates this shared, collaborative work space and more than 170 others like it around the world, likes to think of it as a “community.” And by the end of the year, 10 veteran entrepreneurs will join the ranks of the Dupont Circle clan, with the expansion of a new program focused on helping them start and grow their businesses.
“(Veterans) have just come from serving together with tight groups of their fellow soldiers, and being able to find a community where you can actually get started with people (who) have a similar experience to you and also ... have your back is really important,” said Padden Murphy, global head of public policy and social impact for WeWork.
The company announced today it is expanding its Veterans in Residence (VIR) program, which launched in partnership with Bunker Labs in Denver last June, to include nine other cities: Austin, Chicago, Washington, Detroit, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, San Francisco and Seattle.
The goal is to serve one group, or “tribe,” of 10 veterans at a time in all 10 cities every six months, in hopes of reaching 1,000 veterans over the next five years. WeWork has also pledged to hire 1,500 veterans in that time.
In addition, the company is offering a 25 percent discount to join the collaborative work space network, for 10 months, to any veteran entrepreneur outside of the program who runs a business of fewer than 10 employees.
Kerrie Gill and Trevor Shirk, members of the first VIR team in Denver, said that type of community has been vital to the growth of their businesses. Through weekly meetings and regular interactions with other cohort members, they’ve been able to bounce ideas off each other and increase their revenues.
“Almost every member of the VIR program has purchased a pair of sandals from my website or from me directly,” said Gill, 28, an Air National Guard veteran who sells flip-flops made from recycled materials through her e-commerce business, Savanna Sandals. “They offered so much amazing advice.”
Army veteran Shirk, 31, runs the digital marketing firm Strattex Solutions and narrowed the focus of his business to hyper-local advertising through conversations with fellow veterans in the program. Without their feedback, he said, it likely would’ve taken him a year to arrive at the decision rather than a few months.
“I’m not alone and figuring it out with no help, no support,” said Shirk, who has been using his marketing expertise to help his fellow cohort members with their businesses. “They’re all working on the same goals, building your own enterprise.”
The group also exchanges professional services, as does the broader WeWork community of members. For example, one VIR member, a retired colonel-turned-consultant, worked with Shirk on his business strategy, while Shirk has used his expertise to help others with their marketing.
During Shirk’s short time in the program, his company has doubled its business and grown from three to seven full-time employees, he said. When his time in the Veterans in Residence program ends, he plans to continue using an office in the WeWork space, which is centrally located in the city and allows him to be part of a larger community of entrepreneurs, where he has found mentors and made friends.
“I’ve gotten to tap into people that have been in business for 20 years,” he said.
WeWork members range from small startups to Fortune 500 companies, with notable clients such as Microsoft and IBM, Murphy said. The idea for the Veterans in Residence program came around Veterans Day last year, as the company, co-founded by a veteran of the Israeli military, feels it has an obligation to empower veteran entrepreneurship.
After World War II, nearly 50 percent of veterans owned and operated businesses after leaving the service, but only 5 percent of post-Sept. 11 veterans have done the same, Murphy said.
“At a high level, veterans are extremely important to our business, but also the U.S. economy,” he said. “We want to help foster that.”
Veterans in the program will join their respective WeWork locations beginning this week, and the cohorts will be fully off the ground in December, a spokeswoman for the company said.
The program has an effect outside the veteran cohort as well, said Gill, as it brings “the idea of veterans a little bit closer to a larger group of people who just may not even know anyone who ever served.”
And for her part, it’s made running a business a lot easier.
“It doesn’t seem like it’s work,” she said of the program. “The nature of everyone being so helpful — it’s just been like that since day one.”