An innovative entrepreneurship training program at New York University offers free office space, mentoring and networking opportunities to veterans, spouses and others in the military community who want help growing their businesses.
And now the year-long Apex program in Brooklyn’s Industry City is expanding its reach by offering free housing, too — a perk organizers hope will make it possible for entrepreneurs from all over the country to participate.
“We call it Apex because we want you to leave that program in a higher and better place than when you started,” said James Hendon, director of the NYU Tandon School of Engineering Veterans Future Lab, home to Apex and other veteran-specific training programs.
Applications are now open for the next round of Apex, which will start in July and run through the following summer. Individual participants who need housing will be able to live at nearby Army base Fort Hamilton for the year, though the benefit does not extend to family members.
“We want to help veterans on a national level, and this is a way to do that,” Hendon said. “We’re removing the barriers to entry for someone … that wants to reach their full potential.”
The program, launched in 2017, is open to veterans, service members, military spouses and Defense Department employees. The average age of the 22 startups currently represented in the program — everything from a nonprofit to a tech company to a wedding planning business — is 18 months, and the help is tailored to new business owners.
Marine Corps veteran Terry Kim said he’s gotten critical support through the program since starting his company, Heleot, a web platform for 30-second product review videos.
First on his list of benefits was the space itself. Having an office eliminates the distractions of working from home and offers a “big motivation to keep working harder and harder. Having other people there, other founders, that are motivated as well and striving to do the same thing — it’s a great environment to be in,” he said.
He’s also taken advantage of the pro bono legal help from the law firm Orrick and other professional services offered to program participants. These include accounting help from PwC, as well as Amazon Web Services credits.
“Before I was in the program, I wasted so much money on inexperienced lawyers just because I couldn’t afford it, and you get what you pay for,” he said.
Kurt Becker, Tandon’s vice dean for research, innovation and entrepreneurship, said Apex grew out of a 12-week training program for veteran entrepreneurs that started in 2015.
“This is all it was meant to be. Much to our surprise at the end of the first program, there were four to five teams that had an idea and were ready to form a startup company,” he said. “They said, ‘What are you going to do with us? Are you going to put us on the street?”
From there, Apex was born. Hendon, himself a veteran entrepreneur and one of the first to attend the lab’s veteran-specific training, said the longer “incubator” program is designed to essentially make up for lost time for entrepreneurs who put their business ideas and training on pause while serving in the military.
“There are certain ... skills that you bring from your military service,” such as discipline, integrity and a “never quit ethos”, he said. “At the same time you may have lost out on things — access to the right network, … access to being a master of whatever it is that you’re selling or having a subject matter expertise in that industry.”
“We exist to close that gap so that we can get you caught up in certain ways,” he said.
As part of the program, entrepreneurs also have access to other business development programs that are under the engineering school’s Future Labs program. Hendon said between all the staff, there’s a collective 100 years of entrepreneurship experience.
“To be able to have access to this institutional memory, I think, is invaluable,” he said. “That’s something you won’t get on your own.”
Kim has friends who are also veterans who want to start their own businesses, but they don’t live in New York and likely don’t know about a program like Apex.
“If we open up that housing, definitely it will benefit veterans and entrepreneurs,” he said.
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.