Female Founder of the Week (FFoW) is a celebration of the women who are building businesses that drive change around the world. Courtney Wilson, founder of DropZone for Veterans, takes this week’s honors for her commitment to serving her country and her fellow veterans, by making sure they get the available services they need and deserve.
We also continue our spotlight on some of the innovations our military servicemen and women are creating, in honor of Veteran Small Business Week. If you are a veteran working on a startup or if you know of one (even after VSBW ends), please let us know RIGHT HERE.
By SHELAGH BRALEY
BOSTON—Courtney Wilson, as a United States Army engineer, was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for her service in Afghanistan. Now she’s applying her tactical and technical expertise to help other veterans find the services available to them.
“I want the focus on veterans, I want them to be able to be the best version of themselves,” Wilson says. “In the military, we have to have a level of uniformity, it’s what keeps us alive. In the civilian world, you have the chance to be anyone you want. If they want to go become a Fortune 500 CEO or hike the Appalachian Trail, I want them to do that. If they have to go to healing retreat first, I want them to do that. I want them to continue to do excellent things, just in a different environment.”
There are 21.8 million veterans in America, and tens of thousands of free and low-cost programs available to them, including coding bootcamps, LinkedIn premium accounts, five-day healing retreats and more. They run the gamut from personal, professional, financial and emotional benefits. But research shows less than half of veterans ever capitalize on those programs—mostly because veterans don’t know they exist.
DropZone for Veterans, a platform that aggregates all the free and low-cost services offered to military personnel and their families, is making those opportunities transparent. It works like Groupon, Wilson says, especially in terms of finding programs locally and nationally, with more than 50,000 benefits already catalogued.
One of the biggest issues for veterans when they do find services is discerning whether they qualify or if the program will fit their needs, Wilson says. DropZone’s mission is to ensure all veterans find these programs, and then present those that are most relevant for each member of the varied veteran population.
“So many people trying to help veterans,” says Wilson. “Helping any demographic of America, that’s hard enough, then layer on top of that: Is this person post-9/11? Is it a Vietnam veteran? My dad was a male, enlisted Marine during Vietnam. I’m female, post-9/11 and I’m a combat veteran. What’s available to me and what will be helpful for me is going to be completely different. No war is the same, no veteran is the same. What we all having in common is serving this country, but beyond that we’re pretty diverse.”
Wilson, who recently placed second in the HUBWeek Beantown Throwdown pitch competition, is a Babson MBA candidate and also a member of this year’s WIN Lab cohort. She also came in third in the Vets in Tech hackathon at Facebook headquarters in San Francisco.
In her military career, she was a platoon leader who led more than 100 combat missions throughout southern Afghanistan, constructing main supply routes for NATO forces. Now she’s leading a team to scale DropZone—because it’s addressing an obvious need that many in the tech world can easily get behind.
“This is one of the reasons I know I can make DropZone a success,” she says. “When I first started, I found someone who believed in our mission, he is a Ph.D. at MIT, he helped me out for free because he believed in our mission. He was so good, I brought him on as CTO. For our initial prototype, people just donated their time.”
Wilson says she knew DropZone could add value to both the veteran community and the business that want to serve them. “Platforms are everything,” she says. “Look at Amazon, Yelp, Groupon … no one should not be doing single marketing anymore. No one wants to do that, people want to see all their options at once and make a choice. This has been done before, just not in this industry.”
While DropZone works on an affiliate model, Wilson is also exploring the value of firsthand information and connections to the greater veteran buyer demographic. DropZone works on referral fees built into all the goods and services veterans buy, but Wilson sees a greater market opportunity in connecting brands to this particular consumer group.
“This is going to end up being our main value: being able to offer strategic marketing planning to companies that don’t understand the veteran landscape at all. They don’t see the potential of connecting with the veteran buying group.
“When you look at the military as a vertical … products have to be good. When we deploy, we have to be ready to move quickly—(most companies) have never thought of that vertical because they’ve never deployed, they can’t see it,” Wilson says.
From a financial perspective, companies that sign on for the platform get increased brand awareness and a direct line to the veterans that need and want their offerings.
“All the companies I’ve talked to, it means so much to them to be able to support veterans. It’s an honor and a privilege and they love it,” Wilson says. “On both sides, they just gain an awareness.”
They gain increased market share, too: She points to the Under Armour brand and its expansion into the military market, with its Under Armour Freedom initiative, which offers a 10 percent discount to active duty service members, veterans and first responders, and also gives a hoo-rah from those who wear the gear as a sign of support for those who defend our country at home and abroad.
“When Under Armour connected with the military community, their revenue increased 30 percent,” she says, plus 70 percent new customers and a significant increase in positive sentiment toward the brand on social media.. “It’s not just, hey, there’s this opportunity, and here’s exactly how you get it. We are going to be able to go to a company and say, here’s a list of all the veterans, here are the most popular influencers … having all that information is very valuable to a company.”
She also appreciates how DropZone for Veterans is connecting disparate sides of our nation, between those who serve and those who don’t—but who might use their businesses as a vehicle to show their support for them.
“There’s a huge military-civilian divide. People who haven’t served feel bad, and veterans doubt their value in the civilian world. But both sides should realize that they’re amazing and valuable, in their own right. When you bring those two groups together, they’re unstoppable,” she says.
“This is about bringing all sides together as a whole. We’re building community and taking down that divide of us versus them.”
Through such programs as Veteran Small Business Week, the U.S. Small Business Association provides veterans, active duty service members, Guard and Reserve members and military spouses the entrepreneurial training and education programs, business technical assistance counseling, special access to capital programs and federal procurement training and access to opportunities they need to create their own opportunities. Share these stories on Twitter at #MyVetBiz to show support to veterans and their families. Learn more about SBA veteran initiatives here.