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Connor leads new veteran-focused business incubator
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

This article shared 5989 times since Wed Sep 3, 2014
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His military world dates back about 15 years, when Todd Connor signed up for ROTC at Northwestern University—and upon graduating in 2000, he was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Navy.

Connor spent four years on active duty, stationed during that time on board the guided missile cruiser the USS Bunker Hill as a navigator. And Connor went to the Persian Gulf after 9/11 and spent an extended deployment off the coast of Iraq for the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Looking back, Connor, now 36 and living in Chicago's Lake View neighborhood, said the military was a "great experience."

"I loved the camaraderie, the mission, the work, the diversity. I really have good things to say about the Navy," he said.

Even though his stint in the Navy ran during the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" era, he was not out until after he left the military in 2005.

"Serving in the military is one of the cornerstone experiences of my life," said Connor, who is married to Andrew Tourney, 32. The two have been together for six years.

"In the military, I just learned to keep my personal life private," he said. "I'm glad ["Don't Ask, Don't Tell"] has been overturned because we want to have a more inclusive military that, ultimately, is truly representative of all Americans.

"While on active duty, I just made a point to not share personal details about my life, which probably was easier to do at my level. I know, when you get into higher ranks as an officer [of the military], a lot of the infrastructure is set up around the assumption that you are married, so [being gay] might have been problematic."

Connor's military world also has included a stint leading six military programs in CPS high schools, through their ROTC programs. He was in charge of 165 retired military officers, from all four branches of the U.S. military, each of whom had full military careers, and then was teaching in CPS as a second career.

He was in that role for three years and has nothing but fond memories, he said.

Now he's moving into The Bunker, located on the 12th floor inside the Merchandise Mart—at 1871, a co-working mix of designers, coders and entrepreneurs in a not-for-profit, community endeavor.

Encompassing 25,000 square feet, 1871 is a tech hub that features a veteran-focused technology incubator called The Bunker. The incubator, which will be veteran-operated, is the first of its kind in the country—and Connor will serve as The Bunker's CEO.

The Bunker is supported by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the Pat Tillman Foundation, which supports veteran education. The $2.5-million investment from the State of Illinois for the 25,000-square-foot expansion also will support The Bunker.

"We are for early-stage, veteran-owned growth companies," Connor said. "Companies have to be veteran-owned for the majority ( 51 percent ). We take them through a six-month process to strengthen their business strategy, connect them with investors, help with strategic decisions, help with talent … basically, we bring a lot of resources to bear that help early-stage companies grow in terms of revenue, employees and capital raised."

Military service and business acumen go hand in hand, Connor said.

"Veterans make great entrepreneurs because they have the natural skill set, which is going into an environment with a lot of unknowns and taking on a mission—and getting the mission done, regardless of the adversity or circumstances," Connor said. "I see a very clear transition between what veterans do on the battlefield and what they can do in the start-up world.

"Great startup businesses need great leaders who know how to get it done amidst uncertain and challenging circumstances."

The Bunker will officially launch in October.

Emanuel said in a release, "We as a nation and a city have a special obligation to provide opportunities for success to our veterans once they return home. Veterans are among the best, brightest and most talented individuals our country has to offer."

Connor predicted that by early 2015, there will be a national network of similar operations to The Bunker—and there already are six cities targeted as destinations, "where the veteran leaders in those cities who are [already] leading entrepreneur programs, so they can re-brand as Bunkers," he said.

National expansion seems "inevitable," he added.

Connor admitted that he is "the least likely" veteran to run The Bunker because he had a short military career, but his fresh business approach and marketing ideas are appreciated and respected, he said.

"What I want to create with The Bunker is basically the modern-day version of the VFW—a place where people come because, truly, it's their community, where people can connect, have fun, swap ideas, network and more.

"I want people in Chicago to look at The Bunker and think, 'That's a place where cool stuff happens—and not just for veterans, but for the city overall."

This article shared 5989 times since Wed Sep 3, 2014
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