Detroit veterans find next "mission" in entrepreneurship

Thomas Typinski believes in the power of keeping busy. To that end, Typinski, who is a veteran, has turned his hand to entrepreneurship because being engaged in a project is essential for him and his peers.

"You can look at any veteran, and they're either active or they're very, very miserable," he says.

One of the first 1,000 U.S. soldiers to land in Iraq in 2003, Typinski is now the chapter leader for Veterans in Residence, a WeWork business incubator that supports and connects veteran-led initiatives. Since leaving the military in 2009, he's noticed that a lot of veterans re-assimilating to mainstream society have turned to entrepreneurship, particularly creative businesses.

Typinski's creative outlet is his digital marketing and design company, The Dominant Approach, which boasts the modest goal of helping small businesses "totally dominate their competition." Through Veterans in Residence, he's been able to collaborate with other creative projects and build his services. When his company lacked the capacity to provide video production, he partnered with veteran-led Digitech Studios, and says he hasn't looked back since.

Thomas Typinski at work
Veterans are often guarded, admits Typinski, and that one of the hardest things about returning is simply being understood. Though not traditionally thought of as an artistic endeavor, entrepreneurship is often a way for veterans to be creative and process their experiences. 

"I think a lot of us are lost in one way or another when we exit the military and we are looking for our next mission," he says. "It's just as much therapy for us as it is a sense of duty and purpose."

U.S. Navy veteran Seann Lewis agrees. He says that for many veterans, it's difficult to find work and an outlet for their drive.

Lewis is behind another successful venture benefiting from the Veterans in Residence program, Krystal Visions, a virtual reality company. Along with his IT support and graphic design business, Lewis has worked for movie production units and Google. In the last year alone, Krystal Visions has grown from bringing in $35,000 annually to a projected $500,000.

Seann Lewis shows up his company's VR headset
"It's a ridiculously huge increase," Lewis says, attributing the leap in large part to the connections he's made through the program.

Connecting veterans with each other is a big part of what Veterans in Residence is about. Bunker Labs, which is one of the partners behind the incubator, runs monthly events like Bunker Brews, providing a space for vets and their families to network and mingle. 

Typinski says that veterans often feel more comfortable amongst each other, who see where they are coming from and often share a "straight-talk" style can be misunderstood as pointed or snappy.

"I could say 'OK, we like to cuss, we like to be brash, we like to be weird sometimes in ways that other people don't understand,'" he says. "But when we have these veteran events it's very easy to instantly make connections, to instantly trust."

It's another reason Typinski suggests veterans benefit from working with each other. "In the veteran community, we can just get so much more done together," he says. "You can break down those barriers and those walls so much faster — we just know that you don't have to bullshit each other."

For Lewis, the benefit of the residency is also about the physical downtown space. Living an hour out of Detroit meant that he was initially very isolated, and did little networking. Typinski, too, says he was at risk of "becoming a hermit" before he joined the program. 

Veterans in Residence, a WeWork business incubator that supports veteran-led initiatives
Now he and Lewis have an office to work in at the Campus Martius space on Woodward Avenue and believe that their businesses wouldn't have grown without the introductions they made there. "The way that WeWork is set up you can't help but network," Lewis says.

"There's been a lot of intermingling to help each other grow," Typinski says. "So when there are opportunities we are learning to not just fly solo, but work together."

Kyle Steiner, community director of WeWork Detroit, believes the ripple effect of bringing veterans together is much larger than it might appear. "It's opened up a conversation," Steiner says. "While we might be dealing with 10 veterans in a specific program today, they are then sharing with their cohort and telling their friends.

"We've become very strong at connecting people."

Another trait that participants in the program share is the desire to serve. Typinski says that altruistic values are effortless for many veterans. "Once you're ingrained into that mind-set of serving through the military, then that never leaves you.

"I know that for many of us, giving back helps us to deal with a lot of what may have happened throughout our careers," Typinski says. 

He adds that you'll rarely hear the word "no" from veteran entrepreneurs, and that there's little hesitation from them to step up when there's a need in the community. "They just say 'yes' and then figure it out."

Photos by Joe Powers In-Situ Photography
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Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is an award-winning freelance writer and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. She is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Contact her at [email protected]