Success & Impact
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Success & Impact
Six years in the United States Army — four served in the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment (SOAR) — six deployments and one mission: Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. David Burnett began his journey in the armed forces as an aviation maintainer and worked his way up to one of the most elite aviation units in the world. SOAR members are known for their unparalleled precision and adeptness during nighttime operations, and only the best of the best aviators qualify.
But Burnett’s time in the Army didn’t prepare him for the abrupt transition from soldier to civilian when his contract came to an end. It would take a never-quit mindset and the support of his family, therapists and mentors in Saint Joseph’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans to dig out of his dark depression and start a “Mount Everest climb to entrepreneurship.”
Burnett humbly shares that coming home from the Army in 2014 was a difficult time in his life. Countless other veterans (one in five according to the RAND Center for Military Health Policy Research) face similar mental health difficulties, he says, but he felt directionless, isolated.
“I was battling heavy alcohol abuse and a plethora of other things,” he recalls, alluding to his depression. He sought the help of a VA therapist and, through the same mental fortitude that earned him a spot in SOAR, was able to quit drinking for good in 2017 and start down a new path of success. “That change in not just my mental health but also my physical health gave me a clear mindset and allowed me to go full throttle on what I wanted to accomplish.”
In addition to celebrating his fourth year of sobriety in September, Burnett has since authored a book on his experiences, “Making a Night Stalker,” while starting his own business through the help of the University's Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans (EBV).
EBV began in 2015 under a different name but with the same mission: to provide the tools, education and mentorship necessary for post-9/11 veterans to start or grow their own businesses. The program was seeded through a generous gift from alumnus Frank Trainer ’68 — a fellow veteran who would later become Burnett’s mentor — who was moved to take action when he saw a need for more veteran support services in the U.S. He also played an integral role in the founding of SJU’s Office of Veterans Services along with Ralph Galati ’70, inaugural director, and Haub School of Business Dean Joseph A. DiAngelo, Ed.D., ‘70.
“The EBV program is a beacon in the Haub School and we are very proud of its mission to support veterans and entrepreneurs,” says DiAngelo.
The entrepreneurship bootcamp grew out of the new veterans office and is a yearlong program — housed in the Haub School of Business and through an affiliation with Syracuse University — that’s offered to qualified vets free of charge. Students gain a foundation in business fundamentals, participate in classroom discussions and one-on-one training with mentors, and hear from guest lecturers — including previous EBV graduates. The program culminates in a venture pitch competition and year’s worth of support services and mentorship.
“It looks like the ‘Shark Tank’ competition you see on TV, but it’s not about who’s most deserving of the check right now,” says Office of Veterans Services Director and Army veteran Hank Gillen. “It’s more about, how well do you understand your business and the potential growth of your venture, and what are your next steps to be successful?”
For Burnett, EBV was exactly what he needed.
“You don’t know what you don’t know,” he says. “I researched veteran entrepreneurial programs and EBV was just what I was looking for in terms of a ‘drink from the fire hose’ approach. That’s undoubtedly what I received.”
Through one of the mentorship components of EBV, Burnett and Trainer connected, learning they lived just 30 minutes away from each other in Colorado. The two discussed Burnett’s experience in the program, the camaraderie he had found and the business he was working to get off the ground, Blackbridge Defense.
“After several deployments in the 160th, I noticed the guys wouldn’t have a way to quickly secure their gear in the aircraft,” Burnett explains. “So, when we landed at a target, it would take longer for them to get out of the aircraft than if they had a device that their stuff was secured to that could quickly release.”
His concept that started as just a napkin sketch turned into a quick-release technology that he thought would be widely adopted by the Department of Defense. When the concept wasn’t as well received as he had hoped, he began cold calling military units to see if the technology could be applied to ground vehicles.
With a new direction — a quick release machine gun mount — he worked relentlessly to develop three prototypes over eight months, resulting in a brand-new product.
“The feeling of adversity and very high barriers to entry are looming around every corner, you just need to dig deep and keep going,” he says. “It helps having knowledgeable and talented mentors in your corner, too!”
Burnett is one of 195 veterans to have graduated from SJU’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans since its launch six years ago.
“Whether they’re a furniture maker or want to screen t-shirts, be a leadership coach, a trainer — whatever it is — we provide them with an overview of the business necessities to be successful,” says Gillen.
Through it all, Burnett not only grew his business, but he also found an investor, mentor and friend in Trainer.
“David’s story is one of perseverance and strength of mind,” says Trainer. “His ability to overcome obstacles and succeed is so inspiring. If I can make even just a small impact on his journey, it’s worth it.”
Since its establishment in 2014, the Office of Veterans Services has served the veteran community at Saint Joseph’s by supporting the educational experience of student veterans and active duty service members, their spouses and family members, both on Hawk Hill and around the globe. Additionally, the office embraces its mission to empower veteran small business owners through the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans (EBV) and other small business training. Sign up to get involved and stay informed about Veterans activities and programs.