The smell of sweet success

It all started with Father Rick Curry and Connie Milstein who both shared a belief that no veteran should be unemployed, especially those who are looking to pursue their career goals and begin a new chapter in their lives.

Drawing on their experiences as social innovators and advocates for disabled veterans, military spouses and caregivers, together the two founded Dog Tag, Inc. to ensure veterans are business ready, competitive and employable upon transitioning into civilian life.

Dog Tag is a unique, five-month entrepreneurial program that offers experiential learning as well as a tailored curriculum at Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies. The linchpin of the program is Dog Tag Bakery – a two-level, 4,200-square-foot storefront facility located in the heart of Georgetown in Washington, D.C. – which features a café and upstairs bakery with a production/baking area, training and meeting room and an office space to manage the business.

“The bakery actually serves a greater purpose,” said Dog Tag CEO Meghan Ogilvie. “We’re just not a bakery. We’re a nonprofit so the bakery is a nonprofit as well. We started the program before the bakery even opened.”

Dog Tag Bakery provides a vehicle for veterans to put their newly acquired skills into context. Veterans not only learn every aspect of a small business from operation to marketing, but also take part in learning labs which include interview and networking skills preparation, resume writing assistance, networking events and mock interview days with partner organizations.

“Above the café is our classroom (which) is where we host our fellowship program. We have no more than 12 at a time — fellows, we call them, who are veterans with service-connected disabilities, spouses and caregivers,” Ogilvie said. “The goal is that they get the hands-on training and understanding of what it looks like and feels like to run a small business.”

The curriculum serves as an introduction to business from an academic perspective and consists of seven different courses: accounting management, communication, corporate finance, marketing, business policy and entrepreneurship. In addition, a supplemental lecture series is also woven into the program wherein speakers, including seasoned entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders and CEOs representing the full spectrum of private and public sector opportunities, offer their perspective and open their networks to the fellows, according to Dog Tag's website.

“What we’re trying to do is empower individuals to define what success means to them,” Ogilvie said. “This is kind of imperative in that people are concerned about charity. And for us, we consider ourselves an opportunity – it’s an opportunity to get an education from Georgetown University, it’s an opportunity to work in a small business, and it’s an opportunity to build a network.”

For Ogilvie, the recipe to success is having a bakery that serves as an incubator for employment and small business development. It’s not about numbers or opening bakeries all over the country, rather, it’s about starting innovative programs like Dog Tag that focus on individual growth and success, she said.

“I think what separates us is that we are a holistic program that puts together education, employment experience and then the deep dive into personal understanding,” said Kyle Burns, senior program director. “Not only what makes me a good employee, but also what are my big dreams and big passions and how do I reach that place in a career path. It’s a really good eye opener for our fellows just in terms of helping them get a really solid skillset to be able to launch their business enterprises, or to have good working knowledge when they work for other people.”

By offering four different working rotations through the storefront and nonprofit positions, Burns said Dog Tag goes beyond education and job training to ensure the fellows are fully supported and become leaders in their chosen fields. “There’s absolute joy in watching their stories progress and watching their lives unfold and seeing how everything is much more positive, much more holistic and much more sustainable than what it was before they walked through our doors,” she said.

When it comes to representing a sample of the talent and drive that exists in the veteran community, Cassaundra Martinez and Aundrea Hunt are among the lucky few who were chosen for Dog Tag’s Winter Class of 2017.

Martinez, an Army veteran who is also a military spouse with six kids, said she hopes the program will allow her to explore the possibility of owning her own human capital consulting firm, as well as provide the tools necessary to positively impact the community on a grander scale.

“Giving back is a part of my DNA,” said the Tennessee native. “A gift isn’t a gift until you give it away. For me, it’s using my time, my talents and my treasures to be able help others in my community and even further.”

Having recently been recognized as Army Spouse of the Year, Martinez looks forward to discovering more ways to support and enable military spouses to rise to their potential and gain fulfilling, portable careers.

“In this program, I’m able to get into really three pillars of how to develop that success,” she said. “Live business rotations, classes at Georgetown, as well as advanced seminars and different learning labs. This program is like no other program that I’ve seen within the veteran community.”

As a former member of American Legion Post 39 in Gilbert, Arizona, Martinez said the Legion has helped her connect with other like-minded veterans and servicemembers. Being able to share that sense of comradery and form relationships has really impacted her life in a positive way, she said.

“The recipe for success for a veteran entrepreneur is really building relationships and partnerships in your community, guiding and creating that support around you, and then utilizing your experiences and education and background to make a difference,” said Martinez. “At Dog Tag, there is this element that wasn’t visible when I applied. We identified these values that are personal to us. From those values we’re able to create purpose and direction. That’s what’s unique about this experience – it’s individualized and we all start from different places in our lives. Through this program, we’re able identify our own individual unique interests and skillsets, and use those to make business decisions going forward.”

For Hunt, a former Air Force airmen turned Army Reserve captain, Dog Tag was the answer to meet the growing need for uniformed servicemember benefit advocacy and transition planning. She decided to apply for the fellowship to help make her proposal for a Uniformed Service Members’ Assistance Center into an actual small business venture.

“The main thing that I think separates Dog Tag from other bakeries is the whole sense of community,” said Hunt, an at-large member of the Legion. “What I think is really wonderful about this program is that it was started by non-military members, but people in the community who had ties to the military community. Unlike most other programs, (Dog Tag) focuses more on the transition in respect to the act that we’re from the veteran community.”

Hunt said Dog Tag is a good way of allowing veterans to explore higher education opportunities as they fulfill their business aspirations.

“The recipe for veteran entrepreneurship is take care of self first, come up with a great plan, identify a need. I think you can start with your own needs,” Hunt said. “And collaborating in the community. Go to other veterans and also outside the veteran community so you’re not looking at things in a vacuum. Once you’ve done all of that, then do it. Don’t spend so much time researching that you never actually put in a practical application. Don’t be afraid to fail, but also don’t be afraid to succeed.”