Fireside Chat with Vet-Led Businesses

Last month we held our final virtual Fireside Chat of the Fall semester with a panel of three veteran entrepreneurs along with a Zahn/CCNY alum and marine corps vet, Danny Tsoi, as the moderator. Our panel consisted of Mark Gatanas, Founder of Vizornet, Inc, Elana “Lana”  Duffy, Founder of Pathfinder.Vet and James Hendon, Founder of EnergyEDC and Commissioner of NYC Department of Veterans Affairs. It was a timely discussion as it immediately followed Veteran’s Day. Our panelists and moderator shared their experiences launching their own businesses and navigating entrepreneurship as veterans. The audience, consisting of a mix of students, alumni, faculty, staff, and supporters, asked thoughtful questions in this engaging session. Here’s a recap of the event:

Lana founded Pathfinder.Vet because she saw a need. “I was getting out of the service and I needed to figure out where I fit in the community that I was coming back to. I wanted to learn what was around, what services, what benefits I qualified for, what services were available to me in New York and New Jersey and even at a national level.” Sometimes your personal wants and needs inspire a business.. Lana stated, “I needed the service myself and I realized it wasn’t out there and the more people I talked to, the more people were saying if this existed I would be in a better place right now and so I decided to build it.” 

Danny commented, “That’s a good thing to do when you have your own problem and you're trying to solve it not only for yourself but for other people that have similar problems and it's great that you're your own customer.”

Others like Mark and James, after the military, went on to work for someone else and realized that their destiny was to be an entrepreneur. Mark worked in Information Technology and Information Systems Management after he retired from the Army. After working for IT companies, Mark decided to create his own IT holding company that involved consulting and engineering services. James went to school after he got out of the military, worked at a corporation where he was unhappy, and then ran into his social enterprise professor. The professor told him to reach out to one of his classmates who just won funding for their startup. James worked at this startup, BlocPower, for three years. While working at BlocPower, James realized that he wanted to continue to help people, especially with the green initiative. Because of this desire,  he set up his own startup, EnergyEDC. Being an entrepreneur is within us no matter what we do in life. It clearly shows that with Mark and James.

Danny asked the panel, “How does your military experience influence your day to day as a leader and as an entrepreneur, and what lessons have you learned that you constantly apply from your military experience?”

Lana shared that she enlisted post college and did everything that was demanded of her from mowing lawns, writing reports, to interrogating. Everyday was different. “In a startup world, there is no day just like yesterday, even if I am working on the same type of task.” 

Danny could relate to what Lana shared about her military experience. “Military experience teaches you grit and being able to resist the temptation to slack and give up.” “[It’s an] amazing trait and necessary to be an entrepreneur and it's the vital ingredient.” 

James added that he agreed with what Lana and Danny shared, and stated that, “The military is a leadership laboratory where it is designed for you to fail in a safe environment so that when you are out and it's the real deal you will not fail, you will succeed.” 

Mark shared that, “Some things came naturally, we are mission oriented, we take a disciplined approach.” 

During the time of COVID, we all have to adjust the way we live and this is also the same with how we run our businesses. One of Mark’s partner companies is in the health and beauty industry, and they decided to create a specific catalog for emergency products. Lana shared that they had to adapt and overcome their challenges. “We had to switch up our customer model without having to change our core technology, still able to find new customer segments and find new opportunities that are fueling our mission, and get [the] data we needed and be able to train our AI system in a way that we can pay our developers this month.” This shows that in a startup space, you have to learn to pivot. James stated that the needs for the veterans in NYC shifted with the pandemic. The main focus is now on food, housing, and employment.

We concluded the event by asking what resources panelists could share for veteran startups and entrepreneurs. James stated that the “Primary things entrepreneurs need are financial, social and intellectual capital.” The panelists also suggested that going back to your school/alma mater can help--they may have resources for you. Here is the list of resources that were shared with the guests: Kaufman Fastrack, Steve Blank, Lean Launchpad, NYU Vet Incubator, Bunker Labs, Patriot Bootcamp, Vets in Tech, Score.
We’re thrilled that we could bring these entrepreneurs together in a virtual setting, and we’re looking forward to more events like this in the future. Stay tuned & visit  our Virtual Welcome Center for our full calendar of events. New events for the Spring semester will be added soon, including fireside chats in February & March! Follow us on social media @ZahnCenterNYC and keep in touch with us at .

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