Jerry Flanagan (left) Founder/CEO of JDog Junk Removal and a Veteran Shark Tank judge, asking a question. Next to him, judge Mark Rockefeller (StreetShares).
It is that experience and an unwavering passion that led Archawski to establish the Greater Philadelphia Veterans Network in 2011, the largest of its kind in the region. And shortly thereafter, in 2012, to create the Greater Philadelphia Veteran Shark Tank, modeled after the popular television show.
On December 3, 2018, the 6th Annual Greater Philadelphia Veteran Shark Tank was held at the historic Union League on Broad Street. The keynote speaker at the sold-out event was war hero and retired United States Marine Corps Lt. Col. Justin Constantine. While in Iraq, Constantine suffered a gunshot wound to the head. Navy Corpsman and Marines saved his life. Today, he runs his own business as an inspirational speaker and veteran employment expert.
The evening marked the kickoff to the region’s Army/Navy week. This was the ideal time to hold the event, explained Archawski, as many veterans and military supporters are already flocking to the city for a patriotic week.
The Shark Tank is led by an eight-person committee, chaired by Joe Crandall, a veteran Navy Seal. Archawski serves on the committee along with veteran entrepreneurs and former contestants. The event is about much more than just winning a competition. The committee’s overriding mission is for veterans to succeed.
The 2018 event’s presenting sponsor, Comcast-NBCUniversal, awarded a cash prize of $25,000 to US Coast Guard veteran James Rolin, who also serves in the Montana Army National Guard. He is co-founder with wife, US Coast Guard veteran Kathy Rolin, of Cowboy Cricket Farms. The Bozeman, Montana based business employs sustainable farming using crickets (insects) to manufacture certain food products. (Find them on the web at cowboycrickets.com.)
This was the largest award since the competition began in 2012. At that time, the prize was $5,000. In 2017, $10,000 was awarded to United States Marine Corps veteran Oliver Noteware, co-founder and CEO of StreetSmartsVR, a virtual reality-based training platform for law enforcement. The keynote speaker that evening was celebrity chef Robert Irvine.
“We are here to help veterans with their growth and their network,” said Archawski. “We help them with their business services for life.” The audience, he elaborated, is comprised of investors, financial experts, suppliers, patriots and veterans. The diverse combination has proven to be a win-win, resulting in many success stories including the very first Shark Tank winner, Navy veteran Mike Maher. He is co-founder and CEO of Houwzer, renowned for reinventing the real estate brokerage model. And the 2016 winner, veteran Chris Molaro, is founder and CEO of NeuroFlow, which promotes behavioral health utilizing a continuum of care: psychology, primary care and pain management. For Molaro, who served in the Army for five years, including a tour in Iraq as a platoon leader, the impetus to launch NeuroFlow was personal.
The driving force behind creating the Shark Tank evolved from Archawski’s realization that there had to be a better process for veterans seeking employment. “9/11 changed my life,” said Archawski, who was let go from his job about a month before his Naval Reserve unit was called for active duty to the Middle East. Returning home following that deployment was a much more difficult transition than it had been after his first tour of duty—as a rescue swimmer stationed for three years in Japan.
Besides shining a spotlight on the entrepreneurial talents of veterans, Shark Tank aims to showcase the positive aspects of establishing a business in Philadelphia. “It is about making the Philadelphia community one of the best destinations,” said Archawski, who feels a special connection to the city. Although he has lived in the region most of his life, he was born in France. His family came to Philadelphia when he was five. It was the city of Philadelphia that gave his dad the opportunity to start a business that ultimately prospered. It’s a fact that Archawski has never forgotten. His father and grandfather also served their country. His dad in the French Navy; his grandfather a WWI Army veteran. “Serving is in my bones, it’s in my genes,” said Archawski.
Speaking of patriotism, Archawski is quick to point out the rich military history right here in Philadelphia—our nation’s first capital and site of the Continental Congress. In fact, the Continental Army was established here in 1775 to coordinate military efforts against Great Britain (with General George Washington in command). Archawski cites the historic Navy Yard and the 1775 birthplace of the United States Marine Corps at the Tun Tavern on the waterfront.
The Shark Tank is about opening doors for veterans, says Archawski, who also works as a professional sales trainer and sales coach for the Philadelphia-based company, Sales Evolution. It’s about providing veterans with the contacts, inspiration and networking opportunities they deserve to succeed in business or any entrepreneurial endeavor. “When people want to help, we say, ‘Why don’t you buy from a veteran’s business?’”
Besides Comcast-NBCUniversal, corporate sponsors throughout the region and across the country support the event. Other 2018 sponsors included: Excelon, Greencastle Consulting, PWC, TD Bank, JDog Junk Removal & Hauling, American Water and many more.
The committee receives many applications from across the country. All applicants are thoroughly vetted, typically with a three-hour phone screening conducted by committee members. “There is a set format and a screening scale. It’s a difficult decision,” said Archawski, adding that each applicant must present a sound business plan.
The veterans vying for spots as contestants represent a diverse and impressive array of men and women. “We have incredible technology veterans from Wharton Business School and then someone who created an eczema cream,” stated Archawski, giving the example of a past contestant who couldn’t find any product on the market to treat her 2-year-old’s severe eczema. Initially, she was hesitant to apply but was encouraged to do so as she had a sound business plan and an effective product.
“The key is it’s white collar and blue collar,” said Archawski, drawing a comparison to the military’s officers and enlisted. Each of the five contestants has five minutes to pitch their business idea. And the judges take five minutes to ask questions.
“The event is also inspiring our community to do more with veterans, to say, ‘Hey we should hire more veterans.’ We want to bring in business leaders, veterans and non-veterans.
“We are growing our Shark Tank every year on a national platform,” he continued. The first year, the event was held in a small auditorium. Today, they have a full-scale sit-down dinner with hundreds in attendance.
And it’s not just the cash prize winners who have benefited. Jerry Flanagan is an excellent example, noted Archawski. “Jerry is one of our top Philly veterans. He has one of the most successful businesses in Philadelphia.” Flanagan, 51, of King of Prussia, was a contestant in 2014 and served as a judge at last month’s event. A non-combat Army veteran, he is founder and CEO of JDog Junk Removal & Hauling. His wife, Tracy Flanagan, is senior vice president. The two launched the business from their kitchen table in 2011. “We needed to find a business that was recession-proof,” said Flanagan.
When he stood before the judges to pitch his business—admittedly, a daunting task—he had five franchises; today there are 200 in 31 states. “The confidence you gain as you present to other people is awesome,” said Flanagan. “Talking about the business idea is very gratifying.”
JDog Junk Removal & Hauling provides eco-friendly services in homes and businesses: junk removal, cleanouts, donations, recycling, repurposing. “We aim to hire all veterans, if possible,” said Flanagan. The franchises are only available for purchase by military veterans and veteran families. And 10 percent of JDog Junk Removal’s net income is donated to the JDog Foundation. The non-profit provides leadership, support, awareness and funding to organizations that rebuild or repair homes and lives of veterans.
Another success story of a past contestant is that of Navy nuclear engineer veteran Stephanie Siraco, who launched a personal fitness company in 2012, SKFitLife. She has been featured in numerous publications and hosted and appeared on television shows including NBC’s American Ninja Warrior Season 9 and NBC’s Spartan Ultimate Team Challenge Season 1, to name a few.
Shark Tank organizers aspire to grow their network and reach more and more people in pursuit of their mission.
“We are continuously battling the news and media stereotypes that all veterans are broken,” said Archawski. “We need to counterbalance that and share through this type of medium how veterans are succeeding in our own backyard.”