'I Had the Same Fears When I Left of What's Next'
One fuschia suit from high school, never worn. That’s the only suit Vince Loran had when he retired from the Air Force on his 40th birthday.
He was 18 when he joined as an aircraft electrician, a young father from the Bronx in need of direction and opportunity. After 21 years of service, everything and nothing had changed.
‘Those fears I went into the military with, I had the same fears when I left of what’s next,’ says Vince, who felt like he had finally found himself a decade into his military career as a diversity trainer. ‘I didn’t know how to translate what I’d done into civilian life. I didn’t know what to do, how to do it, how to even dress. I’d never put on a business suit.’
Vince bought a new suit, and got a new job, but for a year he had his sights set on Dog Tag—the small but mighty bakery on Grace Street that seeks to provide a transformative opportunity for veterans with disabilities by offering a business education at Georgetown University and real-life, in-store work experience.
Late last year, Vince was on his way to Panama to connect with a leader he met during his fellowship at the United Way Worldwide when he got the call from Dog Tag. They had an opening.
Now more than halfway through his five-month fellowship with nine other veterans, military spouses and caregivers, Vince is taking seven classes twice a week through Georgetown University to earn a certificate of business administration, and meets local business owners and alumni through learning labs. He spends the rest of his time rotating through the four major areas of the business: Branding and marketing, finance, and front- and back-of-the-store operations.
By the end, Vince will know how to balance a budget and bake brownies.
‘The whole concept of an incubator like Dog Tag is that these skills can be used with any business; we just happen to be at a bakery,’ Vince says. ‘All of us want to jump over this bridge as entrepreneurs, but 80% of us don’t know how to get there. We have an innate ability in us to be resilient, to jump, to do, to change, but there’s so much we’re naïve to in the business world. We’re empowered to learn more about the entrepreneurial journey here and get those tools. It’s incredible, hands-on experience that you don’t get anywhere else.’
But for all the hands-on experience, it’s the emotional support that distinguishes the program from others. Founded by Father Curry, who has since passed, the non-profit encourages Dog Tag fellows to share their personal experiences with one another.
‘We’re all going through this journey together and a big part of the program is finding our voice and ourselves in this safe environment,’ says Vince, whose program cohorts are 20- to 50-year-olds representing all branches of the military. ‘The first time we did it, sharing our own story, there were people crying and talking about losing people, losing friends, or not being able to save someone. You could see they were reliving that significant emotional event all over again in that moment.’
With an average of 20 veteran suicides per day, according to the VA, Vince says the focus on shared introspection is therapeutic.
‘Veterans keep to themselves and take a lot of blame. You’re 18 years old when you're responsible for the life of your brothers and sisters in arms, which is a huge responsibility. Those who have served find it easier being a warrior than a civilian. I call [program facilitators] Kyle and Meghan the momma bears because they make you feel safe to open up and talk and learn from each other. You don’t know anything about walking in someone’s shoes until you hear their story.’
Dog Tag seeks to share those stories, yet many don’t know the very story of the organization itself. Vince is hoping to change that.
‘You think you’ve made it in Georgetown if you live here, go to school here, have a business here,’ he says. ‘But when you pull the curtain back, there’s a little giant sitting in the corner of Grace Street called Dog Tag Bakery that has such a powerful mission.’
Vince is part of that mission, but he’s also on one of his own, with the hope of one day owning a business that increases youth ‘RPM’—respect toward others, purpose in life, and motivation toward humanity and the greater good.
When he’ll get there, Vince isn’t quite sure. He just knows he has the direction, and—thanks to Dog Tag Inc.—opportunity.
‘My eyes will be wide open for the next step.’