FOR VETERANS, TRANSITION BACK TO CIVILIAN LIFE IS NO PIECE OF CAKE. DOG TAG BAKERY WANTS TO MAKE IT A LITTLE SWEETER.
Of the more than 2.6 million veterans returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States has seen more than a million come back with severe physical and mental injuries. It is estimated that 20 percent of returning veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The injuries that veterans face magnify the difficulty of re-integrating themselves into post-war civilian society.
Dog Tag Inc., founded and housed in the District, is taking a new, holistic approach to transition assistance for veterans.
Dog Tag Inc.’s innovative program was founded in 2014 by philanthropists Father Rick Curry, SJ, and Connie Milstein. Both strongly believed that if a veteran wanted to work, unemployment should not be a factor in stopping them from achieving that goal. They started by designing a six-month training program aimed at “building a bridge to business employment and productive civilian life.”
“Connie and Father Curry were both inspired by what service meant to them. They are the ones who really took this plane off the ground and had the vision and the passion to get it up into the air,” said CEO Megan Ogilvie.
Dog Tag’s uniqueness stems from the fact that it operates as both a business (the bakery) and a nonprofit (the program). The enterprise aims to serve veterans and their spouses via the program as well as the larger Georgetown community by selling baked goods. Profits from the bakery are then put back into the program to keep it running.
The program involves a heavy course load at nearby Georgetown University’s School of Continuing Studies, where fellows learn business skills through accounting, management, communication, corporate finance, marketing and entrepreneurship classes. Also included is a lecture series, which features entrepreneurs, non-profit leaders, and CEO’s who “open their networks to DTI fellows and work to facilitate meaningful connections.”
Once the fellows complete all of their course modules, they have earned a certificate of business administration from an accredited institution.
Fellows use Dog Tag’s recently opened bakery in Georgetown as a place to apply the business skills they learn in real world environment. The bakery, which opened in December of 2014, gives members of the program a place to not only complete catering and mail orders, but also to interact with customers and get a chance at baking the goods themselves. Working in the bakery gives fellows work experience in every piece of the larger puzzle of running a small business. The bakery also serves as a gathering place for current and past fellows. Many participants in the program return to the storefront again and again for lunches, events, or simply to spend time with fellow veterans.
“One of the most meaningful experiences for me is seeing our fellows seize opportunities for themselves. We’re here to set up the program and put the opportunities out there, and it has been so inspiring hearing about networking events our fellows went to and seeing the ways that they are taking control of their future and their goals,” said Megan.
Currently, Dog Tag Inc. only operates its program in the DC area, and is on its second class of fellows: a group of 11 men and women. There are plans to expand nationally, but not anytime soon.
“We want to make sure that our program works here first, and that we are doing everything right on a smaller scale before we expand to other areas,” Megan said.
Q&A WITH DOG TAG, INC. CEO, MEGAN OGILVIE
1. What inspired you to become involved in Dog Tag Inc ? Was there a specific catalyst or was it more of a general organization addressing a social need that you sought to be a part of?
I came from a Marine Corps family. My father and sister both served and attended the Naval Academy, and I’ve always had the passion about service that comes with being part of a military family, but knew that serving wasn’t the specific route for me. My dad always told me “You’ll find your way to serve." I heard about Father Curry and the program he was starting from a friend, and having always had a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit, I decided I wanted to be a part of it. His and Connie Milstein’s commitment to not only veterans but their spouses as well really inspired me. I also liked that the program combined an educational piece with job experience.
2. Can you tell me about a specific time or instance in which you felt your mission was really being exemplified?
As a start-up, we essentially grew with our first class of fellows. It’s really meaningful to see them come back to the bakery after having graduated from the program. We’ve had vets say that they’ve come back because they feel like it’s their place. Knowing that we were able to provide them with a vehicle through which they can succeed has been very meaningful, as well as hearing them say how some of the things they learned in the classes (like the importance of being able to tell your own story) have been vital to them post-program has been awesome. Seeing them put their skills into use makes me feel very fortunate that we were able to be the launching pad.
3. What challenges does your role with Dog Tag present and how do you handle those challenges?
One of the challenges is thinking about both the mission of our program and the needs of the business at the same time. We are always thinking of recruiting, how to market the bakery, how to drive traffic, but also having to make sure that the program is effective. There are also challenges with being a start-up and having to figure many things out for the first time, and not knowing all of the answers. We’re very lucky to have a staff that gives their 110 percent as well as such inspiring founders with a great vision and passion.
4. What has your work with Dog Tag taught you that you carry into the rest of your life?
The importance of showing up and pushing the mission forward. Everyone here has a reason for being involved and a passion for the mission and it’s important to have the drive to come back and face challenges day after day. Watching our fellows succeed has reinforced the importance of what we are doing and why our mission is important.