A Start-Up Committed to Helping Vets
By Katerina Athanasiou
Eight years ago, while attending an important meeting in Washington, D.C., Kevin Lavelle watched a staffer run in, drenched in sweat. As he looked at the staffer’s rumpled shirt, Lavelle was convinced there had to be a way to create organic, natural-looking dress shirts that incorporated fabrics with stretch, sweat resistant, and wrinkle free technology.
Lavelle launched Mizzen+Main, a tech fashion startup, in 2012 with co-founder Web Smith. At the time, they had two shirt designs. A year later, they boast 13 different dress shirts, two henleys and accessories. With their flagship store opening today in Columbus, Ohio, the team has much to celebrate. Along with their advances in fashion, innovation and design, Mizzen+Main has also made a commitment to veterans a core part of their business model and culture. Their program Shirt for a Start aims to give vets paid internships with the company to aid their transition into civilian life. Their new store even features art created by a veteran-artist.
Here, Lavelle and Smith share their inspiration for Shirt for a Start and how they hope to help the veteran community.
How was Shirt for a Start conceived?
KEVIN: There are many people and entities that deserve help, but at the end of the day, the veteran community seemed like a natural decision. Veterans chose to put themselves in harm’s way, take time away from their families, make the sacrifice. Sometimes that leads to the ultimate sacrifice. And they don’t ask for anything in return.
WEB: We decided to devote funds to help vets get startup experience – work with us or for us. So if they chose to move to a company that’s in an earlier stage, for example, a company in the VC/angel funding stage, they’ll have the cache to join.
Generally, as long as we can find ways to plug people in, in Mizzen + Main, those people will gain experience in line with our mission. For example, the art we’re profiling at our store was designed by someone who was in active duty for five years. He’ll gain exposure and an opportunity to sell his art through our opening.
Another thing I try to focus on is helping vets transition into the corporate world through mentorship. Right now, one of the challenges in transitioning into working for a corporation or small business is that managers don’t always seem to think their [veterans’] skill sets transfer. I have a lot of friends that are involved in the military – active duty – that are excited and interested in transitioning out of it, and not necessarily into a Fortune 500 company. I’ve been mentoring them to help them with the transition and market their skills – how to arrange their LinkedIn profiles, how to communicate their accomplishments effectively.
You mentioned that the military gives soldiers many “real life skills.” What, specifically, do you think differentiates veterans from other workers?
WEB: In my humble opinion, I feel like veterans are typically better prepared, especially given the stressors of the startup world. I feel like their service should be seen as an asset rather than a liability. There’s a perceived gap between military experience and work experience. If someone who’s 27 has served abroad or domestically, I feel that person is very prepared for the working world, having succeeded in a large, demanding organization. Changing the communication and marketing of veterans and their skills to employers can bridge that gap.
Have any vets participated in Shirt for a Start yet? If not, when do you anticipate your first intern?
KEVIN: We’ll be taking on our first intern in the next six months – likely sooner than that. The internship will be dependent on the person and the role they take on, which will be based on their needs and preferences. We’re actively working to make a positive impact through all of our work, though.
We want to show that early stage companies can make an impact, even as a small company, in your growth stage. We hope to inspire other people and create a community of startups dedicated to similar work.