How One Veteran Founder Balances Entrepreneurial Spirit With Military Advocacy

November 10, 2017

1:30 pm

Donald Coolidge has spent eight and a half years in the Marine Corps and served in Iraq. Now, he’s the founder and CEO of Elemental Path, the first company to produce a toy using IBM’s Watson. But he’s a formidable advocate for other U.S. veterans as well; The veteran founder spearheaded and leads the NYC chapter of Vets in Tech, was named #4 on a 2016 list of ‘Best Veteran Founders in America,’ has helped lead the Veteran Civil Dialogue, and has assisted with a Veteran advocacy project through the Urban Justice Center.

Through it all, the startup community has remained central to his journey: Donald founded a first successful startup, Majestyk Apps, prior to Elemental Path, and he invests in others. I corresponded with him about his experience as a veteran advocate, his experience as an entrepreneur, and how the two have dovetailed across his career. Here’s our Q&A.

Could you sum up your accomplishments as an advocate for U.S. veterans? What’s a specific event that stands out?

Well, I hope that the work I have done has had a positive impact for as many veterans as possible. At Vets in Tech, we’ve had dozens of events over the last 2 or 3 years and usually have turn outs of 30, 40, 50+ veterans. It’s hard to say what each event provides for each individual veteran, but I constantly hear positive stories from getting a great job, to starting a new company and even raising VC funding.

 

One specific story that stands out is from an event we hosted a few years ago at Union Square Ventures. It was a “pitch the panel” event where we invited 10 entrepreneur-led startups to pitch a panel of executives all related to fundraising. We focused on getting a diverse panel that ranged from crowdfunding, to early-stage venture and even had an executive from Silicon Valley Bank on the panel. The event went really well, and the veteran-led startups were all amazing.

 

One of them came up to me after the event and asked if he could schedule some time with me to go over his pitch in more detail, and I was happy to do it. We met a few times, and I gave lots of feedback on his investor deck, his pitch and how he positioned the company. I didn’t hear anything from him for a few months, and then he showed up at another Vets in Tech event and shared with me that he had successfully raised his first round of funding of over $1M. He said my feedback helped him change his positioning and that helped lead to his funding round. If I played any positive role in getting his startup off the ground and funded – I am proud of it.

How has your experience as a veteran advocate or in being a veteran founder informed who you are as an entrepreneur?

Being a veteran is a huge part of who I am, and I’ve used a lot of the skills and tactics I learned in the Marine Corps during the growth phases of Elemental Path. In the Marines, small unit leadership is hugely important, and that’s helped me feel comfortable with delegating important tasks along with enabling my team to feel autonomous enough to make important decisions and get creative in how they accomplish things. One thing we do well here that was learned in the Marine Corps is “working backwards” – we set our goals and then we work backwards in creating the roadmap to get it done. That’s helped us not only meet our objectives, but exceed expectations.

 

Advocating on behalf of Veterans comes naturally – Veterans are hard workers, disciplined and great at making important decisions with little information. I hear so many amazing stories about veterans and their accomplishments within organizations that I can’t help but speak highly of them. I think that tech companies should all do more to hire vets. It’s not only the right thing to do – it’s a huge strategic advantage for them.

You’ve founded two successful startups — Majestyk Apps & Elemental Path — What was the best part of the experience and what plans do you have for the near future?

Both companies are so different. Majestyk is a fast-growing digital agency that provides tech services. Elemental Path is a pure technology startup where we are constantly creating new consumer-orientated technology – specifically focusing on how we can use artificial intelligence to help build cognitive development in kids – “helping them learn and grow.”

 

The best part of both was the beginning stages when it was all just an idea on a napkin. Taking the companies from an idea to a plan and then implementing that early plan was probably the most enjoyable but also the most stressful. In those early days, you have no idea if you are crazy or onto something special. It’s only months or years later that you will know if it was something viable or absolutely crazy. Now that Elemental Path is shipping CogniToys around the world – seeing the products come to life and have a positive impact on kids and families is amazing.

 

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of stories about how families are using CogniToys in ways we never expected. Just one example is using CogniToys as a tool to help teach kids English as a second language. I’ve heard from parents in Brazil, South Korea and even mainland China about how CogniToys have become a household staple in immersing the children in an English language experience while they are at home when the parents don’t speak great English and really want the kids to be fluent.

Can you sum up what Elemental Path does and what its values are?

Elemental Path has created a technology we are calling Friendgine – a kid-friendly artificial intelligence software. The product line developed by Elemental Path is called CogniToys, which uses this Friendgine technology to provide a line of learning companions for kids. The Friendgine gives technology (often physical products like toys) speech, personality and intelligence. We are often compared to Siri or Alexa for kids. Our technology is able to give kids a fun, friendly learning experience that doesn’t require a screen. It helps get kids laughing and learning at the same time, and it is our hope that eventually our technology will be able to keep up with kids as they learn and give them a constantly evolving experience built just for them.

Any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?

Of course. I am asked a lot how I made the decision to leave my “career” and make the jump into starting my own business. It wasn’t easy, and I had all the same reservations that everyone else does. How will I pay the bills, what if it doesn’t work, etc. My advice is usually pretty simple. When the time is right, you will know and you won’t be able to do anything but make the jump and do your own thing. I was so distracted at work and school about how to get Majestyk off the ground and grow it that it was easy to make the jump. It was stressful, but it felt like something I absolutely had to do.

 

I would also tell the Veterans out there that the best network you have is your military brothers and sisters. It’s an unbreakable bond, and when you are getting the itch to start your own business – network with other veterans who are doing similar things. They are usually going to be 100 percent open to giving advice and guidance, and as you grow your company, it will continue to be your strongest network.

Read more about veteran-led startups and the individuals behind them here at TechCo

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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