Berkeley Haas Military Veteran Student Entrepreneurs: “An Exercise In Dogged Resilience”

Thanks to writer Caroline Shifke for contributing this piece.

For many, the past eight months have been marked by unprecedented uncertainty and upheaval. One group of Berkeley Haas students, however, has remained calm in the face of ongoing challenges: veterans. As student entrepreneur and Army JAG veteran Captain Olaseni Bello (MBA ’21) explained, “COVID is an uncertainty and a lot of people aren’t comfortable with uncertainty, but I’m used to it. Being a ‘vetrepreneur’ is an exercise in dogged resilience.”

In honor of Veterans Day this year, we wanted to share profiles of two student entrepreneurs, Captain Olaseni Bello and Officer Joe Choi, who have carried their dedication to service from the military to building startups at Berkeley Haas. The two met and became friends on campus, while growing their companies through the UC LAUNCH Accelerator, sponsored by Blackstone LaunchPad & Techstars Network.

Captain Olaseni Bello (MBA ’21)

Olaseni served five and a half years in the Army JAG Corps, where he obtained the rank of Captain. His service included a yearlong deployment in eastern Afghanistan, where he was awarded the Bronze Star. While a student at Berkeley Haas, Olaseni co-founded CarpeMed, a mobile application/platform that helps international travelers find the best medical care that speaks their language when they’re abroad. The company also provides up-to-date COVID-19 travel and destination guidelines. CarpeMed was a UC LAUNCH Finalist, 2019 and 2020 SkyDeck HotDesk Program participant, and winner of the 5th Annual TechCrunch Pitch Competition. 

What was your inspiration for founding CarpeMed?

“The idea for CarpeMed came to me because I almost saw my spouse die. In 2015, my fiancée and I went to Tanzania. We bought travel insurance — like we always did — but two days into that trip, she was bitten by a mosquito with a deadly virus. We sought help using our travel insurance but couldn’t find any. We cut our trip short and went back to Germany. This began the odyssey of five doctors across two different continents… [as well as a three week hospital stay] and two years of full-on care and cost.

Now, I think of my partner getting sick, and how I was panicking and there was this huge sense of urgency. It’s that sense of urgency I bring to CarepMed.”

Has being a veteran shaped the way you think about entrepreneurship?

“When I deployed in Afghanistan, I learned what it felt like to know that, for a year, you’re going to be constantly in threat. Before I left for every mission, I wrote my mom an email because I knew I might not come back. When you operate like that — it’s not comfortable, but you learn to be more adaptable… Being an entrepreneur puts you back into a place of uncertainty — but you’re not going to die! “Fear of failure” is illusory.

I also lead a hyphenated existence. I’m British-born, raised in Nigeria, a naturalized US citizen, a combat veteran, and lawyer — that makes me a hybrid, which means I have to be adaptable. It means being willing to take risks. 

I heard advice to wait for the second year of business school to start a company, but school is very fast. I understand how quickly things happen from being deployed. Time is our only currency.”

Anything else you want to share?

“I think it’s important to look at veterans more in the context of entrepreneurship, because service comes in a lot of different ways.… Being an entrepreneur is another call to serve, and veterans are biased to act. When we look back, we ask: did we give it our all? Did we sacrifice? Did we try to make society better? In military service and entrepreneurship, the answer to all those questions has to be yes.”

Officer Joe Choi (MBA ’21)

Joe is a former U.S. Navy SEAL officer. Over his nine years of service, he was deployed in the Philippines, Guam, and Iraq. While a student at Berkeley Haas, he co-founded Bear House Innovations, which provides first-time, soon-to-be dads with a mobile app that helps them navigate fatherhood with ease. Advice for new dads-to-be ranges from how to keep their pregnant partners comfortable and happy to what to purchase to prepare the house for the coming baby. Joe participated in the UC LAUNCH Accelerator with Olaseni.

When did you realize you wanted to serve in the military?

“I was nine years old, in the fourth grade, at a church picnic, and my Godfather said, “You should go to West Point. You’d be a good fit.” I respected him and trusted his opinion. So, after that, whenever people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, ”I wanted to go to West Point!” It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. My heart was set for the military academy — but I ended up going to the naval academy instead because I played water polo.

Part of why I care so much about Bear House Innovations and finding a way to help parents is because I know that if you have the right people, the right mentorship and a positive influence as a kid, that can really make a difference. For me, it was just one person at one church picnic that changed my life — I wouldn’t be here now if not for that moment.”

Has being a veteran shaped the way you think about entrepreneurship?

What I’ve realized is that a team is a team, regardless of what situation you’re in. My military background helps with the ability to lead small teams. It directly translates into areas like: how do you have empathy? How do you organize people and communicate effectively so that everyone has buy-in? How do you handle team dynamics and manage personalities?

…A lot of the way I think about being a veteran and being an entrepreneur also comes from my dad. He grew up in Korea, and as soon as he finished his mandatory military service there he got a ticket to come to America…. He ended up cleaning and fixing swimming pools. It was an honest, hardworking job, and he never complained once. He’s in his late 60’s now and he’s still working.

That work ethic, the grit, the tenacity shaped me. I didn’t appreciate it until I was in SEAL training and I realized those lessons helped me keep going. I was thinking, ”I have my dad who always worked hard and never complained. Am I going to say, ’When life got hard, I quit?’” No. I couldn’t do that.”

Anything else you want to share? 

“To other students thinking about starting a company: just do it! …And it’s okay to mess up! Failure is okay. At the end of the day, you only need to get it right once. You might consider it a failure, but you’ll still learn a whole lot. I already have.”

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