Bunker Labs’ Muster Event Connects Entrepreneurs From Military Community

D'Shawn Russell of Southern Elegance wins the Bunker Labs' Atlantic Region Muster pitch competition in 2019.

[Editor’s Note: The Muster event has been postponed due to the coronavirus. We will update this story when they set a new date.] When D’Shawn Russell entered into last year’s Bunker Labs Atlantic Region Muster pitch competition for veteran and military spouse business owners, she had no expectations of winning the $10,000 prize to scale the production of her candle business, Southern Elegance.

“I just went and I presented,” Russell said, “and I was kind of shocked when I won.”

Winning the competition gave her access to a larger network of veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs—Russell’s husband is in the military—and inspired innovation.

“It made me view myself, my company, and other military spouses in a different light,” Russell said. “It really changed my perspective. I think being in that room with all of these people really changed my vision of the company, of myself and it forced me to level-up and think way bigger than anything that I had remotely even considered prior to that.”

Now, veterans and military spouse entrepreneurs have a chance to attend the Bunker Labs Atlantic Region Muster event once again on March 12 as part of its annual Muster Across America tour. Located at the MetLife Global Technology Campus in Cary, the event is designed to foster connections, business growth and success, capped by another pitch competition awarding $10,000 to the winner.

As Bunker Labs nears 40 locations nationally, the regional Muster is a full-day celebration of veteran and military spouse entrepreneurship, said Dean Bundschu, the Atlantic regional executive director for Bunker Labs. The Muster includes meals, workshops and panels on topics like building company culture, with the pitch competition in the afternoon. This year Russell is a speaker at the event where she won the pitch competition just a year ago, along with NC IDEA CEO Thom Ruhe and General John W. “Mick” Nicholson, the president of the PenFed Foundation, which supports veterans and their families on multiple fronts.

Says Bundschu, “Mostly we like to focus on local success stories that grew out of Bunker Labs.”

With Southern Elegance now available in more than 300 retail locations, Russell is one example of a Bunker Lab success story, but her path to entrepreneurship was anything but ordinary.

“I was working as a teacher at the time and really I walked in one day and was like ‘I can’t take this anymore,’” Russell said. “And I quit. So I really didn’t have a plan. I knew how to make candles and a few other things. But I really didn’t have a business plan.”

Starting Southern Elegance, a candle company reflecting scents of Southern nostalgia, was more difficult than Russell ever anticipated. To ease her knowledge gap, Russell sought out organizations that helped facilitate her company’s growth and provide business support. 

One such organization was Bunker Labs, which aims to be a resource for veterans and military spouses in their business endeavors.

A military spouse and a Southern girl at heart, Russell gathers the majority of Southern Elegance’s raw materials from other Southern businesses. 

Southern Elegance, based in Raeford, North Carolina, makes an impact in another way as well: as a black woman, Russell knows that she serves as an example to others for what they can accomplish.

“People look at me and think if I can do it, they can do it too, which is really true,” Russell said. 

Russell said women are often told to live “small lives” because they’re often seen as secondary to their children or spouse. She wants her business to inspire others to “take a risk and live out loud and take your destiny into your own hands.” 

See Russell and others speak at the Bunker Labs Atlantic Region Muster and five finalists compete in this year’s pitch competition on March 12. Active duty military—including those in the National Guard or Reserves—can attend for free, while for others the cost is $50.

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About Suzanne Blake 83 Articles
Suzanne profiles startups and innovation for GrepBeat. She is also a junior studying journalism and political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Reach Suzanne at suzanne@grepbeat.com.