#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Donald Coolidge, Co-Founder, Elemental Path
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
A Path to Success for Veterans
In celebration of National Veterans Small Business Week (November 5-9), we met with Donald Coolidge, co-founder of Elemental Path (EP). Donald served in the Marines. Once he started EP, he needed resources to build and grow his business; that’s how Donald became involved with Vets in Tech in NYC. Thanks to his experience in the military Donald learned leadership, critical thinking, planning and most importantly, cutting edge technology. Looking at government, Donald hopes policymakers develop more resources to help educate veterans in how to translate their skills, educate them on entrepreneurship (with real entrepreneurs). We thank Donald for his service and congratulate him on launching a new campaign for Scout, a learning robot for kids.
Tell me about you. What’s your background?
I had a very, non-traditional journey into the tech ecosystem. Looking back, I guess that would probably be the case for most vets. I went to college to play baseball and studied criminal justice, sociology and politics. I really thought I was going to spend 20 years in the United States Marine Corps Reserves and have a career in government. While I was a freshman, I joined the Reserves and spent the next several years training, at school, deployed, training etc. I lived between both military and civilian worlds.
After I got back from Iraq, I finished undergrad and moved to NYC for graduate school while still serving in the Marines. I had always enjoyed figuring out how things worked, what made things grow and enjoyed “business” in general — and I began creating some small businesses that really were test runs. All of a sudden, one of those side projects started to take off; in my spare time I was building and marketing mobile apps with another Marine.
I really enjoyed tech and really believed tech could be used to make huge, global and positive impacts. Organically this work started to dominate my days, nights and weekends and got to a point where I knew that I had to dive headfirst into my growing startup and that’s how I got into tech.
What is Elemental Path? Why did you start Elemental Path?
EP is a technology startup that is building a more natural, more intelligent and more seamless voice AI. The AI we build powers smart toys and allows them to teach, entertain and hopefully inspire kids.
It started as an idea — a big idea —to use cutting edge technology to teach and entertain instead of power some enterprise technology that had little real world impact for actual humans. My goal or dream is to be going about my daily routine and see people using and enjoying the products I built. I’ve always been an optimist and I want to be working on things that are making real impact. I am lucky to be working on building things that are doing that.
As you started your company, what was the biggest challenge you faced? What was the biggest surprise?
Everything. I jumped into a field that I had little experience and was extremely underqualified for. The biggest direct hurdles were figuring out how to build and integrate the deep technology to make the dream possible, how to find investors to support it and how to pull together all the logistics of building a complicated product that has a massive logistic supply chain.
My biggest surprise was how many veterans were happy to share their insight and expertise to me and how much they naturally wanted to help another vet.
How has your military experience impacted your career as an entrepreneur?
Without it, I wouldn't have been successful in what I am doing. I learned so many things that were “unintended” that directly helped me in the challenges of creating, growing and scaling a company. Leadership skills, critical thinking skills, planning and most importantly — was all the cutting edge technology I was exposed to in the military.
Many of the strategies I use in running the business were learned directly in the military, in crucial real-life situations and I modify them slightly to be applicable to the challenges we face as a growing tech-startup.
Are there specific public policies or government initiatives that have enabled startup growth for veteran entrepreneurs ?
No. Not that I know of. In my experience any government initiatives are targeted at more traditional companies and when I tried to use some of the gov. Resources out there — I was either rejected, there was too much red-tape or it simply was such a process it distracted from running the business.
The one thing I can think of was a Vets in Tech initiative called VetCap that was more startup focused and brought together investors, enterprises and let vet entrepreneurs pitch their ideas while these groups gave feedback. It was one of these events that led me to several future investors and connections.
How can policymakers encourage more entrepreneurship for veterans?
There needs to be more resources to help educate veterans in how to translate their skills, educate them on entrepreneurship (with real entrepreneurs) and facilitate seed stage capital, with little red-tape to help them get their businesses off the ground.
To note, I do not feel this should be free money, I believe this should be for qualified entrepreneurs who can prove traction and in fact the government should treat this as a business investment, just as if it was another individual investor.
How was your experience participating leading Vets in Tech in New York?
I am a huge advocate for veteran entrepreneurs — veteran skills translate so well to tech companies and veterans have a proven track record of being more successful as entrepreneurs than the general public.
I found Vets in Tech as a resource to help me figure out things that were crucial to the success of a startup. I was actively looking for the resources I needed to grow. Vets in Tech was the only group doing this and I was first a participant, then a success story and I knew that I wanted to help grow the NYC group and provide these resources to other veterans.
As a leader of the NYC group, I constantly see amazing companies willing to support veterans in the tech sector, veteran-led startups and constantly see amazing veterans creating amazing companies — and relying on all the skills they gained in the military.
What is your goal for the next year? The next 5 years?
I am really focused on growing EP to a global company and a leader in socially conscious AI. AI that creates positive real world impact — globally.
I also want to give back more to my brothers and sisters and make sure that they have all the resources they need to properly transition to civilian life and are aware of how well positioned they are for tech careers — and not limited to something like law enforcement.
I also want to make sure that all companies know how valuable of a resource veterans are to companies. They are a business asset to any company and the great thing is many companies are now recognizing this.
My number one piece of advice for entrepreneurs is….
The number one thing I am asked is how did you know when it was time to make the jump to starting your own business. The answer is when it’s right, you will know. When you are consumed with all parts of your “idea” and can’t focus on anything else — jump feet first!
And make sure you use the strongest network on the planet — military veterans. They are always willing to help another vet.
Engine works to ensure that policymakers look for insight from the startup ecosystem when they are considering programs and legislation that affect entrepreneurs. Together, our voice is louder and more effective. Many of our lawmakers do not have first-hand experience with the country's thriving startup ecosystem, so it’s our job to amplify that perspective. To nominate a person, company, or organization to be featured in our #StartupsEverywhere series, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Give us your feedback here.