Articles

Army vet brothers create business to change the world one baby at a time


Jon Boggiano had a brilliant idea. He and his brother Chris, both West Point graduates, would go back to graduate school at Stanford University. The duo had just sold their successful job training business, and Jon thought they needed a new adventure.

Chris was adamantly opposed to the idea at first, but as with many things between the two brothers just a year apart in age, eventually he relented. And with just 12 days to spare before the Stanford business school application period closed, the two pounded out extensive essays, sourced letters of recommendation from former CO's, calculated costs, took the GMAT, told their wives their plan, and prepped for an interview with the admission folks. They got in.

That June, both families including three kids (one on the way) and one large dog packed up and headed west from Charlotte, North Carolina to campus housing in Stanford, California.

"The biggest transition was going from a 2,400 square foot house to an 850 square foot campus apartment with one bathroom," Jon said. "It was more like a cabin."

Almost immediately the two met Nicki Boyd, a British educated triathalete and fellow entrepreneur. The three would embark on the year-long Stanford MBA program together with a very clear goal in mind.

"The north star was to revolutionize education," said Chris. That was the summer of 2013. Today, the Boggiano brothers and Boyd have 11 employees on the rolls of their company, VersaMe. And they've launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds to manufacture their inaugural product, the Starling, the first educational wearable for babies and toddlers.

The wearable, a plastic orange star, tracks the number of words said to a child—the idea being that the more words said, the higher the child's IQ potential. The research is there and parents will no doubt embrace the concept that, by simply verbally engaging with a child, they can truly affect his or her vocabulary.

But the story of how these two former Army guys wound up creating a little orange wearable for babies goes back both to their days growing up in Jersey City, New Jersey with a police officer (and former Marine) for a father and their time in the military.

"Service to our country was definitely part of our upbringing," said Chris, who graduated from West Point in 2002 and later served in Kosovo. Then came a tough deployment to Iraq where he was a tank platoon leader with the 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry. "The Army got its money out of me during my time in Fallujah," said Chris.

Similarly, Jon deployed to Kosovo and Iraq. After witnessing firsthand the unintended consequences of the nation's dependence on foreign oil, the brothers returned home and transferred to the reserves to start a company that trained workers for careers in the green jobs sector.

During that time, it also became clear to both Jon and Chris that the education system was broken. Folks they were training had, for example, been employed for decades by a steel mill that then suddenly closed down.

"Some of them didn't have email addresses," Jon said. "Every academic opportunity had passed them by or failed them."

"We started looking into trying to fix this economic problem and it always came back to education," added Chris, who's also a father to two girls. "We realized that fixing the system meant having a massive impact much earlier in life."

And off to Stanford they went with an ambitious plan to "swing for the fences," as Jon put it. By March of 2014, the idea for a wearable was born and the three entrepreneurs decided to solicit funding, hire ambitious employees and scale up. And thanks to far too much time spent in unsavory parts of the world, the team had much-needed perspective about launching a startup.

"Having been to places like Iraq and Kosovo where people have literally nothing I quickly realized that the risk of failing at a startup isn't nearly as bad as what life could be like in a lot of places in this world," Chris said.

"It's really a great way to transition from military," Jon said. "You can change careers, change geography and have an adventure."

But the brothers also feel their company is much more than an adventure. "I really do think we are making the world a better place by doing what we are doing," Jon said.

Now: How an Army vet podcaster pulls in over $2 million by chatting with 'vetpreneurs' >

History

This pilot shot down an enemy fighter at Pearl Harbor in his pajamas

Comfort is important when doing a hard job. If it's hot on the work site, it's important to stay cool. If it's hazardous, proper protection needs to be worn. And comfort is apparently key when the Japanese sneak attack the Navy. Just ask Lt. Phil Rasmussen, who was one of four pilots who managed to get off the ground to fight the Japanese in the air.

Rasmussen, like many other American GIs in Hawaii that day, was still asleep when the Japanese launched the attack at 0755. The Army Air Forces 2nd Lieutenant was still groggy and in his pajamas when the attacking wave of enemy fighters swarmed Wheeler Field and destroyed many of the Army's aircraft on the ground.

Damaged aircraft on Hickam Field, Hawaii, after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

There were still a number of outdated Curtiss P-36A Hawk fighters that were relatively untouched by the attack. Lieutenant Rasmussen strapped on a .45 pistol and ran out to the flightline, still in his pajamas, determined to meet the sucker-punching Japanese onslaught.

By the time the attack ended, Wheeler and Hickam Fields were both devastated. Bellows Field also took a lot of damage, its living quarters, mess halls, and chapels strafed by Japanese Zeros. American troops threw back everything they could muster – from anti-aircraft guns to their sidearms. But Rasmussen and a handful of other daring American pilots managed to get in the air, ready to take the fight right back to Japan in the Hawks if they had to. They took off under fire, but were still airborne.

Pearl Harbor pilots Harry Brown, Phil Rasmussen, Ken Taylor, George Welch, and Lewis Sanders.

They made it as far as Kaneohe Bay.

The four brave pilots were led by radio to Kaneohe, where they engaged 11 enemy fighters in a vicious dogfight. Even in his obsolete old fighter, Rasmussen proved that technology is no match for good ol' martial skills and courage under fire. He managed to shoot down one of the 11, but was double-teamed by two attacking Zeros.

Gunfire and 20mm shells shattered his canopy, destroyed his radio, and took out his hydraulic lines and rudder cables. He was forced out of the fighting, escaping into nearby clouds and making his way back to Wheeler Field. When he landed, he did it without brakes, a rudder, or a tailwheel.

There were 500 bullet holes in the P-36A's fuselage.

Skillz.

Lieutenant Rasmussen earned the Silver Star for his boldness and would survive the war, getting his second kill in 1943. He retired from the U.S. Air Force in 1965, but will live on in the Museum of the United States Air Force, forever immortalized as he hops into an outdated aircraft in his pajamas.

(U.S. Air Force photo)

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