Upstairs at Union Kitchen — the food incubator in Northeast Washington — Sedrick Banks is learning how to make blueberry muffins.
Banks is a big guy, in his 40s, and pretty new to baking. So as he maneuvers from cutting board to mixing bowl to Kitchenaid, it's not clear how he feels about a reporter capturing his every move with a handheld recorder and microphone. But when asked if it's making him nervous, he responds without missing a beat.
“I don't get nervous,” he says. “You know what they say: if you're not getting shot at or mortared, how can you get nervous?”
See, Sedrick Banks is actually Sgt. Maj. Sedrick Banks. And as he’ll tell you, during his 20-plus years in the U.S. Army, he deployed numerous times, “from Desert Shield/Desert Storm all the way up to Iraq today. Kosovo, Bosnia. Only operation I haven't served in was Afghanistan.”
It was in his most recent Iraq deployment that an explosion left him with a damaged neck and back, as well as traumatic brain injury.
“I was in the hospital for quite a while, in and out over the last few years. And I got medically retired about a year and a half ago now,” he explains.
Launching pad for returning soldiers
Which brings us to today’s baking lesson. Banks is one of ten veterans in the inaugural class of Dog Tag, Inc. The new, D.C.-based nonprofit seeks to educate and train newly-transitioned veterans with disabilities to become entrepreneurs.
“Dog Tag just fell right in line with what my passion is,” says Banks. “Like my passion is motivational speaking. My passion is life [coaching], and overall helping people.”
So, how will baking muffins help Banks pursue those passions? Well, says Dog Tag Chief Operating Officer Meghan Ogilvie, it’s funny you should ask.
“Trying to convince a Marine to come into a program that’s about baking, that was a little bit of a tough sell. But then the bakery is obviously a vehicle, to show them how to run a small business,” she explains.
This fall, on Grace Street in Georgetown, Dog Tag will open Dog Tag Bakery, with Sedrick Banks and his colleagues comprising part of the staff, both front of house and back of house.
So the veterans — or “fellows” as they're called — will, yes, be whipping up muffins and cookies and cakes.
“We really want them to throw some flour around and get their hands in the dough,” says Ogilvie.
But they'll also be handling marketing, doing inventory, even assisting with management. That’s why Dog Tag Inc. has teamed with the Georgetown School of Continuing Studies (SCS) to help the fellows earn a Certificate of Business Administration.
“This is actually a certificate program that any civilian can take, but we've actually included three more classes: communication in the business field, business statistics, and we've added an entrepreneur class,” Ogilvie says.
Once the Grace Street facility is ready, it'll house all of Dog Tag’s entities: the bakery, of course, as well as classroom and office space. Veterans will spend their six-month paid fellowship staffing the bakery, taking classes, and working with Dog Tag staff on job placement.
“And that'll be a lot of interviewing, networking, along those lines, and making sure once they do graduate and leave our program that they already have their next step planned,” Ogilvie says. “Because veterans are the best employees. They know discipline. They know responsibility. And they deliver. There’s a mission. And so these are going to be viable candidates for employment.”
Eventually they'll be viable candidates for starting their own businesses. And that thrills Maurice Jones, another Dog Tag fellow at our muffin-making lesson. Jones served 22 years in the Army, specializing in IT/Telecommunications. His dream is to start his own IT consulting firm.
Changing attitudes about disabled veterans
Jones says it isn't just the training Dog Tag offers that will help him get there; it’s the overall attitude toward wounded veterans.
“They come in [and say] ‘Maurice, how are you doing? You doing anything? You had a great weekend?’ Stuff like that that shows that you care,” he explains. “They treat us like adults, [like] professionals. They don't look at our disability as a hindrance, or a disability at all! They're looking to provide us with the skills and the knowledge to progress and succeed in any endeavor we got going on.”
The way Sedrick Banks sees it, “it’s really looking at not the disability, but the ability.”
In other words, “let’s prove what you can do, not what you can’t do.”
And what they can do — both he and Maurice Jones agree — is continue to serve their community, long after they serve in uniform.
“How do you use the service that you put a veteran through to better our communities once you get back? Because we don’t stop being who we are once we take off the uniform,” Banks says. “We're still driven. We still got values. We still got goals. We still want to share, and we still want to serve."
And Dog Tag Inc. plans on helping them do that across the country. The company sees the bakery as a model for other businesses outside the region. So in California, we may one day see a Dog Tag Surf Shop; in New York, a Dog Tag Bagelry. All of them launching pads for returning soldiers to follow their own recipe for a brighter, and sweeter, future.