Shannon Varney, BSBA’05
Veterans Up and Running.
There’s just something so satisfying about overcoming a challenge. And it wasn’t any different for Shannon Varney (CGS ’03, SMG ‘05), founder of a nonprofit program called Veterans Up and Running.
Laid off from Goldman Sachs in the fall of 2008, Shannon was frustrated by his untimely unemployment and a difficult job search. But he found satisfaction in the structure of training for the Boston Marathon, which he’d run three times before. This time, though, he realized that the discipline of a distance running program could help others facing similar frustrations in their own lives.
“When you’ve never run 15 miles before, you spend the rest of the day feeling like you need a hip replacement. But the accomplishment of finishing what you started out to do is what keeps you coming back. It keeps you motivated to fight through the pain you meet along the way,” says Shannon.
The idea of starting a nonprofit for veterans based on this feeling of accomplishment wasn’t at all like the investment management he learned from Professor Scott Stewart during his undergraduate days at Boston University, or the financial analysis he did at Goldman Sachs, though Varney credits both for preparing him for his new venture.
“At Goldman Sachs I had two mentors who were both Naval Academy grads who went on to become officers in the Marines. Through them I became enamored of the military culture. Although I had never served, I really admired the type of people they were. They inspired me to become serious about creating a running program for a population in need.”
From the beginning, it was homeless veterans Varney focused on.
“From my initial dealings with the homeless veteran community, it soon became apparent that a lot of these guys are going through the most difficult time of their lives, often turning to drugs and alcohol to deal with issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, and eventually ending up homeless. But they’re still proud of serving their country and associate their time in the military with better times when they were good teammates and good leaders. At Veterans Up and Running, we try to reintroduce the same level of structure and discipline that was part of their military experience. By providing this type of environment and adding positive reinforcement, we work to help homeless Veterans successfully reintegrate back into their civilian lives.”
For that reason, Shannon’s running program mirrors veterans’ experience with basic training. It helps them become healthier both physically and mentally by getting them active and building their self-esteem. But Shannon doesn’t just teach; he leads by example as well. He trains with the veterans three times a week and runs competitive road races right alongside them.
The homeless veterans who choose to join Shannon’s program also earn the chance to earn scholarships from the organization. In the first stage of the program, participants are asked to train for a minimum of two months and show up for training at least 85% of the time. At that point, they are asked to identify a specific race to run. Once they’ve finished, they become eligible for grants and scholarships for vocational training and professional certificate programs.
One major success story since the organization’s founding in March 2008 is AJ Jenkins. A 50-year-old homeless veteran, Jenkins participated in the group’s first race event this past summer. He received a medal at the finish line and was excited to tell his kids he was featured on the front page of Spare Change magazine. Recently, Jenkins, a team leader in Veterans Up and Running, accepted a job offer he found through the organization and is on the road to independence.
As far as his business model goes, Shannon purposely doesn’t provide shelter or food to the veterans he serves. Veterans Up and Running focuses on motivating veterans who live in shelters to improve their situations and helps them build up the confidence to do so. It also encourages them to take responsibility for their decisions while also acknowledging that they can change.
“I break my job into two parts. The first part is the business side, including capitalizing the organization, setting up sponsors and donors, and managing the volunteer personnel. The second part is managing the core programming, which the guys are ultimately participating in, such as building the principles of what the program is going to be about, keeping people engaged, and teaching some things along the way.”
Veterans Up and Running has come a long way in a short amount of time. Having made the organization his full-time job, Shannon hopes to expand the program, and already has interest from similar groups around the country for partnerships or mergers.
“In the future, I want to leverage the experience I’ve gained here and use it to start something else, whatever that may be,” says Shannon.
By Alissa Mariello
Featured in Builders & Leaders Fall 2009