Doing Good: Frago is 'changing the mission' for veteran services

Non-profit startup Frago offers a uniquely proactive approach to helping U.S. military veterans transition into civilian life. Frago's services engage veterans in the first years following their return, because founder and Air Force veteran Jerome Hardaway knows early intervention means a much higher rate of success.
 




 

 
"Frago was created to put veterans first. All of us here are veterans," says U.S. Air Force veteran Jerome Hardaway, Co-founder and CEO of the new non-profit startup Frago. "We've been deployed, we've walked that walk."

Hardaway served on the front lines in Iraq and was injured in combat in 2007. This experience gives him an obvious advantage in assisting veterans, because he understands his audience. "We know what veterans want, and what they don't want is for someone to wait until they're on their last legs before someone decides that they are important enough to be given the service that they fought for. That's what Frago is about."
 
Frago is a military term for "fragmentary order," or a change in the mission plan when on combat detail.
 
"The story of Frago is the way that all Fragos are--a response to something in the environment," Hardaway says.
 
The non-profit got its start after young Army veteran Justin Davis, who suffered from PTSD, was shot in July by a member of the Germantown Police Department during an incident at Cameron-Brown Park in Germantown. Davis' family could not afford to bury his body, and the Veterans Affairs Medical Center would not cover the costs. Hardaway felt compelled to act.
 
"I've always been into web development and social media. I've always been a big geek when it comes to computers. So I put together a social media campaign and a GoFundMe account, talked to the Davis family and got their permission, got the story out, and in a little more than 27 hours later we raised $10,000," says Hardaway.
 
Half of the money covered Davis' burial costs, and the other half went into an educational fund for his now two-year-old daughter.
 
Hardaway initially got involved with local start-up accelerator StartCo. in May, joining the "LaunchU" program to develop an idea for a design company, but after the experience with Davis, four weeks into the program Hardaway changed his startup concept.
 
"Jerome embodies the type of entrepreneur we look to work with because he first and foremost abided by our initial mantra of doing customer discovery and by talking very specifically with customers around the problem, his solution, price points and going to market; those customers will dictate the direction of your business," says Andre Fowlkes, President of StartCo. "It does not stop just there but with the entrepreneur listening to his customers and changing his concept accordingly and letting go of some of that pride. This is what he did and how Frago took shape."
 
Hardaway formed the non-profit with veteran Lex Brown, Frago Chief Operations Officer, who handled tactical communications while servicing in the U.S. Air Force, and Adrian Friday, Frago Chief Financial Officer, who handled explosive ordinace disposal while serving with the U.S. Navy (and who was also injured in the line of duty).

For the team, keeping a fun and positive attitude is vital when dealing with the serious nature of assisting military veterans in transition. One Frago team member describes himself as the biggest comic book nerd this side of the Mississippi, while another loves beatbox dancing a la the 1980s. But when it comes to carrying out their mission, it is "service before self" all the way.
 
"Frago is creating opportunity from where many see liability, and this is important because it is entrepreneurs who are embracing and creating innovations to solve major problems and not use Band-Aid solutions. It is this risk taking that Memphis needs more of," says Fowlkes. "The next step is about execution and acting on the things we discussed in the program; Frago is well underway in terms of building momentum into onboarding veterans, securing resources, solidifying his technology and planning programming. They are now bottling these aspects of their business to make sure they deliver in a way that makes Frago successful."
 
For its job placement services, the Frago team considered several professions, and programming and IT emerged as focal points.

"For me, I wanted to do the exact opposite things from what I did in the military," says Hardaway, who as a U.S. Air Force Phoenix Raven was involved in urban and domestic warfare as a security officer and always carried a gun. "I wanted to get as far away from being in fire fights as possible, so I chose web development."
 
"Right now in our country, from a programming standpoint we are in a crisis mode. There are many jobs in the programming and tech industry and not enough people to do them," he says. "We have places like StartCo. and Emerge Memphis that are focusing on digital start-ups, but we do not have the resources of programmers and developers in the local area."
 
Hardaway cites third-party studies suggesting that if services honed in on the first 24 to 48 months of a veteran's transition from military to civilian life, issues like substance abuse, homelessness, chronic homelessness, underemployment, unemployment and combat stress could be reduced by up to 85 percent.
 
The unique approach to veterans services will be taking place in an appropriately unique location. Frago's new home is Ashlar Hall, the infamous former home of Prince Mongo. Hardaway and his team are working hard to transform the three-story mansion into a local resource center, offering classes like developer bootcamps in order to prep veterans for a digital economy.

They have their work cut out for them--the long-vacant, historic property at 1397 Central Avenue has been in disrepair. Much like the veterans it will soon house, the former condemned nightclub is now undergoing a rehab for a new purpose. Hardaway is excited to bring actual change to Ashlar Hall.

Next up, Frago will hold a suit drive between 5 and 7 p.m. on September 11 at its new home; they encourage people to bring gently used business attire that will be altered to fit veterans and be used for their first suits for interviews when they are discharged.
 
Frago will also be honored with the "New Kid on the Block" Award at the inaugural Masquerade Charity Ball on Halloween Night at the Pink Palace Mansion. Other honorees at the event presented by Phillip Ashley Chocolates will be Church Health Center, Girls Inc. and MIFA.
 
One week after the Halloween event, on November 7, Frago will host the first-ever Mid-South Veterans Ball at the Ashler Hall castle, and in early November the company will unveil a new mobile app that will help veterans find resources in their community. Phase one of that project will cover the entire Southeast region.
 
"We want to be the first proactive approach to helping veterans," Hardaway says. "We want to find a way to help veterans get the jobs they need and want while also helping our country with those hard-to-fill, highly skill-based jobs that don’t technically require a degree. Employers need people that have the discipline to acquire those skills and acquire them quickly. In my experience, a veteran is the perfect candidate for that type of job."

Read more articles by Michael Waddell.

Michael Waddell is a native Memphian who returned to Memphis several years ago after working for nearly a decade in San Diego and St. Petersburg, Fla., as a writer, editor and graphic designer. His work over the past few years has been featured in The Memphis Daily News, Memphis Bioworks Magazine, Memphis Crossroads, the New York Daily News and the New York Post. Contact Michael.
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