Dog Tag Bakery is justly renowned for its butterscotch blondies and buttery cinnamon buns. But the Washington, D.C., shop has a mission that goes far beyond turning out stellar baked goods. In partnership with nearby Georgetown University, Dog Tag runs a nonprofit fellowship program that operates as a living business school for post-9/11 veterans with service-connected disabilities, as well as for military spouses and caregivers.
Twice a year, between 14 and 16 fellows go through the five-month program, which combines academics and hands-on small business experience. Fellows take seven courses that cover business basics, including finance, strategy, marketing, management and communications. Those courses are taught by Georgetown faculty in a classroom above the bakery. Meanwhile, on the floor of the bakery itself, fellows learn a wide range of practical skills, like how to decorate a cake, interact with customers, and manage a budget. For their capstone project, fellows are required to create and present a fully-vetted business plan, complete with operations, marketing, logistics, and financial projections, to help solidify the value of an entrepreneurial mindset.
Wellness is a cornerstone of the fellowships with daily workshops in mindfulness, journaling, nutrition and yoga. And, to relieve financial barriers to participating in the program, fellows receive a $1,400 monthly stipend, as well as a laptop for use during the program.
Claire Witko. Photo by Richie Downs Photography.
Claire Witko, Dog Tag's director of programs, says the fellowship is designed to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset. "That includes," she says, "understanding that failure is an unavoidable part of forging a successful path forward, and that learning how to rebound and find creative solutions to challenges are essential skills."
The aim of the program, however, isn't to groom the next Elon Musk or Oprah Winfrey.
"We don't define success," Witko said. "Our fellows discover their own definition of success. It's about finding purpose and voice."
Fellows who complete the program earn a Certificate of Business Administration from Georgetown. Many find themselves transformed.
"Alumni often emerge completely different people," Witko said. "They have new confidence; they know what they want and how to pursue it."
That was certainly the case for Adela Wilson, a 2019 Dog Tag fellow. The wife of an Air Force veteran who was medically retired in 2007, the 51-year-old mother of three sons had resettled her family in several cities in the Middle East and Europe during her husband's 15-year military career. In each new city, she'd forged a career for herself in sales. But back home in Virginia, acting as her husband's full-time caretaker, she felt she'd lost her sense of identity and, she says, her "edge."
"Getting accepted into the fellowship was lifechanging," Wilson said. "The program is like drinking through a firehose. It's so intense and fast-paced."
She loved every minute of it, from the improv workshops and a visit to Capitol Hill where the Dog Tag fellows had meetings with Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina and Senator Mark Warner of Indiana, to "living labs" where executives from corporations like Boeing, Nestle and Capital One mentor fellows on soft skills like delivering an elevator pitch or understanding your personality style.
Today, Wilson works as a career transitions specialist at the Wounded Warrior Project, helping veterans overcome barriers to employment.
"I feel like I'm really making a difference and I absolutely love my job," she said.
A favorite word at Dog Tag, Wilson says, is "pivot"— fellows are encouraged to be flexible and open to new goals as their circumstances and passions change. When COVID-19 struck, the organization had to do some pivoting of its own, taking the fellowship classes and workshops virtual.
"We've learned how to bring the experience of being in the kitchen to Zoom," Witko said. "The fall fellowship will be completely virtual and we're beginning to explore hybrid models — a combination of in-person and remote elements — for the post-COVID world."
Meanwhile, the bakery itself has reopened for business. Featured on the menu is a specialty created by some recent fellows as their capstone project: freshly baked bread pudding topped with homemade caramel and a drizzle of chocolate. Success, as the saying goes, is sweet.
For more information on Dog Tag Inc., including how to apply for the fellowship program, visit https://www.dogtaginc.org/fellowship.
By the numbers
Since it began its fellowship program in 2014, Dog Tag Inc. has enrolled 148 Fellows across 12 cohorts, or classes. Here's a look at who these fellows are:
Age (at time of enrollment)
53 and older: 5%