Local startup honors and supports veterans

By Anna Lardinois, Startup Storyteller

For many, Memorial Day signifies the un-official start of summer. The long weekend is celebrated with parades, cookouts, and ice cream cones. But the holiday has much greater significance. Established in 1868, the holiday, originally known as Decoration Day, was designated as a time to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers.

Veteran, existing U.S. Army reserve officer, and Senior Vice President of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce (MMAC) Dale Kooyenga, wants Americans to remember the true reason for the holiday.

To raise awareness of the true meaning of Memorial Day, Kooyenga and Craig Du Mez, who had a 30-year career in the printing industry, created a line of collectible picture cards honoring soldiers who died while in military service. The cards, manufactured in Waukesha, depict fallen veterans from every military branch from the Revolutionary War to the modern era.

Once the plan was in place, the pair launched Hero Cards in 2022. The company designs, prints, and distributes the veteran cards from their Waukesha headquarters. Hero Cards operates on a subscription model, allowing customers to choose between monthly and annual card subscriptions. Both options offer a monthly shipment of 12 unique Hero Cards.

“You have real heroes who paid a very high price for your freedom, and it’s important, I think, that not only kids, but adults, know who those people are and what they did,” Du Mez said. “This is very much a passion project. Many Americans don’t even know the names of those who gave so much. That’s a problem we’re trying to fix. We’re not in this for profits.”

The company raised a $250,000 angel investment within months of its launch. The revenue-generating startup plans to scale the business by investing in marketing and hiring a sales staff. Du Mez sees opportunities to increase sales by expanding the connections with military museums, veterans’ groups, schools, and history enthusiasts.

Part of the company’s growth plan includes a program, the Grateful Nation Project, designed to bring the cards into classrooms around the country. Du Mez reports the Elmbrook School District has incorporated the Grateful Nation Project into its curriculum, with a number of other Waukesha County school districts expressing interest in the program. Nationally, Tennessee’s Knoxville school district is using the program, and the Hero Cards team is in talks with several East Coast school districts. The company offers sponsorship programs for schools unable to afford the program cost of one dollar per student.

The Certified B Corporation is dedicated to supporting organizations that support veterans.

“We decided early on not to be a nonprofit, at least to start with, because we don’t want to compete with other veteran-focused nonprofits,” explained Du Mez. “There are already so many wonderful nonprofits for veterans out there, and we didn’t want to spend a lot of our time fundraising. We’d rather focus on researching, developing, and telling these heroes’ stories.”

To honor this commitment to veterans, Hero Cards donates a portion of its profits to several nonprofit veteran organizations including the Tunnel to Tower Foundation, Stars and Stripes Honor Flights, and Folds of Honor. The company has also pledged to make hiring veterans a priority and set a goal of having at least 50% of its staff military veterans.

Hero Cards accepts recommendations for fallen veterans to be featured in future card releases. To learn more about this emerging business, connect with Hero Cards here

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