While studying at the College of William & Mary, Sam Pressler learned about the post-traumatic stress disorder war veterans were facing as they reintegrated into civilian life.
So in 2015, he started Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) to help them re-enter and thrive in their communities. ASAP, based out of Washington DC and Hampton Roads, VA gives veterans a voice by doing something completely unconventional… By offering them free classes and workshops in stand-up comedy, improv, storytelling, and creative writing.
But the entrepreneurial journey for Sam Pressler was no joke. He bootstrapped with just two other employees—and during the same week, they both quit. “That was rock bottom for us. I thought we were going to implode,” he said. “How the heck am I going to do this?” he asked himself. Yet instead of quitting, Sam kept pushing forward. “Time stopped and I immediately went into survival mode."
He asked himself one question, "What is the first step to take to get out of this?” and then created an insane schedule for himself—4:30 am workouts at the gym and 6-10 am focused solo time at the desk. “I ruthlessly prioritized my time, segmenting every minute of my day,” he said. Sam's hard work paid off and ASAP was asked to organize a show at the White House. "It was surreal," he said.
Since 2015, more than 450 students have taken classes, and there have been over 700 performances in front of an estimated 40,000 audience members.
Sam is an Echoing Green Fellow and was recently named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 List for Social Entrepreneurship.Sam Pressler Reading List
Sam Pressler studied political science at the College of William & Mary
Back in high school, Sam lost a close family member to suicide
Humor and laughter are universal languages that can connect us
Growing up, Sam’s passions were service and comedy
Sam read Jerry Seinfeld’s biography
Sam’s father went to the same gym as Tina Fey. Tina Fey agreed to have an hour-long lunch with Sam!
20 military veterans commit suicide each day in the US
Suicide rates in the US are rising
Older veterans are seeing the higher rates of suicides
Less than 1% of the population has served in combat, so veterans have very few people who understand them when they return home
Veterans can face identity issues when returning to civilian life
Identity and purpose are important
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger
The military gives soldiers a strong sense of community. When they go home, they are abruptly stripped of this community and social bonds.
Social clubs and community groups are on the decline
At William & Mary, Sam started a writing group and comedy club for 65 veterans from Williamsburg
Sam got help from George Srour and Cosmo Fujiyama (my sister) and received a prestigious Echoing Green grant.
For Sam, the very first comedy boot camp workshop was terrifying
Seven veterans showed up to the first boot camp
Two of those original participants now hold positions for Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP)
Many participants become best friends and even invite each other to their evenings
Sam doggedly reached out to veteran service organizations, veteran clinics, student veterans, local military bases, etc. to find participants
The very first performance was held at William & Mary
World War II veteran Joe Bruni read a poem about a friend who was killed at the Battle of Iwo Jima. He expressed survival guilt in the poem.
One participant shared his story of being homeless as a veteran and then eventually going to college
The stories are full of tragedy, triumph, and humor
Sam moved to Washington DC upon graduation
Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) is not an art therapy program, though some of their art programs can be therapeutic
“Don’t ever say I, say we.”
Hundreds of people are behind Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP)
“A village of people were supporting us. Teachers, administrators, students.”
Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) has three staff members and 30 instructors
Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) generate funds from ticket sales from their performances, corporate sponsorships of their shows, fundraising performances at conferences, grants, private donations
Standup comedy generates the most revenue for Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP). Improv shows are mostly given for free
They can reinvest the revenue generated to expanding their programs
In October 2016 Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) carried out the first ever veteran’s comedy show at the White House
“It was surreal.”
People are interested in the comedic process and behind-the-scenes knowledge
Sam’s family was at the crowd in the White House, along with family members of the participants
Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) was overextended during the first months.
One week, his only other employee suddenly and the volunteer CFO quit. Simultaneously, a good friend became suicidal. Deadlines were missed.
He saw immense operational difficulties of the startup phase
“That was rock bottom for us. I thought we were going to implode.”
“How the heck am I going to do this?”
“Time stopped and I immediately went into survival mode. What is the first step to take to get out of this?”
He felt the imposter syndrome
The difficulty forced Sam Pressler to think more deeply about his work and his deficiencies
“It was terrifying and very difficult.”
“I ruthlessly prioritized my time, segmenting every minute of my day.”
“It taught me to rely on other people.”
The co-founder, Ryan, volunteered for three months to help Sam rebuild
Identifying the right people at the right time is the key
“It’s about building the personal and organizational resilience.”
Many veterans didn’t commit suicide because of Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP)
“The shiny end-state that you see with the awards and all, those are just snapshots in time and things can change very quickly.”
Sam Pressler still has a flip phone!
He listens to NPR and complains about the weather like an old man, lol
Quarterly and monthly meetings to set the north star with staff are key
He uses a composition notebook to write down his priorities and tasks
Sam Pressler “calendarizes” his time around his peak periods
Sam Pressler wakes up at 4:30 am every day and works out
6am-10am is quiet work time for Sam where he does uninterrupted work.
Sam does meetings during the day when he is a bit more tired
Sam gets 7 hours of sleep, going to bed around 9:30 pm every night
Sam reflected on the question, “What is your life task?” upon reading Mastery by Robert Greene
Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) is now working with the Veterans Affairs office
Joe Bruni was one of the first participants and joined near the 70th anniversary of Iwo Jima. He was 92 at the time. He wanted to simply survive until the anniversary.
Joe Bruni wrote “Ode to Joe” about his friend Joe Esposito who fought alongside him
CNN sent a film crew to cover the ceremony that Armed Services Arts Partnership (ASAP) organized to honor Joe Bruni. The segment was released on Memorial Day, 2015
Joe Esposito’s nephew saw the segment and called Sam.
Joe did another reading of Ode to Joe in Norfolk. Sam didn’t tell Joe that Joe Esposito’s family was going to be there.
The family left a scrapbook with letters and photos from Joe and Joe. Joe Bruni realized that he had written some of those letters 70 years prior. He started crying. Everyone started crying. “They’re here?”
Joe Esposito’s nephew gives Joe Bruni a huge hug and they start talking.
“If nothing else happens through our programs, that alone was worth it.”