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Training Program Aims to Turn Veterans into Entrepreneurs

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veteran fitted for a suit

A veteran entrepreneurial boot camp aims to transition troops from the battlefield to the business world. This program was started at Syracuse University to help veterans with disabilities and the model has spread to seven other schools. It prepares veterans to jumpstart their business ventures with knowledge about what can help get a fledgling enterprise off the ground: loans from the Small Business Administration, local government contracts receiving priority based on veteran status, and building connections within the business community.

Detroit Free Press – As a truck driver for the U.S. military in wartime Iraq, Ed Young racked up 7,000 miles, facing a constant threat of attack that left him struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts.

Four years later, he is driving long hauls again, but now in the U.S. as one of a growing number of veterans who have become entrepreneurs.

“We think this is an opportunity where we’re going to have a lot of veterans who have the right skills to be entrepreneurs. We can help prepare them for the opportunities.”
The Navy veteran who saw his postwar life spiraling out of control said that his Connecticut-based car transportation business has helped to put him on the road to recovery.

Young received training to run his enterprise through a program for disabled veterans at the University of Connecticut, one of many efforts emerging nationwide to help returning service members start small businesses.

“The biggest thing I got out of it was, no matter what, don’t give up on your idea,” said Young, 26. “Basically, it’s like in the military. Just accomplish the mission. That is your job: to accomplish your mission, no matter what.”

Right skills, attitude

More than 200,000 people are discharged from the U.S. military each year. Advocates said they often possess qualities that make good entrepreneurs: resourcefulness, a taste for risk-taking and a can-do attitude.

Nonprofit groups, state governments and U.S. agencies are all providing business training aimed at giving them new purpose and easing their transition to civilian life.

Veterans are well-represented in the entrepreneurial ranks. Nearly one in 10 small businesses are veteran-owned, and retired service members are at least 45% more likely than those without active-duty military experience to be self-employed, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

As troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, some see an opportunity not only to help them find work, but for veteran entrepreneurs to provide a jolt to the U.S. economy.

“We think this is an opportunity where we’re going to have a lot of veterans who have the right skills to be entrepreneurs,” said Rhett Jeppson, associate administrator for veterans’ business development at the SBA. “We can help prepare them for the opportunities.”

Unlike GIs who played a famed role in growing the U.S. economy after World War II, however, this generation is returning to the worst economic slump since the depression.

Young, who graduated last year from the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities at UConn, had to apply to 10 banks before landing a $24,000 loan to buy a truck and start his business, Black Knight Services.

After completing more than $75,000 in sales in the first six months of the year, he said he is looking to buy more trucks, but for now, he still operates out of his apartment in Milford, Conn., when not on the road.

“It has its ups and downs, but I love it 100%,” he said. “Unfortunately, I really can’t stand people that much. At least I’m just by myself and with my thoughts.”

It’s been a dramatic turnaround for Young, who began drinking heavily after returning from Iraq in 2009. He hit bottom when he was arrested in 2010 for threatening to hurt his two young children. It was during his jail time and his treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder that Young, who had developed a taste for entrepreneurship as a DJ in middle school, began to develop ideas for his own business.

Identity outside service

Michael Zacchea, the executive director of the Connecticut boot camp, said businesses that start during difficult financial times are more likely to succeed in the long run. Regardless of the veterans’ career ambitions, Zacchea said, the program also aims to teach veterans to take charge of their civilian careers.

“It might be as simple as somebody starting a mom and pop shop,” he said. “It’s economic, but it’s also about social identity reconstruction. ‘I used to be a warrior; now I’m an entrepreneur and I can feed myself.’ ”

The boot camp program, funded with assistance from donors and foundations, began at Syracuse University in 2007 and has spread to seven other schools. The students selected from around the country receive 10 days of intensive training and, for the future, a network of close advisers.

The SBA, which supported loans worth more than $1.5 billion to veteran business owners last year, is beginning to take training to military bases.

Veteran-owned businesses can receive priority for some federal contracts, and local governments are developing programs of their own to promote entrepreneurship.

Source: Detroit Free Press, October 17, 2012, by Michael Melia (Associated Press)

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