Vets Get Boost at Entrepreneur Boot Camp

CHICAGO ( TheStreet) -- While Veterans Day is a time to honor those who served in the military, it also reminds us of all what still needs to be done for our youngest service members. In most parts of the country, those who were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan are facing the same dismal employment prospects as everyone else, even while dealing with the added physical and psychological challenges of a disability.

A stint in the military can teach leadership and hone decision-making skills, all benefits for future business owners. But it's not easy to make the shift from a military unit to life as an independent entrepreneur, especially while adjusting to life with a disability.
The Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University in New York originated the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities.

Luckily, wounded veterans who dream of being self-sufficient by running their own company have a powerful resource at their disposal. This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities, a program run by a consortium of universities that brings former service men and women together with entrepreneurship faculty. A combination of business-school course and motivational seminar, it offers disabled vets encouragement and concrete, real-world skills and mentoring.

The EBV model was developed by Mike Haynie, a former Air Force officer and professor of entrepreneurship at the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University. It has expanded to include UCLA, Florida State, Texas A&M, Purdue, the University of Connecticut, Louisiana State and Cornell.

Once vets are accepted into the program, they follow a self-study curriculum for a few months, developing their business concepts and interacting online. That planning stage is followed by a by a nine-day residency of workshops and classes at one of the university campuses, usually the one closest to the vet's home. Afterward, faculty and business mentors follow graduates' progress and provide support as necessary.

"The program started out very small, with Mike and one student," says Tina Kapral, director of education programs at Syracuse's Institute for Veterans and Military Families. "At first, the biggest challenge was getting the word out in the military community. It took time to get in front of the right people. Now most of our marketing comes from word of mouth, and the numbers speak for themselves."

Here are a few of those numbers: To date, the boot camps have graduated 500 students, and 65% are running their own businesses. Another 11% are gaining experience by working in the industry in which they'd eventually like to start a company, while many others have gone back to school to earn a degree.

Two factors have been crucial to the success of the EBV model. First, it combines practical, actionable training with long-term mentoring. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly for participants, it is completely free, with travel expenses, lodging and meals included.

At a recent conference for EBV graduates, the most-requested topic for further training was human resources, an indication that many companies started through the boot camps have grown beyond one-person shops. The gathering also gave graduates a chance to compare notes with others who have faced the same challenges.

"The networking was such an important piece of the conference," Kapral says. "In the military, everyone works as part of a team. They wanted that time, whether it was over dinner or during breaks, to have those conversations with their peers."

A family version of the boot camp was developed recently to help others affected by a military injury, such as caregivers of wounded warriors and spouses of soldiers who died while serving. But the program hasn't been rolled out to all the participating universities, mostly because there isn't sufficient funding. Ideally, more money would allow the boot camp model to expand to even more campuses across the country.

It's all well and good to thank veterans for their service, but there are more concrete ways to show gratitude. A donation to the EBV Foundation helps assure that wounded service members get a chance at the American entrepreneurial dream. Small-business owners can also sign up as mentors for bootcamp graduates. To find out more, visit the EBV Foundation Web site.

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