Entrepreneurship Bootcamp Gives Wounded Veterans a New Life
On Veterans Day in 2004, Maj. Michael Zacchea nearly died. While fighting with his unit in the streets of Fallujah, one of Iraq's deadliest combat zones, he was caught in the blast of a rocket-propelled grenade. He was bleeding, and there was shrapnel in his shoulder. Chips of cement hit him in the face as a sniper's bullets struck nearby.
"They'd try to get one Marine down in an open area and try to lure the other Marines to come get him, and [then] pick them off," Zacchea says. "I was the bait in the trap." Ultimately, two other Marines pulled Zacchea out of the line of fire. He refused to be evacuated for medical treatment, which would have meant leaving his men. For his valor, he received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.
Nearly a decade later, what stands out to him isn't the harrowing brush with death but the way it changed his life. After retiring from the Marine Corps, Zacchea hoped to work for veterans organizations. In 2009, he learned about an innovative program called the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans With Disabilities while enrolled in the master's of business administration program at the University of Connecticut. The program had started at Syracuse University two years earlier, and Zacchea saw an opportunity at UConn to foster entrepreneurship among veterans. "We'll be the New England center for this," he says he decided. "We'll develop veteran-owned businesses here."
Today, the 44-year-old Zacchea is the founding director of the EBV program at UConn. Over the past three years, he has led more than 60 disabled veterans through a curriculum designed to offer a path to entrepreneurship and a purpose beyond the armed forces. "When somebody's down, we're obligated to help pick them up," Zacchea says, "because in the real world, there's no mercy, really."
Between 2.5 and 3 million U.S. soldiers have served in active duty since the military ramped up its forces following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As many as 30 percent of them, according to the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, will leave the service with an enduring physical or mental injury, making it difficult to find and hold traditional jobs. "This generation of military veterans and service members [is] transitioning to civilian life with disabilities at a rate that was unprecedented in history," says Mike Haynie, a retired Air Force officer who joined the Syracuse University faculty in 2006 and started the EBV's first chapter there the following year. What's more, veterans say the private sector often doesn't understand how their skills can translate in the marketplace.
Two months into his new job, Haynie approached Melvin Stith, a Vietnam War veteran who was then dean of Syracuse's Martin J. Whitman School of Management, with the idea for an entrepreneur bootcamp for veterans. "That was a two-minute conversation," Haynie says. "[Stith] said, 'Go figure out how to do it.'" From the beginning, the 42-year-old Haynie was clear that EBV would be a social venture, not a profit-making enterprise for Syracuse. Stith says the initial funding came from Whitman alumni who believed in the program, just as he did. The EBV has since expanded to UConn and six other schools: Florida State University, Louisiana State University, Texas A&M University, Cornell University, Purdue University and the University of California, Los Angeles.
The program is divided into three phases. The first is a 30-day self-study course designed to get everyone up to speed on the basics of running a business. The second is an intense 10-day boot camp in which the veterans live in hotels near campus and meet every day for classes on subjects such as business-plan writing and human-resource management. The boot camp culminates with a business plan pitch competition. The third is a 12-month mentorship period, when the graduates build their businesses and receive guidance from EBV professors and a local network of professionals. They also get help with market research and writing.
Professors at the host universities volunteer their teaching time. The bootcamp is incorporated as a 501(c)(3), and veterans' expenses, such as room and board and transportation, are funded by charities, individual donors and businesses. The cost of running the program is about $5,500 per student, according to Tina Kapral, director of education programs for the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, an educational and reseach center at Syracuse. Costs at some schools, such as UCLA, run higher. "We ask schools not to accept more than 30 students, because we like to keep it more intimate, with a lot of one-on-one time," Kapral says. Each school must enroll at least 25 veterans in each class.
For many veterans, the EBV can be a bridge between the camaraderie of the military and the loneliness that often comes with striking out on one's own. The program is also appealing, Haynie says, because it offers a "safe space" for the veterans, where they don't feel any stigma from having been in combat or being disabled. Some wouldn't have even considered attending if they hadn't known they would be learning alongside other disabled veterans, he says.
Renee Coleman, a 2011 UConn EBV graduate, says she needed that safe space after returning from an 18-month stint in Baghdad. From 2009 to 2010, she was the operations officer for the School of the Advisor, a training ground for U.S. personnel whose mission was to guide the new Iraqi government. "I was afraid to go to sleep every day because you would hear the bombs going off," she says. "You'd wake up in the middle of the night and have to put on your gear. Always on edge. Your heart always racing."
She began to have migraines nearly every day. When chronic plantar fasciitis and tendonitis developed in her feet, she was airlifted out of Iraq and began a 12-month physical rehabilitation program at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Ga., where she lives now. She was also treated for depression.
Despite her condition, Coleman, now 44, was determined to start her own business and applied to the EBV. During the end-of-year pitch competition at UConn, she won a $1,500 award and promptly founded Diverse IT LLC to provide diversity training and bullying-prevention curricula to K–12 schools. The Richmond County school district, which covers Augusta, has signed on to offer Coleman's curriculum next October. Within three to five years, Coleman says she hopes to be able to quit her job as a health-services counselor for the Army and devote herself fully to Diverse IT.
But the EBV program meant more to her than a new career path. She recalls how she had to return to the States alone without her unit, and how this early arrival, combined with her rehab, meant that she missed out on the traditional homecoming enjoyed by returning soldiers. "Graduation from the EBV was my welcome home," she says. "And I felt that I was able to go out and accomplish what they had invested in me to do."
So have many of her classmates. Of the 63 veterans who have gone through the UConn program so far, 45 have started businesses, Zacchea says. Even though 26 of them -- the class of 2012 -- are still in phase three of the program, 15 already have launched startups. Nationally, 718 veterans have gone through the program so far, with about 215 more set to join the class of 2013.
Joe Nuñez, a former Marine who served as the information systems management chief for the Marine Corps Institute in Washington, D.C., used both his IT background and his experience managing industrial laundries to start an online laundry business in San Antonio, Texas. Nuñez, 31, had entered the EBV program unsure of his ability to run a business, but his laundry venture was up and running soon after he graduated with UConn's inaugural EBV class in 2010. "I left there, and three weeks later I was incorporated, two months later I was accepting sales," he says. The Laundry Butlers, launched online in January 2011, providing pickup, cleaning and delivery for wash-and-fold laundry. Customers could schedule pickup times and track orders on the website.
For two years, Nuñez operated The Laundry Butlers out of his garage, which he turned into a makeshift laundromat with three washers and three dryers. Because he couldn't get a bank loan, he and his wife "were doing hundreds of pounds of laundry a week just by ourselves," he says. "The No. 1 challenge since the day we opened our doors has been access to capital. At the end of our first year, I was contemplating shutting down the business because we weren't growing."
But then, in September 2012, a friend lent the couple money to buy a laundromat that could be used both for the online wash-and-fold service and by walk-in customers who do their own wash. And last month, with a microloan from Accion, a nonprofit microfinance organization that works with entrepreneurs around the world, Nuñez bought a drycleaner to expand his wash-and-fold service and add another dependable source of revenue.
With his business diversification, he estimates revenue will reach $250,000 this year, up from $70,000 in 2012. What he has learned, he says, is that "a startup is not a sprint, it's a marathon. I was looking for results too soon."
Nuñez was the only MBA holder in UConn's inaugural class, but as the job market remains challenging, EBV applicants are now "skewing older and much more advanced [in] education," Zacchea says. The number of female applicants is also on the rise. In 2012, there were nine women in the UConn EBV class, up from five in the second year and only one in 2010.
Another alumnus with an advanced degree is David Willson, a lawyer who specializes in cybersecurity. A 2011 UConn EBV graduate, he used his 20 years as a judge advocate in the Army to launch a one-man law firm, Titan Info Security Group, which provides legal cyberconsulting and risk-assessment services. He was ramping up Titan while he was in the EBV program, so he was able to immediately apply everything he learned, he says.
Willson, 49, says the EBV taught him how to articulate his business concept, create an operating plan and market his services. But the greatest benefit, he says, "was to see other people in a similar situation, and the struggles that everybody was going through, and the questions that everybody had. Once you spend so much time in the military, you always feel more comfortable to go back to that kind of [peer-group] scenario."
While generally quite positive about EBV, alumni see room for improvement. Some suggested that 10 days may be too little time to digest everything during the residency period, and Coleman notes that the 12-month mentorship period goes by too quickly, especially for someone who can't devote herself night and day to building a business.
Several more schools have expressed interest in bringing EBV to their campuses in recent months, Haynie says. "We're highly motivated to expand," because each year veterans are turned away due to a lack of available spots.
But even with plans to accommodate more students, EBV isn't for every military veteran. Along with valuable skills, the military instills attitudes, such as obedience and respect for authority, that don't necessarily lend themselves well to running a startup. Consequently, many of those who succeed in the EBV program weren't always ideal military men and women, says Nathan Atherley, a 36-year-old former Air Force officer and 2010 UConn EBV alum. He says he found "kindred souls" among his classmates because of their shared maverick tendencies.
Atherley now runs Farallon Research, a company that functions as a venture-capital firm for the Department of Defense, providing federal funds to private-sector startups whose technologies could help solve national security problems. Atherley says the military breeds a focus on achieving success with small teams and dogged perseverance in the face of obstacles -- hallmarks of entrepreneurship. What encouraged him to launch a business, he says, is the fact that in startups, as in the military, "you can create small teams that take on the world."
While many people, including soldiers, are content to follow orders, Atherley says that "for a group of people that want to go the [entrepreneurial] path, there have not been previous resources to take them from what I'll call zero to 60. And I think the EBV does that for them."
Related: Top 10 Franchises for Veterans
Brian Patrick Eha is a freelance journalist and former assistant editor at Entrepreneur.com. He is writing a book about the global phenomenon of Bitcoin for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It will be published in 2015.