Bootcamp boosts business plans for disabled vets
Universities make dream of entrepreneurship a reality
WASHINGTON, Aug. 1, 2011 – Retired Army 1st Sgt. Renee Floyd wasn't about to let a disability stop her from realizing her dream of having her own business.
Applying 21 years of experience as an Army mechanic, she launched BRF Mobile Lube Service in Phenix City, Ala., in 2009 and began traveling to people's homes and businesses to provide convenient oil changes and maintenance services.
But her big break came last month, she said, when she attended the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans With Disabilities at Florida State University. The nine-day EBV crash course is part of a program designed to help participants get their businesses off the ground or enhance ventures they have started.
Syracuse University's Whitman School of Management in New York was the first to offer the program for veterans disabled as a result of their military service since Sept. 11, 2001.
Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., launched its own program in 2008. Now, a consortium of seven universities around the United States participates, anxious to help disabled veterans make their dreams of entrepreneurship a reality.
Randy Blass, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who serves as director for the FSU program, said entrepreneurship offers the veterans something a regular job can't.
Particularly for those struggling to deal with a separation from military service that they didn't initiate and often didn't want, Blass said entrepreneurship offers a new sense of identity.
"They are no longer that corporal or that sergeant or that captain. They are going through an identity transition, and to just get a job doesn't always address that psychological identity need," he said.
Entrepreneurship also holds allure to those who see it as a way to continue serving the country. "By being an entrepreneur, we are helping with the economic recovery," Blass said. "You are creating jobs. … That message is not lost on someone who still wants to serve and is looking for some identity to latch onto."
Participants begin online training before arriving on campus for an intensive boot camp that Blass said keeps them engaged from sunup to long after sundown. Through classes and workshop sessions, they learn the nuts and bolts of running a business: how to write a business plan, raise capital and build a customer base.
The cost of the boot camp, including food, lodging and transportation, is picked up by participating universities with gifts from alumni, entrepreneurs, corporations and business leaders.
After the program, participants receive a full year of ongoing support and mentorship.
The training is demanding, and expectations of participants are high. "We don't coddle," Blass said. "We also don't dwell. We don't even really talk about their disabilities."
Rather, the focus of the program is strictly on entrepreneurship. "We talk about business," Blass said. "We are going forward. We are not looking backwards."
Floyd had made good headway in building her mobile lube business. She had put her bachelor of science degree in business administration from American Military University to work, formulating a strong business plan and marketing motto: "We change lives, one car at a time."
What she didn't initially recognize was that a fear of approaching authority figures had kept her from fully marketing the business. "It was holding me back from going to the corporations and small businesses and offering my services to them," she said.
But it took a professor at the FSU boot camp to help her realize and press through that fear, she said.
"After he hit me with that and made he think about it, I was able to resolve that issue right away," Floyd said. She immediately began pushing herself to single out and engage business leaders to promote her business.
Another big takeaway from the boot camp was learning to rethink her approach to the business. "I realized that I had to come out of the technician role and into the management role to make it a success," she said.
The boot camp experience and follow-on mentoring already is making an impact on her bottom line.
"I'm seeing an increase in my business and new opportunities to expand it," she said. "I came back here [from the boot camp] on fire. And I am still implementing those things I learned from the school, and making them a permanent part of my daily business."
Now, Floyd calls herself "a walking kiosk" in extolling the value of the EBV program to other disabled veterans.
"The business or idea that you never thought you could own is only an EBV class away," she tells them, and "the business that you currently own is only an EBV class away from success that you could never have imagined."
Other graduates of the program share Floyd's enthusiasm. Chris Cancialosi, a former Army National Guard aviator, started his own business, Gotham CULTURE, shortly after returning from Iraq in 2005. But it was the EBV program, which he attended in 2009, that helped him realize the difference between being self-employed and being an entrepreneur.
"If you expect to grow, you have to focus on growing the business," he said, rather than trying to do it all solo. Now that he's hired a staff and delegates some of the company's support functions, Cancialosi is seeing his company grow by leaps and bounds.
"Being an entrepreneur means that I have the ability to control my destiny, to make a difference in the world in my own way," he said. "The only limits that are set for me as an entrepreneur are those that I set for myself. I am [now] able to create something in the world in my own vision."
Other alumni of the program say they are applying the lessons learned through EBV in building their businesses.
Jose Rene "J.R." Martinez, an Army veteran severely burned when his Humvee hit a landmine in Iraq in April 2003, graduated from FSU's program in 2008 and now serves as a motivational speaker and actor on ABC's "All My Children" soap opera.
Daniel Hash, another graduate of the 2008 boot camp, founded United Doves, a company that releases doves at weddings, funerals and other events, then retrieves the birds after they return home.
Marylyn Harris, a former Army nurse who attended last year's class, runs Harrland Healthcare Consulting, a management consulting firm.
Former Army staff sergeant Claudel Aubry, a 2010 EBV graduate, runs a logistics management firm that specializes in transportation and supply chain management.
Reggie Crane, a retired chief master sergeant who attended the same class, is applying lessons learned to his company, Next Level Coaching and Consulting Services.
Cancialosi called the program one of the best things going for disabled veterans who have the fire in their bellies to become entrepreneurs.
"For people who are very serious and very committed to starting their own business and world of entrepreneurship, this program is fantastic," he said.
"It is a phenomenal program. The people running it are extraordinary human beings" he added. "It really is that epitome of the idyllic American spirit."
As the program grows, Blass said, the next plan is to expand it to include caregivers of veterans with disabilities and spouses of the fallen.
Syracuse University was the first to offer that program, and Blass said FSU will offer its first Entrepreneurship BootCamp for Veterans Families in February.
Details about the program and how to apply are posted at http://whitman.syr.edu/ebv/ with links to participating universities' websites.