Q&A talks about UConn's Entrepreneurship Boot Camp for Veterans with Michael J. Zacchea, program manager..
Q:You've recently concluded a 10-day entrepreneurship boot camp for disabled veterans. Where did the idea come from?
A: The idea for the boot camp originated at Syracuse University. It was started by Dr. Mike Haynie in 2007. One of the professors here at UConn knew him, and he was telling her about this program he started. I happened to be in the right place at the right time, and was taking a class with her. When she heard about this, she said, "That's great. I have this student of mine I want you to meet." When we applied to bring the program to UConn, we discovered that no veterans from New England had applied to or been through the program at all. So we definitely had a ripe market opportunity.
Q: Your boot camp was targeted at disabled veterans and your material cites this fact: The Department of Veteran's Affairs estimates for every veteran with disability, the cost to the VA will be more than $1 million in benefits and healthcare. How does making a disabled vet an entrepreneur change these costs?
A: Our program bends the cost curve down. Over time, the cost of caring for veterans increases. Veterans get into a negative-reinforcing loop, a downward spiral of health, unemployment and unstable living conditions. The three things feed off of each other. Our program is really an intervention into the economic life of the veteran, by which we give him or her the tools to create self-employment and financial independence. This creates a positive-reinforcing loop for stable housing and mental health.
Q: According to information you have compiled, Connecticut's standing is the eighth-worst state for veteran unemployment at 15.8 percent. What›s going wrong? Why are so many veterans unemployed?
A: Our state has a structural flaw when it comes to veteran employment. Since the end of the First Gulf War in 1990, and the subsequent downsizing of the military, Connecticut has had a relatively steady stream of returning veterans to the state, about 6,000 a year, or about 1 percent of the total of all military who leave active service every year. However, during that same period of time, Connecticut has had a negative net job growth rate. Simply put, the population of veterans is growing, but the number of jobs is shrinking. Related to this are the kind of jobs. Connecticut's economy is really a knowledge-industry economy, requiring high-skilled, highly educated workers. One of the areas where we have failed our returning veterans is in translating military experience into knowledge-economy business-speak. I believe that veterans are — and have been — an overlooked and undervalued asset in the national and state labor market.
Q: What resources are available for veterans who want to be entrepreneurs? Can they receive special federal funding?
A: There are many resources available for veterans who want to be entrepreneurs at both the federal and state levels. The SBA has a program called the Patriot Express loan, which is a below-market rate loan they will co-sign with a veteran to start a business. In fact, 2011 was the SBA's biggest veterans lending year ever. In addition, there are economic development grants available. There is money out there to help start a business. But lenders and grantors want to see a solid business plan, and they want to see that the veteran is "all in."
Q: Your materials also quote this interesting fact: a May 2011 study from the Small Business Administration Office of Advocacy revealed 45 percent of veterans are more likely to take the plunge into entrepreneurship than people with no active-duty military experience. Why is that?
A: I think there are several reasons why veterans tend to be more entrepreneurial. First, in the military, they developed a bias for action, and a commitment to mission accomplishment. Veterans tend to network with other veterans, and tend to understand things like logistics and supply chains. Veterans have learned management and planning skills that lend themselves to entrepreneurial success.
Q: Why does a program like this have to be privately funded? It seems like the $15,000 cost could be easily borne by the federal government and should be done while the military personnel are still in the service before they come out.
A: The original post-WW II GI Bill included a title for business development. The post-9/11 GI Bill does not. The trend in our country has been to privatize functions that were once done by the government. We do accept into our program active duty personnel in an effort to "bridge the gap" between the end of active service and when the veteran can start his business. The idea is a seamless transition. Significant portions of our country believe for political reasons that the federal government shouldn't have anything to do with starting businesses, and do not value a seamless military-civilian transition.