Business Schools Putting Vets in Driver Seat

For Afghanistan and Iraq war vets returning home after finishing tours of duty, they face many questions in their transition back to civilian life -- not least of which is: “What should I do now?”

Many veterans are overqualified for most entry-level jobs in terms of the technical expertise they have gained on the battlefield, yet they may not be quite experienced enough for mid-level jobs. They are among the nation’s elite when it comes to leadership, teamwork and getting the job done, so how do they work all of those skills into a stable, long-term career?

Those are some of the questions Syracuse University and a consortium of business schools around the country are helping service-disabled veterans answer in an intensive Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) program. The one-year EBV is an experiential training in entrepreneurship and small-business management to soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines disabled as a result of service in Iraq and/or Afghanistan post-Sept. 11, 2001. Disabilities range from physical injuries to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The program helps vets develop techniques for creating and sustaining their own small business, and to connect them to experts who may come in handy when it comes to taxes and other tricky business technicalities.

“We saw an opportunity to leverage something we already do well here at Syracuse, which is teach entrepreneurship … and to serve veterans and their families as they make the transition from military to civilian life,” said Mike Haynie, director and founder of the EBV and assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Syracuse’s Whitman School of Management. “There’s not a lot of call for a tank driver in civilian life, but in actuality, that 22-year-old kid who drove a tank in the military has very high knowledge of hydrolic systems and computer systems … but they often can’t see those linkages … [they need help showing] a civilian employer how qualified they are.”

Haynie left the military in 2006 after serving in the Air Force for 14 years and teaching at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He brought with him to Syracuse connections to many students and friends deployed as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. The U.S. has sent just over 2 million military personnel overseas to fight the War on Terror since 2001, and roughly 30% of them are returning home with some sort of disability. The EBV program offers them help on becoming their own boss, which means they won’t be stuck in a cubicle 8+ hours a day.

“One of the things about entrepreneurship and small business are, people with disabilities in the U.S. are twice as likely to go out and start their own small business, create their own job,” Haynie said. “It also gives them a sense of control and empowerment they couldn’t find in another job.”

Syracuse first introduced the EBV in 2007. In 2008, the EBV Consortium of Schools was launched, a national partnership with UCLA Anderson School of Management, Florida State University's College of Business, Mays Business School at Texas A&M and the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University. The University of Connecticut's School of Business joined in 2009. The schools will offer the EBV on campus in summer 2010.

The free EBV program is very selective; it accepts only about 150 veterans each year. Not only does the course simulate what it’s like to be a business owner, but it also gives a confidence boost to the students who, through very traumatic war experiences, are coping with the loss of their peak physical and mental health.

So what do school officials look for in exceptional candidates? Passion, drive and the desire to get a business up and running. This isn’t a program for anyone just testing the waters.

“What we look for are people who are passionate about being an entrepreneur – being a business owner. We know from academic research that passion makes all the difference in the world,” Haynie said. “I’m looking for the guy or gal who was selling lemonade on the corner at 10 or 11 years old – all they wanted to be is a business owner.”

The program also receives funding from the U.S. Small Business Administration. William Elmore, associate administrator for Veterans Business Development at the SBA, said the partnership is an opportunity to expand a “class A program for those men and women who have been injured and who, in my personal view, have earned access to this sort of level of program to assist them.”

The SBA offers other programs to help war vets transition to civilian work life. And there’s a big pool that can make use of the assistance, the Census Bureau reported in 2002 that about 3.2 million of the nation’s small businesses were owned by veterans; other research shows that one in seven vets are self-employed.

“Veteran have a higher rate of self-employed small business ownership than any other group in America,” Elmore said. “The latest generation of veterans coming home has a strong as interest of entrepreneurship of any previous generation and perhaps an even stronger one.”

For vets, the SBA focuses on business counseling, technical assistance and training, access to capital and government contracting.

The SBA has veterans’ business development officers in its 68 district offices throughout the U.S. and there are five Veterans Business Outreach Centers in Albany, N.Y.; Pittsburgh, PA; Lynn Haven, Fla.; Edinburg, Texas and Sacramento, Calif. It provides funding to almost 1,000 small business development centers, including 400 SCORE chapters, and over 100 women’s business centers.

The SBA partners with micro-lenders and other financial institutions providing small loans of up to $35,000. The Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan exists in case the vet’s business suffers economic damage after he or she is activated for duty. Another program, the Patriot Express Loan, is available to veterans, disabled vets, Reserve and National Guard members and spouses. Elmore said, despite the economy, this loan has actually grown 20% in the past year, and doled out more than $900 million in the last fiscal year. Borrower fees have been eliminated, thanks to federal stimulus funding.

“While I think there are significant challenges for lots of Americans, including veterans, in finding access to capital, the Patriot Express has seemed to weather that program very well,” Elmore said.

The SBA also oversees some government programs aimed at assisting disabled-vets-turned-entrepreneurs. The federal government has a goal of ensuring that 4% of its procurement overall goes toward military-service-disabled small business owners.

Over the past 10 years the SBA says its level of services for vets has quadrupled. The agency estimates that it provides some level of information, training, or other service to up to 200,000 vets a year.

“We think veterans have the acumen and they’ve proven their worth through military service – they’ve been educated in the real world, not just the academic world and we think they make great entrepreneurs,” Elmore said.