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Entrepreneur boot camps give transitioning vets tools for success

Aug. 30, 2012 - 05:28PM   |   Last Updated: Aug. 30, 2012 - 05:28PM  |  
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After 15 years as a health and fitness educator, now-retired Army Reserve Lt. Col. Daniel Hart decided his civilian business needed a boost. Multiple deployments had stalled Pittsburgh-based Hart Fitness Consulting.

"My company was struggling because I had been so deeply involved in the reserves. I was on my fourth call-up, and it was hard to keep things going while I was gone," he said. Sensing it was time for a refresher, he signed up for a crash course in business: the Riverside Center for Innovation's Entrepreneur Boot Camp.

A mix of Web coursework, classroom time and personal mentoring, the program is one of numerous such boot camps for veterans aimed at helping them to establish or expand their entrepreneurial ambitions.

Similar to the military model

"We can give someone a booster shot," said Randy Blass, who directs Florida State University's Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities. "I can get you real excited about entrepreneurship, and you come out hard-charging and ready to go."

Blass' program is part of a national network of boot camps for disabled veterans established by Syracuse University. Programs are offered at eight schools nationwide.

Like many such programs, Florida State's effort kicks off with three weeks of online training in business basics, followed by an intensive eight-day residential course and complemented with a year's worth of guidance by lawyers, marketing specialists, financial experts and other professionals.

Even with days that run from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., a weeklong course may not seem like much time to jump-start a career. But as Blass points out, the model works in the military.

"Consider the boot camp experience. You are a completely transformed person one week later," he said.

Entrepreneurial boot camps can have a similar effect. "You used to look in the mirror and see this obviously visible military persona. Now you've hung up that uniform, you are struggling to find an identity," Blass said. "I can show you the path that you need to start to walk down."

Like most such programs, this boot camp is free to students. Blass fundraises $150,000 a year to cover his costs.

At the Riverside Center for Innovation, program coordinator Donn Nemchick has given a kick-start to about 100 veterans since the program launched in 2007. His classes meet once a week for 10 weeks.

Such programs won't teach an entrepreneur everything there is to know about business, Nemchick said. But they deliver the basics.

"Where [students] get the most rewarding experience is when we just kick back and share stories, talking about their plans and their ideas," he said. "The time will come when we can link you in with a banker or an insurance person, once you're fully ready to go."

100 percent dedication required

The best candidates for boot camp are those with a finely honed passion for entrepreneurial success, experts say.

"If that isn't your 100 percent purpose, we are wasting our time," said Mike Morris, who heads the Department of Entrepreneurship at the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State University.

"This is not another jobs training program. This is for people who are totally committed to taking charge of their own future. Our assumption is, you are now on the entrepreneurial path," said Morris, whose 4-year-old program has trained 120 disabled veterans.

Morris' admissions criteria are similar to those at other programs: A veteran in good standing of any rank, with letters of recommendation and highly motivated to succeed as an entrepreneur.

He offers an eight-day initial induction, followed by a year of one-on-one mentoring. That first week "is almost like drinking from a fire hose," he said. "We expose them to amazing instructors and a lot of great content. We expect them to focus on the areas where they know they are weaker, to give those areas the most attention, and then to take in the rest for future use."

While boot camp can give a jump-start, participants must be aware that this is not an automatic launchpad.

"We are not about creating businesses," Blass said. "We are not necessarily saying: ‘We want to stand up new businesses around the country.' We are about veteran transition. So if coming to the program excites someone about going back to school to get a degree in business, we think that's a positive outcome."

Hart said boot camp gave him just the kick in the pants he was hoping for, refocusing him on the task at hand and giving him some new tools to revitalize his business.

"I already knew about setting goals, but this gave me a different path to take in that respect," he said. "Just sitting in there helped me to come up with a daily schedule. It helped me to come up with different planning ideas. Now I'm going to take it a little more seriously."

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