Programs Helps Disabled Vets Become Entrepreneurs

WASHINGTON — 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, gotham­CUL­TURE, 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 with links to par­tic­i­pat­ing uni­ver­si­ties’ web­sites.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)