Friday, July 30, 2010

Veterans with disabilities thrive at business boot camp

LOS ANGELES — Sgt. Neil Avant was headed to a meeting with businessmen in Baghdad last year when a man wearing women's clothes with explosives hidden underneath blew himself up.
Avant's injuries, including nerve damage to both legs, ended his Army career at 33. Looking for a new vocation, he decided to open a green energy business. Earlier this month, he joined 19 other veterans with disabilities at an eight-day crash course in entrepreneurship.

His instructors at UCLA's Anderson School of Management were blunt. Why would anyone consult him, he recalled them asking, when there are numerous firms already offering to help customers convert to renewable energy?

"Man, this really is like boot camp, you know the way they break you down to build you up?" Avant said in between lectures on balance sheets and marketing strategies.

"I think I was a little too cocky. ... We were trying to do microloans and financing in a combat environment, and I was like, 'If I can do that in Iraq, I can do it anywhere, right?' "

With jobs hard to find, starting a business can be an attractive option for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with debilitating injuries.

Hundreds apply every year for the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities, which is offered at six universities nationwide.

The all-expenses-paid program, funded by contributions from the business community, was founded by J. Michael Haynie, who served 14 years in the Air Force before joining the Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University as an assistant professor of entrepreneurship. "If we know anything from history, for veterans with disabilities the path to traditional employment is a challenge," Haynie said.

Flexibility is premium

Program participants say becoming entrepreneurs allows them to craft careers suited to their skills and limitations. In addition to dealing with physical issues, many veterans with disabilities require care that can be difficult to fit into a traditional workweek.

"I probably have on average two to three medical appointments a week," said Patrick Valdez Sr., who suffered back, shoulder and knee injuries during a 33-year Army career. "That's a lot to ask an employer."

By starting a business selling promotional products, Valdez now controls his schedule.

As a command sergeant major, he knew how to handle unruly soldiers. But, he said, when a vendor lets him down, "you can't call the guy in and chew his butt for half an hour."

Haynie said the military cultivates many attributes of successful entrepreneurs, including the ability to assess risk, overcome obstacles, build teams and manage resources.

Of the first class of 20 at Syracuse University in 2007, 14 are running their own businesses full time, Haynie said. Four generated more than $1 million in revenue last year.

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