Disabled vets build skills and confidence at entrepreneurship bootcamp

More than half of veterans today leave the military with some form of service-related disability; but, through the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV), these men and women can pursue an entrepreneurial path, building on skills they learned in the military and opening doors for a brighter future.

“A lot of people said you got hurt, and you’re going to be stuck in some kind of statistic. EBV saw past that and is now giving us an opportunity to do things that we would have never done,” explained Eva Vega, one of the 20 veterans who participated in the second annual EBV hosted Sept. 28 to Oct. 5 by the Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration (SHA).

The EBV program began in 2007 at Syracuse University. Since then, seven other universities have joined the EBV consortium, offering training in entrepreneurship and small business management at no cost to veterans who were disabled as a result of their service. Cornell's EBV program is the only one to focus specifically on business ideas in the food-and-beverage industry.

“Entrepreneurs know the route they will end up taking to get from Point A to Point B is not always going to be a straight line. The military teaches their soldiers to think this way,” said Neil Tarallo, senior lecturer at SHA and director of the Cornell EBV. “We attribute the success of veterans in entrepreneurial endeavors to this.”

At the national-level, more than 60 percent of EBV graduates go on to start their own businesses. Seventy percent of those are still in business after three or four years. Because of this record of success, EBV has been widely acclaimed as the premier entrepreneurship training program for veterans in the nation. The program has been recognized as a "National Best Practice" by the Department of the Army for serving soldiers and their families. EBV received the McGraw-Hill Award from the Academy of Management for the most innovative entrepreneurship program implemented by U.S. business schools in 2010. In 2011, Inc. Magazine named the program one of the "10 Best" entrepreneurship programs in the nation.

Tarallo regularly hears from EBV participants who let him know how entrepreneurship has been a positive impact on their lives: “They say ‘I don’t know what I would be doing if I didn’t have my own business because there are some days I wake up and can’t function. If that were to happen in another job, I would be fired, and I wouldn’t argue with my employer.’ But because they run their own businesses, they can establish a support group that meets their specific needs.”

The EBV program covers a range of topics, including business plan development, accounting, marketing strategies, Excel and other software programs, and financing opportunities available to veterans. Participants also get access to a network of faculty and experienced entrepreneurs who continue to serve as advisors after the program ends. Perhaps the most important tool veterans gain at EBV is confidence in themselves.

Linda Aaron, a graduate of the 2013 Cornell EBV program who is months away from opening a Caribbean-fusion restaurant in Seattle, has approached and built relationships with chefs, property owners, and other partners in the community. And, when she needed a wedding dress for an advertising photo shoot, she had the confidence to ask for the best.

“I walked into one of Seattle’s premier wedding dress companies because I knew that they understand marketing. They wanted their product out there as much as I wanted their dress in my photo shoot, and they loaned me a $60,000 vintage wedding dress. Without EBV, I would never have had enough strength and courage to do that,” said Aaron.

Aaron also credits EBV for making the entire entrepreneurship path exciting and enjoyable: “With all the help Cornell gives, it helps take away a lot of the stress. This opportunity is reenergizing for me.”

Instructors for the Cornell EBV include more than a dozen faculty members from the School of Hotel Administration and speakers from the Culinary Institute of America and Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families. For Tarallo and the other instructors, it is an honor to help the service men and women achieve their dreams of entrepreneurship.

“When you hear and see the sacrifices that these specific individuals made on our behalf, it’s compelling,” said Tarallo. “I’ve always been passionate in my belief that entrepreneurship empowers people, and I have come to realize that I am able to be an entrepreneur because of the freedoms we have in our country. EBV is a way for me to say ‘thank you’ in a meaningful way.”