Disabled veterans can follow their dream of entrepreneurship

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 disabled veterans at a 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.

Program participants say becoming entrepreneurs allows them to craft careers suited to their skills and limitations. Besides dealing with physical issues, many disabled veterans 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. But he said he needed help adapting his military experience to the business world.

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 significant resources.

Out 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.

The federal government and the state of California set aside 3% of annual contracting dollars to spend on businesses owned by veterans with service-related disabilities. California came close to meeting the goal last year, but the federal government achieved just 1.49% in 2008, the most recent year for which figures are available.

“I think there is a huge opportunity for more people to get certified and do business, even in the current climate,” said Eric Mandell, who heads the small business office at the California Department of General Services.

Currently about 1,200 companies are certified to bid for state contracts as disabled-veteran business enterprises, he said. A number of large corporations also give preference to disabled veterans and other disadvantaged groups.

UCLA accepted its first class of 15 veterans in 2008. Five of them are now working exclusively on their own ventures. Others decided to further their education or get more work experience before going into business for themselves. Participants are mentored for a year after graduating.

Elaine Hagan, executive director of the Anderson School’s Harold and Pauline Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, said she was struck by how many participants were still looking for ways to be of service.

One couple who attended this year wants to start a high school leadership program. Other participants want to help fellow veterans find jobs or start their own businesses.

Ken Kraft raises Victorian bulldogs, some of which he donates as service dogs to other wounded veterans.

Kraft, 45, served in the Army Reserve while working as a sheriff’s deputy. He was forced to give up both careers because of injuries he suffered in a mortar barrage and a helicopter accident while deployed in Iraq.

Going into business for himself, he says, has provided new ways to contribute and make a living. Next up: a disc golf course for a sport he discovered while learning to walk again.

“I wasn’t ready for my injuries to change my life,” he said. “It’s my way of taking somebody else whose life has changed and giving them hope.”