Coming Home Project
8:17 am
Mon September 26, 2011

Bootcamp Turns Veterans Into Entrepreneurs

Recent college graduates are finding it difficult to get a job at a time when the national unemployment rate remains stagnant at nine percent. But imagine if you're a veteran just back from serving overseas. You're trying to find employment while carrying the physical and mental effects of war. A consortium of schools including the University of Connecticut are helping turn disabled veterans into small business-owners. As part of WNPR's Coming Home Project, Lucy Nalpathanchil introduces us to a entrepreneurship 'bootcamp'.

Patrick Nelligan of Bristol, 47, is a man with many ideas, a born businessman. He shows me one of his creations that has a patent pending. In his hands is a green rectangular strip made out of waterproof canvas and lined with Velcro on the inside. It keeps windshield wipers free of ice in the winter. Nelligan calls it the wiper booty. "It works great, that's the cool thing. You know when we get those n'oreasters? The ice gets in here and it keeps the blade from being uniform along the surface. By protecting it, once you take it off it's dry."

He calls it the wiper booty because he says it's a name people won't soon forget. Nelligan has over thirty years with the U.S Army, both Active duty and Reserves. During basic, he got nerve damage in his hand although it doesn't keep him from doing most things. His passion is creating practical things people can use. He says the tough part is finding financing to launch his idea into a business. "When I've presented these companies to bankers, everybody thinks it's a good niche and a good idea but it doesn't give a lot for a banker because it's so much of a risk."

That's why Nelligan turned to the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities known as the EBV program. It started at Syracuse University and now includes seven business schools. At UConn, Nelligan and 24 other veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars are learning how to craft business plans and market their ideas during six weeks of intensive online classes and residential study.

Once a veteran completes the program, he or she is paired up with an industry specific mentor for one year to help them launch a business. Mike Zacchea, a retired U.S Marine Lieutenant Colonel, directs the program at UConn. "Entrepreneurship and being your own boss is a part of the solution for veterans returning home. They can achieve a measure of social re-integration, financial independence, and they can dictate their own schedules."

Working at their own pace is important for veterans who've been injured. A quarter of them come home with a service connected disability. Sean Manning, 30, is one of the lucky ones. His employer, Colt Defense, in West Hartford gives him flexibility in his job. Manning has two severely herniated discs in his neck, the after effects of being a Reconnaissance Marine during two tours of duty in Iraq. "When jumping out of planes with heavy combat equipment the whiplash could have made a small tear,  and just the heavy packs you wear all the time it's led me to where I'm at today."

While at Colt, Manning has worked as a test technician, a dream job for a Marine he says, and now he's part of the design team. He hopes to open a precision machine shop one day to complement what he's learned at Colt. "Whenever there's a government contract a certain percentage of the manufacturing has to be outsourced to service-disabled veteran-owned business. The purchasing department had a pretty difficult time finding those. So if you have a company that's doing quality work and there's a set aside for you, you should be able to do well."     

Since the EBV program started, 320 veterans have graduated and more than half have started a small business. One of UConn's EBV graduates is San Antonio native and Marine, Joe Nunez. He's returning to Storrs this year to help mentor students. In January, Nunez opened Laundry Butlers, a pick up and delivery service.

He says the experience is empowering to him and other disabled veterans who've struggled working for a boss in a regular 9 to 5 job. "You know veterans have a 50 percent better success rate starting their own businesses than non-veterans. I think it's because the military teaches us so many things that are critical to small business development like discipline and attention to detail."  

This entrepreneurial drive can improve the odds for returning veterans. According to the U.S. Labor Department, young veterans face an unemployment rate twice that of civilians, a whopping 21 percent.