Every summer for a decade now, a new group of local military veterans comes to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in July for a different kind of boot camp—one that provides skills, connections and personalized advice to help them run their own businesses.
It’s intense but a world away from the military’s “basic training.”
Established at the Gary W. Rollins College of Business in 2012, the Veterans Entrepreneurship Program at UTC addresses unique challenges veterans face when starting and maintaining a business, including service-related disabilities, adjusting to life after the military and operating a business in a civilian world after years of highly regimented work.
The seven-day VEP boot camp, which starts Sunday, is packed with classes and workshops led by UTC faculty and field trips to connect participants with local business owners and leaders, including other military veterans.
While former service members tend to be more likely than the general population to start a business, they typically have high barriers to entry, according to program director Sandra Cordell, a retired U.S. Navy veteran who helped launch VEP at UTC.
A former small business owner herself, Cordell knows exactly what it’s like to start a company from scratch after retiring from the service. She and her husband, also a Navy vet, started their own tool business in 1995 before growing too fast, running out of cash and closing up by 1998, she said.
Their story, Cordell said, reflects a common theme she’s seen among VEP participants over the years: having a marketable skill or service but a lack of business know-how, sometimes even the basics.
“If we had VEP back then we might still be in business,” she said.
“I’m a vet and anything I can do to help my fellow brothers and sisters, I’m going to do it. It’s all out of love. We love doing this. We love helping them and getting to know them and bonding with them,” said Cordell, whose son was commissioned as a second lieutenant into the U.S. Air Force earlier this summer.
A community of support
In a military context, order reigns supreme. Entrepreneurship, however, can be chaotic and nonlinear, according to Mike Morris, who created the VEP program while he was a professor at Oklahoma State University, where the program continues today. Along with UTC and OSU, the University of Florida is a VEP program hub.
Cordell said UTC has shaped the program around Chattanooga’s specific economic ecosystem and continues to increase partnerships in the community.
People working in the region’s burgeoning entrepreneurship community provide mentoring to graduates, participate in curriculum delivery and provide a network of support for VEP graduates long after they’ve completed the program, she said.
In 2017, Mike and Amy Walden, of Chattanooga-based Walden Security, made a bequest of $1 million to support VEP. Just this year, a $1.5-million gift from the Jack and Charlotte Frost Family Foundation—establishing a new UTC Frost Family Investment Fund—will support the development of a VEP alumni program and conference, along with other initiatives.
“Looking back at the last 10 years of the Veterans Entrepreneurship Program, I’m incredibly proud of the accomplishments of our VEP alumni. Thanks to the support of Walden Security and other donors, many of our VEP alumni have launched or grown successful businesses and a number have started more than one business,” said Robert Dooley, dean of the College of Business.
“Our VEP graduates are making great contributions to their communities—including hiring other veterans. I’m also proud that we’ve continued to improve the program and tailor it to the needs of our participating veterans. Even the challenges presented by the pandemic gave us an opportunity to make the program stronger by expanding and enhancing our five-week online instruction. As a result of those enhancements, our VEP participants come to boot camp with truly solid business plans and are better prepared to make their business pitches at the end of the week.
“Thanks to a gift from the Frost Family Foundation, we’re launching VEP 2.0 for our VEP alumni and offering a VEP conference for the hundreds of VEP graduates from our consortium. I’m looking forward to seeing where the program goes in its next 10 years,” Dooley said.
Nuts and bolts
Before arriving on Sunday, VEP participants will have already completed an initial five-week introductory course, including a self-assessment, market research and a business plan draft.
Each VEP participant receives 12 months of free access to LivePlan, an online business planning software that helps them hone their plans.
The boot camp, however, is at the heart of the program and provides hands-on learning and interaction with faculty, guest entrepreneurs, business experts and other veterans.
The boot camp exposes VEP participants to the nuts and bolts of business ownership through experiential workshops and lessons, including a full range of business topics, from cash flow management and HR issues to patents and marketing products and services.
Participants also engage in real-world application of their new knowledge, compete in a pitch competition and meet with other successful veteran business owners and VEP alumni.
After graduation, veterans receive 10 months of ongoing support from UTC faculty-entrepreneurs and through online peer networking.
One of them is Frank Butler, a Frank W. McDonald and UC Foundation professor of management, who’s also been an instructor for the VEP program since its second year. In 2017 he become the lead faculty advisor, fine-tuning the program, expanding business partnerships and connecting more with participants.
“A lot of people think they have to start with their vision of their business instead of thinking about how to work their way toward that,” said Butler. He never served in the military but grew up near an Army base, sparking his lifelong appreciation for active-duty military members as well as veterans.
“It keeps me engaged because I know we are making a difference and helping. This is my way of giving back,” he said.
“It’s also important to note how much support we get from the community with time and financial support. Volunteer instructors, judges for the pitch competition and numerous others from our community who want to give back make this program work. That’s what makes it a special program,” he said.
The week’s activities will culminate with a dinner and address from Jack H. Jacobs, a Medal of Honor recipient, Vietnam veteran and retired Army colonel on July 22 and a pitch competition on July 23 at the Hunter Museum.
VEP Graduate Stats
Since 2012, 143 veterans have graduated from the Veterans Entrepreneurship Program at UTC.
- 40% have started new ventures or have grown their nascent-stage businesses
- 24% own multiple businesses
- Earned a $122 million in combined total revenue
- Created more than 380 jobs, employing 130 veterans
- Won more than 50 government contracts