Dori Ansah-Walker had spent more than 20 years as a teacher for special-needs students, so she knew her idea to help them was a good one.
Low-income students from 2 years old to third graders who need special attention sometimes get lost in the education shuffle and don’t get the proper instruction and foundational tools they need to succeed, she explained.
Ansah-Walker wanted to create a nonprofit to fill those gaps, but she wasn’t sure how to go about it. Then she attended the Veteran Entrepreneurship Program Boot Camp at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
“That confidence that started at 100%, it’s now 300%,” said Ansah-Walker, an Air Force veteran who lives in New York City. “I knew that idea was a good one to begin with, but now I do feel more confident about getting funding for it and doing it on a large scale, which is where I wanted to go.”
Established at the Gary W. Rollins College of Business in 2012, the VEP program has just celebrated its 10th birthday, a decade of helping veterans flesh out their business ideas through courses, workshops and one-on-one conversations with local business owners. Its weeklong boot camp attracted 16 veterans this year.
The program focuses on the challenges veterans face when starting and maintaining a business. Although veterans often have faced harrowing and dangerous circumstances that can change from moment to moment, the world of entrepreneurship has its own set of problems that can crop up at any time despite the best-laid plans.
To address those potential pitfalls, the boot camp is an intense blast of information on such subjects as cash flow, human resources, marketing, government regulations and product pricing.
In 2021, Norm Lavoie started NewTerra, a Chattanooga-based company that composts food scraps. It’s doing very well, he said, but taking part in the VEP Boot Camp stoked his energy to new levels.
“I’m hitting the ground and running,” said Lavoie, an Army vet who earned a master’s in business administration from UTC in May 2022.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been surrounded by fellow veterans like this, so it was really refreshing. I mean, just the energy in the room, the camaraderie that we had and the excitement. Everybody was at some different point in their journey and they were all just fired up to get it going.”
Charles Wright is a graduate of the first VEP Boot Camp class from 2012. He now owns two franchises of The Original Hot Dog Factory, one in Birmingham, Alabama, and another in Anniston, Alabama, where he lives.
When Wright was enrolled in the boot camp, talking to business owners from around Chattanooga helped him realize that he could do it, too.
“They took us to mom-and-pop businesses and they showed us how they operate,” said Wright, a Navy vet. “They conveyed information about how they started, what was their history, their background.
“And it showed that, ‘Hey, you can become an entrepreneur.’ It’s hard. It’s not for everybody. I bust my head every day on it, but the groundwork was laid here because of the entrepreneurs bringing advice like, ‘Hey, don’t be afraid to take that step.’”
For any veteran who has a business idea but is struggling with it, the VEP Boot Camp can help take the idea from concept to reality, Lavoie said.
“If you’ve got that concept that’s bouncing around in your head, and you’ve been trying to put something on paper, trying to really figure out how you can make it work,” he said. “This is the place for you to get it all down, come put it together and then work with people who’ve been there before.
“You’re not going to sleep a lot, but you are going to get a whole lot of value out of one intense week and a lot of exposure to amazing people.”