Leah Dimino wants to buy homes and turn them into affordable places for single mothers. The homes would feature common living spaces—such as kitchens and bathrooms—but all the other rooms would be bedrooms with low rental rates.
Jordan Ailie is looking to build up a family portfolio of properties and then ultimately give back to veterans organizations. Long term, he would like to have a retreat on the outskirts of Chattanooga and bring veterans to town to enjoy the region’s outdoor activities and just be able to decompress.
Both are military veterans and aspiring entrepreneurs. Both are looking to build up businesses and give back.
The Veterans Entrepreneurship Program (VEP) at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is giving them that opportunity.
Dimino and Ailie are two of the 18 veterans in this year’s VEP cohort, which included a weeklong boot camp July 15-22 on the UTC campus. Now in its 11th year at UTC’s Gary W. Rollins College of Business, the VEP is a nationally acclaimed program that offers free training, mentoring and management expertise for small businesses founded by military veterans.
The VEP teaches veterans how to translate the knowledge they acquired in the military into valuable entrepreneurial skills. There is no cost to veterans who are accepted into the program.
Before cohort members come to campus, they go through an online self-study curriculum and business concept development exercise. Their time after UTC includes follow-up advising, business development support and online peer-to-peer networking.
In between comes an intense one-week boot camp featuring courses, workshops and one-on-one conversations with instructors and local business owners.
“I learned a lot about structuring a business; I definitely had huge gaps in my knowledge of that,” Dimino said, “and I’ve learned that I do have grit and that I do have a lot more knowledge about certain things that I felt not quite as confident about myself before.”
Dimino, a combat veteran, served in the U.S. Air Force as a medic. A few years into her service, while deployed to Afghanistan, she met her husband, Dominic—a U.S. Army combat medic. Several years after completing their respective tours of duty, the couple moved to Signal Mountain, Tennessee.
Now a real estate agent, Dimino wants to set out on an entrepreneurial path by investing in properties, “but I want to do that with a purpose—something that will fill a really deep and growing need in the area and the United States, and that’s to focus on helping single women and single mothers.”
“So many women are just one paycheck away from homelessness,” she said, “and single mothers are the fastest-growing group of homeless in this area.”
Under Dimino’s business plan, she and her business partner would purchase houses and add more bedrooms by taking away the dining room and the living room and renting the bedrooms out to women for a fraction of the cost.
“Of course, we’re keeping the kitchen, bathrooms and all that and then fencing in a yard space for the kids to have a place to play,” she said. “It’s a transitory place, so it should be a stepping stone for her moving forward.
“For the single mother, it could be a way of being able to break the survival cycle of never being able to get the chance of actually being a homeowner. That’s the whole idea: to give her a space to get on the path to becoming a homeowner.”
VEP cohort members were treated to more than two dozen programs during their week on campus, with titles ranging from “Bootstrapping Workshop” to “Leverage, Risk and Guerilla Action” to “Government Contracting.” Boot camp concluded with a graduation ceremony at the Hunter Museum of Art.
Dimino raved about the amount of information she had access to.
“This has been the most incredible experience,” she said. “Every single one of us, we are so blown away by the amount of people willing to help us like this and in a way that’s so selfless. These are really busy, successful people taking time out of their day to talk with us, and they have offered for us to talk to them and gain resources from them after this is over. It’s been mind-blowing.”
Ailie, who left active duty in 2019, served in the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Navy for more than 16 years. In 2012, he was selected to become a U.S. Navy Seal—becoming the first member of that elite special forces unit to participate in the UTC VEP program.
Last year, Ailie and his family moved to the Chattanooga area. Over the last few months, he has become focused on business development and starting an “S corporation LLC” in the real estate investment sector.
He said he came across the VEP program in an online search for “a kickstarter for entrepreneurship.”
“I needed the discipline to put all the pieces together,” Ailie said. “I felt like I was just kind of reaching into the dark and trying to grab a piece on, ‘OK, how to incorporate myself, how to get CPA involved for accounting, what does marketing look like? How would that apply to my business model? What does the whole buildout of the formulation come up with? What’s my break-even point? What are my margins, gross profit?’ All that kind of stuff.
“I had a lot of that stuff in my mind, but this has been really good at structuring that and giving a step-by-step process. It gives me goals and actionable steps that I can take to put that all together.”
With multiple deployments during his military career, which also included a stint as a Naval Special Warfare training instructor, Ailie said he knew a boot camp experience of any kind was going to be a challenge.
“Yes, there have been long days, but it’s been top-notch,” he said. “We were talking about it the other day. Somebody mentioned they thought, ‘It was going to be peewee; it was going to be organized, but kind of baby steps—walking us along with a lot of workshops and stuff like that.’ But we immediately found out it was big league: world-class speakers, authors, innovators, entrepreneurs. It’s been awesome.”
The fact that the cohort members and many of the program’s instructors and advisors were military veterans made it all the more special.
“It helped us get through the long days, laugh through it, keep the humor going, kind of fall back on our past experiences together,” Ailie said. “We’re all strangers, but we’re all brothers and sisters. We came from the same background and experiences through the military, so that part of it’s been great.”
Added Dimino, “We’ve all become super close super quickly. We’re all extremely supportive of each other, and I’m sure we’ll keep this relationship going for years to come because we’re cheerleading everybody on.”
2023 VEP Cohort Members
- Dustin Adkins, Army, Memphis, Tennessee
- Jordan Ailie, Marines Corps/Navy, Ringgold, Georgia
- Kristi Alderson, Navy, Nashville, Tennessee
- Derrick Bruechert, Army, Murrayville, Georgia
- Leah Dimino, Air Force, Signal Mountain, Tennessee
- Adrian Douglas, Air Force, Brownsville, Tennessee
- Fernando Fernandez, Air Force, Gallatin, Tennessee
- Richard D. Giles II, Army, Atlanta
- Tari Ham, Air Force, Charlotte, North Carolina
- Audrey J. Heffner, Navy, Norfolk, Virginia
- Betsy Jackson, Navy, Statesville, North Carolina
- Ira Johnson, Navy, West Palm Beach, Florida
- Ray King, Air Force, Kettering, Ohio
- Drew McCartney, Army National Guard, Chattanooga
- Lee McCord, Army National Guard, Knoxville, Tennessee
- Chris Mourey, Army, Chattanooga
- Paul Whitten, Army, Nashville, Tennessee
- Christie Wyatt, Air Force, Arlington, Virginia
VEP photo gallery by Angela Foster