Texas A&M bootcamp helps veterans launch new businesses

Veteran Sean Dion, right, of New York presents his business proposal to EBV mentors and local business owners at the Wehner Building on the Texas A&M University campus in College Station on Saturday.

Ten years ago, the Texas A&M Mays Business School started the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans. The intensive educational and networking program, free for a select group of veterans across the country, had its largest class this year, and on Saturday, the 24 participants -- who each developed intricate plans for successful businesses -- presented their ideas.

"This is the largest class we've ever had," said Blake Petty, director of the Texas A&M Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship. "They would say they're the best class ever. But most importantly, we have an underwriter this year. Reynolds and Reynolds' corporate office has underwritten this program so that we can have EBV every year."

Petty explained that it costs the university, partners and donors $5,000 to sponsor each participant. With this new partnership, Mays Business School can guarantee the continuation of the program for years to come. Petty noted the bootcamp can be extremely beneficial for participants, as most service members transitioning out of the military don't have the same training and opportunities as civilians to create and manage a business of their own.

"A majority of [participants] have not yet started a business," Petty said. "A handful are in business already, but most are in the concept or idea phase. The best part of this program is that those at the concept phase can completely change it while they're here. ... There are a lot of opportunities out there for the placement of veterans into jobs, but if one wants to become a job creator, they will have the resources but no training. The VA doesn't offer this; there's no other structure for veteran entrepreneurship."

Former service members from across the country apply yearly for a slot in the summer session in College Station. Those who are selected spend a week in town, receiving 40 hours of classroom time and 12 hours of one-on-one tutoring. Each participants receives meals, room and board and access to libraries and databases at no charge. At the end of the week, the veterans present a breakdown of their idea to a board of mentors and business owners, who give the project a final review.

Army veteran Michael Geraci, an Aggie now living in Fort Worth, presented his proposal Saturday afternoon in hopes of garnering support for a company that's been in the works since fall 2016. Geraci is an employee of a commissioning company, working with building developers and engineers, and wants to act independently in a similar aspect by selling an energy system patented by Texas A&M. Though Geraci would be working separate from the university, he would be acting as a sort of "energy realtor," peddling Texas A&M's innovative energy system to building owners who want to save money on their electric bills.

"I'll go out and market the system for [A&M]," Geraci explained. "Say, for example, I'll go to an airport and talk to the airport owners about reducing energy usage and making their system better. They'll then have Texas A&M to do all the work."

Though starting Geraci Consulting has been a dream of Geraci's for years now, he believes it was essential to receive help from EBV and the Mays Business School first. Geraci's bachelor degree from Texas A&M -- which he received in 1996 -- is in construction science, and his post-military work experience only provided a portion of the training he feels he needed.

"I wanted to go through this before I launched my business to the outside world," he said. "I met people who have gone through [EBV] before, and they talked about how beneficial it was for them. It's refined methodology on how to launch, start and run the business."

Jeanne Sterling, an Army veteran from Louisiana, served for more than 20 years. After retiring, she entered the retail realm as a human resources manager, but a traumatic life event inspired the already creative woman to press forward with a unique business idea. Sterling wants to design a smartphone app comparable to Uber, but specifically for roadside assistance. She explained that her app NOTOW will provide stranded motorists with immediate access to other vetted app users who can perform tire changes, offer rides, unlock cars or drop off gasoline cans.

"The idea actually came from my own experience waiting for a tow truck. I had three kids in my car late at night, and my daughter was sick and needed to go to the emergency room. We waited an hour and 15 minutes for the tow truck, and my husband was deployed at the time. It just affects your sense of safety and security, waiting and waiting. I though that there has to be better way."

Initially Sterling's idea for a business centered only on relieving the burdens of tow trucks and had nothing to do with smart phones. But after attending EBV, her mentors suggested the idea of streamlining the service into a smartphone app. Program leaders have provided her connections to app builders, and Sterling is confident she can soon begin her work on the company when she returns home.

John Anderson, one of the EBV mentors, who was with Merrill Lynch for over 43 years, said EBV is a well-run program that offers a great benefit.

"As a mentor, I find my participation to be very rewarding for several reasons," he wrote to The Eagle after the conclusion of the program on Saturday. "Helping entrepreneurs helps not only the individuals but also our nation. Helping veterans, especially those with service-connected disabilities, is even more rewarding. Many of the veterans have become friends, we stay in touch, and the CNVE/EBV staff and the mentors remain available for additional advice and assistance."

To learn more about EBV at Texas A&M and other universities, visit ebv.vets.syr.edu.

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