By Kayla Sosa
A community program out of Grand Valley State University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is helping to open doors for veterans looking to start their own businesses.
“Veteran students did very well with their entrepreneurship ideas as students,” said Julie Cowie, project manager. “Once graduated, they really didn’t have many resources to tap. So we wanted to create a program for the community, for veterans to be able to develop their ideas because we know how entrepreneurial they are. Because they are mission-driven, they are focused, they know how to persevere.”
The free, nine-week program – Michigan Veteran Entrepreneur-Lab – is offered to “military-connected people.” This calls for veterans, reservists and their spouses in the West Michigan community. Some of the veterans in the program are GVSU alumni, and many are not. A group of people started in the pilot program this August, with a two-day boot camp. Now, there are about 21 people in the middle of their nine-week curriculum, meeting each Monday night to discuss their plans and go over ways to develop their businesses, from all things financial to marketing and more. There is even a different speaker each week to talk about their experiences as an entrepreneur and any advice they may have for the group.
“There are training webinars and other resources available around entrepreneurship for veterans, but nothing is local and cohort-based,” Cowie said.
Cohort-based means the students all learn together as a group.
“We believe it’s very encouraging for people to start up together and to learn from each other as they’re developing their own idea,” Cowie said. “The curriculum … focuses on starting small, proving your concept, start within your means, that sort of thing.”
Michael Hyacinthe, a Navy veteran and local entrepreneur himself, is a co-facilitator in the program and helps lead discussions in developing your business and all the factors that come into play around that.
“Any organization that has a heart for veterans is an organization I can participate in,” Hyacinthe said, who has two start-ups of his own.
Cowie said this program is definitely filling a gap of need in the veteran community and also empowering people with an already existing unique set of entrepreneurial skills.
“If you look at the unemployment rate in Kent County, the unemployment rate of veterans is much higher than the unemployment rate generally,” Cowie said. “We also know that many veterans prefer self-employment.”
Additionally, Cowie has learned more specifically about the issues veterans face as they transition back into civilian life after serving.
“Sometimes there is a disconnect between the intensity of the experiences they’ve had in the military and then what is asked of them on the job,” Cowie said. “Veterans sometimes hit a snag in finding work that really suits them. So, if they are interested in pursuing entrepreneurship, they can take some of the key experiences from military life – the discipline, the hard work, the sacrifice for a goal – and put that into their own startup that’s going to benefit them and their family and their community and the economy.”
Hyacinthe agreed that many veterans have the skills and the leadership ability to start a business, but generally take some time to learn how to apply those skills in a non-military setting.
“While we have the capacity to lead in ventures, there’s certain barriers that we must overcome, and that’s the barrier of finding out what your next purpose is,” Hyacinthe said. “Many of us, however long we spent in the military, we’ve been transformed into specifically following a specific set of orders. You get put into the civilian world where you have to make the orders, you have to be the person to lead yourself and your family. So if we can help veterans transition effectively into society and embrace their capacity to be entrepreneurs, I think we’ll have a successful program, but we’ll have a successful group of veterans who have served and are now entrepreneurs continuing to give back to their community.”
The ideas that these veterans have come up with range across a broad spectrum, from non-profit to for-profit, and from serving mainly the veteran community to serving anyone and everyone.
Just some of the ideas in the works are a bakery run by a husband/wife team, a consultancy firm to help veterans suffering from PTSD, handmade greeting cards, a dental clinic and a mobile haircutting salon to serve people with mobility issues.
Innovation is nothing new to these veterans who want to inspire change within their own communities.
Trey Sumner, one of the veterans in the program, wants to start a non-profit encouraging healthy masculinity in boys. When recommended by a former military colleague to the program, at first he didn’t think it would benefit him because he is building a non-profit.
“It is really helpful,” he said. “It has given me direction and examples to follow for marketing, for things I need to do to prepare myself, how to reach out and promote my brand, promote my program to the community. It’s given me avenues to do that.”
At the end of the program, the veterans will have the opportunity to pitch their business ideas in the final MVE-Lab Pitch Night on November 26.
For more information about the program, visit www.gvsu.edu/mve.