This story was originally published in the April/May 2013 Issue of Chattanooga Magazine.
“A young man who does not have what it takes to perform military service is not likely to have what it takes to make a living.”
Those are the words of President John F. Kennedy. You’ll find them in his 1963 statement to Congress, concerning the need for training for those being rejected by the Selective Service System. You’ll also find them in the official brochure for the Veterans Entrepreneurship Program (VEP) at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga College of Business—a program that offers intensive training in entrepreneurship and small business management for eligible service-disabled and service-distinguished veterans.
That’s because, to the leaders of the VEP, those words—or, more accurately, the inverse that they imply—ring especially true. In fact, they make up the very premise of the program itself: What it takes to succeed in the military is essentially what it takes to succeed in business.
“It makes sense,” says Kristina Montague, Assistant Dean of External Affairs for the UTC College of Business. “Entrepreneurs have to be self starters and risk-takers.”
“To go into the military, that’s a pretty big risk you’re taking.” The job of the VEP, Montague asserts, is to provide veterans with an opportunity to develop their entrepreneurial ideas, while teaching them the business concepts, tools and frameworks that will help them put to use the skills they possess as veterans.
“There is a connection between the skills needed for military service and entrepreneurship,” Montague adds, “but there are also a lot of challenges that veterans have to overcome, particularly those who have been disabled. We think this program fills a niche that really needed to be filled.”
Heading into its second year of existence, the VEP is modeled after a similar program at Oklahoma State, where UTC College of Business Dean, Dr. Robert Dooley worked before coming to Chattanooga. “I think it’s a perfect fit for Chattanooga,” says Dr. Dooley, who, according to Montague is responsible for bringing the VEP program to UTC. “There’s so much patriotism here in the community, and there’s a large number of veterans in the area—we’re just thrilled to be able to do it.” The VEP is fully funded through grants, sponsors and private donors, and is offered at no cost to the participants. The program even covers travel expenses, lodging and meals—a cost of roughly $3,000 per participant, according to Montague. Which is why the VEP holds very strict admission standards. Montague calls the process “rigorous.”
According to program materials, eligible candidates must meet three requirements: They must be separated from active duty service, must be identified either as disabled or as “service distinguished” for exemplary military conduct, and must demonstrate a strong interest in entrepreneurship and commitment to small business ownership.
“Every applicant has to submit a real business idea,” Montague explains. “We don’t expect it to be in actual business plan format, but there has to be thought behind it and we have to be able to feel the passion they have for it.”
“It’s easy to tell the difference,” she adds “in someone who is entrepreneurial and passionate about their idea, and someone who thinks this might just be something fun to do.” Once admitted to the program, participants go through three phases of training. Phase one is a five-week online concept development period, in which participants follow a self-study curriculum designed to help them hone in and build out their business plans.
Phase two is an eight-day “bootcamp” that brings participants on campus for an intense, rigorous, hands-on learning experience (Montague calls it “drinking from a fire hose”). The delegates all stay together in a hotel, attend lessons and experiential workshops from both UTC and OSU faculty, and attend lectures from actual successful veteran business owners.
Phase three consists of 10 months of ongoing mentorship form the UTC College of Business faculty, as well as online peer-to-peer networking and professional feedback.
Program participants come in all ages and from all branches of the military, Montague says. In the VEP’s first year, they had participants who served in conflicts ranging from Afghanistan to Vietnam. The participants’ business goals were diverse, too. Some, like 26 year-old Mark Kidwell, who just weeks before joining the program was deployed in Afghanistan as a Sergeant in the US Army Airborne Rangers, were new to the idea of entrepreneurship altogether.
“I had no business experience. No college degree,” says Kidwell. “Everything was new to me, from accounting basics to marketing, hiring and setting income levels.” Kidwell, now a full time student at Chattanooga State with plans to attend business school at UTC in the future, only knew he wanted to open a shooting range and training facility in Chattanooga.
“The lessons I learned in the program were extremely valuable,” he says. “They helped me adapt my business concept in a way that will take less time and initial cost to start up.” But, Kidwell said that some of the most valuable lessons he learned had little to do with the actual nuts and bolts of business ownership. “Primarily it was a mindset thing,” he says. “We learned how to tap into and maximize our own internal drive.”
“They didn’t teach us how to be leaders,” he adds. “We already knew. What they did was teach us how to apply all those skills we already had—the drive and the willingness to learn and adapt—to the business world.” Others, like Bret Moldenhauer, also a former Army Airborne Ranger, already had established businesses, and were looking to grow or expand their offerings. Moldenhauer is an accomplished acupuncturist and owner of Chattanooga’s Institute for Acupuncture and Wellness. In fact, he was the first acupuncturist to hold hospital privileges in the state of Tennessee. At the time he learned of the VEP, he was already expanding his business.
“I was looking for ways to expand my craft,” Moldenhauer says. “I took my existing acupuncture business and fine tuned it to serve Olympic-level athletes.” The lessons he learned in the program, he says, were invaluable. “The program changed my whole outlook,” he explains. “They opened my eyes to the opportunities that I was missing as an entrepreneur. It honestly changed my life and I did not expect that.” Moldenhauer’s new business even took him to the 2012 Olympics in London, where his client, US Track Team member, Dee Dee Trotter, won Olympic gold. Of course, Kristina Montague doesn’t expect every participant to have as much business success as Moldenhauer. But, that’s not really the point, she says.
“Ultimately, what we’re doing is providing people with another option in their lives,” she says. “If we get them to a place where they realize that business ownership and supporting their family is a real possibility, when maybe they didn’t see it as an option before, that’s success.”
“Any veteran out there that wants to get a glimpse of hidden skills you don’t think are applicable,” adds Moldenhauer, “or anyone looking to make a change in their life and don’t know where to start, this is for you. You have what it takes.”
Story by Keith Rawlston
Photography courtesy of UTC College of Business