Written by: Rob Enslin
Chris Dambach was a plucky, 28-year-old Marine stationed in Iraq when a vehicle rollover accident nearly killed him. Sustaining major back and shoulder injuries, he returned home to Central New York to begin the next chapter of his life. Only this time, his mission was something for which he had no real training. “When I came home, I decided to become my own boss,” he recently told a packed classroom in Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management Building. “Everybody kept telling me that the economy was bad and that I didn’t know the first thing about running a business, but I didn’t listen to them. I wasn’t going to use my GI Bill or get a job at the local VA as a janitor, which is what my wife and family wanted me to do.”
Instead, Dambach did some reconnaissance of his own. Realizing that large veteran cemeteries needed reliable maintenance services, such as lawn mowing and snow removal, he started Veteran Lawn and Landscape in 2010. Four years later, he branched out into the food-truck business with Bacon Bandits.
Both ventures have given Dambach, now 32, a new lease on life, not to mention some respectable coin. His lawn-care business alone is poised to break $1.5 million in sales for 2015, thanks to a recent contract with the Long Island National Cemetery.
Not bad for someone with little more than a high school education.
Dambach attributes his success to not only his military background, but also a one-of-a-kind initiative called The Barnes Family Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV). In 2013, Dambach was among some 30 post-9/11 veterans selected to participate in the weeklong, all-expenses-paid program at Syracuse.
In March, Dambach returned to campus to serve as a guest panelist at this year’s EBV program. He was joined by four other alumni from other EBV programs around the country in a discussion about how veterans can create and sustain entrepreneurial ventures. In the audience were more than 30 current participants, including, for the first time, two pre-9/11 veterans (one of whom was Dambach’s father) and two former professional hockey players, Clint Malarchuk and Mike Gaul.
A third-generation soldier, Dambach shares a similar past with many of the participants. Most are men in their 30s and 40s who have been physically wounded in action and have struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other psychological challenges. This year’s cohort also contains three women between ages 25 and 55 and eight men older than 50. Because traditional employment represents a lifelong challenge for people with disabilities, veterans are increasingly turning to entrepreneurship as a way to get back on their feet, while rebooting the country’s economic engine.
Dambach jokes that most EBV participants are “serial entrepreneurs,” as it’s rare to find a veteran with only one business venture. For example, one of his fellow panelists, Lisa Belcastro, is a retired Army major who runs a roofing and general contracting company in Dallas. She also is founder of the “In Her Boots” program, a nationwide social venture for active-duty female service members, and is co-chair of the Grand Prairie Economic Development Committee in Texas. “You’ve got to keep an open mind because you never know when the next big thing will drop into your lap,” says Belcastro, a recent graduate of Syracuse’s Women Veterans Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE) program and Texas A&M University’s EBV program. “I call it ‘repairing the net.’ Don’t be so concerned about the endgame. Instead, prepare the net where you’re at—fill the holes and close up the gaps—because, someday, someone is going to approach you with an opportunity, and you need to be ready to pounce. Leverage your veteran status whenever possible.”
Military experience is the most significant predictor of small-business ownership, according to James Schmeling, co-founder and managing director of programs at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), which, along with the Whitman School, sponsors the EBV program at Syracuse. “Approximately nine percent of all small businesses in the United States are veteran-owned,” says Schmeling, a retired Air Force sergeant. “For many veterans, entrepreneurship affords a sense of flexibility and freedom that usually goes unrealized in a traditional job setting. Also, many veterans possess leadership and teamwork skills that are transferrable to the business world. No wonder the success rate of veteran-owned businesses is higher than that of the civilian population.”
Adds Dambach: “EBV has taught me how to get out of my comfort zone. … After all, what’s the worst thing that can happen? People tell me ‘no,’ if I go to them with a contract? At least they’re not shooting at me. It just means that I’m one ‘no’ closer to a ‘yes.’”
Answering the Call
Syracuse’s commitment to military veterans dates back to 1944, when Chancellor Tolley enacted the “uniform admissions program.” Enrollment virtually tripled overnight, with hundreds of prefabricated buildings popping up all over campus to accommodate demand. In the decades since, thousands of military and civilian personnel have enrolled in programs offered by the University in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Defense.
EBV was the brainchild of retired Air Force officer J. Michael Haynie, who established the program in the Whitman School in 2007. Haynie says EBV was created in response to a dearth of hands-on business training opportunities for post-9/11 veterans. The program got a substantial boost in 2010, when it was endowed with a major gift from University Trustee Steven W. Barnes ’82. “We provide the support that our veterans need after they complete the EBV program to reach their goals and to be successful,” says Haynie, who serves as the University’s vice chancellor for veteran and military affairs, executive director of IVMF, and the Whitman School’s Barnes Professor for Entrepreneurship. “We believe in the great skills and value they bring to their respective communities, professionally and personally. Veterans deserve a second chance.”
Almost immediately, EBV was a success and spawned a consortium of programs at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); the University of Connecticut; Cornell University; Florida State University; Louisiana State University (LSU); Purdue University; and Texas A&M.
Each EBV program offers what Schmeling calls a “14-month intervention,” consisting of three phases of training and support. The first phase is a 30-day online course, providing a basic overview of entrepreneurship and small-business management. The second phase consists of a nine-day residency, offering more than 80 hours of college-level instruction.
This past March at Syracuse, participants took courses in a variety of areas, including marketing, operations, and bootstrapping, taught primarily by Whitman professors. “EBV is always the highlight of my year,” says Mirza Tihic ’03, G’04, G’06, G’16, an entrepreneurship professor and assistant director of the University’s Office of Veteran and Military Affairs. “It’s an honor to work with veterans who not only have given so much to our country, but also have a passion for entrepreneurship. They understand that small businesses are the backbone of our economy.”
During the third phase, the EBV Technical Assistance Program offers a year of support and mentorship through its national network of mentors, resources, and sister organizations. Services include assistance with logo and website design, marketing, legal support, and finding access to capital, at little or no cost to EBV participants.
Integral to the EBV experience is IVMF, which Haynie co-founded with Schmeling in 2011. The country’s first interdisciplinary institute of its kind, IVMF addresses social, economic, education, and policy issues that impact veterans and their families. Like EBV, the institute is widely recognized for capturing best practices and for facilitating partnerships between individuals and organizations.
To date, nearly a thousand “wounded warriors” have completed the EBV program. Sixty-five percent of them have launched businesses, of which 93 percent are still in operation. In the process, more than 1,400 jobs have been created, generating more than $180 million in revenue. Most of these jobs are in the professional service, retail, construction, and education industries.
“These jobs probably aren’t going away,” says Alex Galicia, a full-service plumbing contractor in San Diego who graduated from UCLA’s EBV program in 2008. “As skilled-trade workers grow older and retire, there’s a gap that needs to be filled by an influx of younger talent. People should realize that they don’t always need master-level training to have master-level abilities. Experience can be a tremendous teacher.”
Schmeling says he is proud of the impact EBV is making in Central New York—and across the nation. Thanks to support from participating universities, as well as many individuals and corporations, the program is offered free of charge, making it very attractive. And competitive. On average, each EBV site receives more than 1,500 applications per year. “Everything—transportation, lodging, food, textbooks—is covered by us,” says Schmeling, adding that some participants go on to enroll in their respective EBV institutions. “Plus, EBV doesn’t require the use of GI Bill or vocation rehabilitation benefits.”
That was a selling point for 38-year-old Atlanta resident Delano Massey. A former crime scene investigator in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps, he has spent much of the past decade in the entertainment industry, including a two-year stint at NBCUniversal. Massey is currently involved with several ventures designed to promote a culture of “forgiveness, acceptance, courage, and love” in government, business, and entertainment. “The military has taught us a lot about taking risks, especially calculated risks,” says Massey, who operates a full-service production company called Jacobs Eye and works as a producer for the Steve Harvey Mentoring Program for Young Men. “The lesson here is to seize something we cannot afford to pass up. We, as veterans, have an opportunity to build the next ‘Greatest Generation’—not just for ourselves, but for our communities and our country. Shame on us, if we pass it up.”
Failure Is Not an Option
As the number of post-9/11 veterans continues to grow, the United States is facing what the Associated Press calls a “social and economic tsunami” of epidemic proportions. Most veterans with disabilities are 25 years old, married, and live in small towns with limited access to sufficient mental health services; many end up homeless.
Exacerbating the problem is a misconception among civilians of what veterans are capable of doing in the workplace. “A significant challenge [for veterans with disabilities] is that programs and resources focusing on small-business education and training are limited, if not altogether inaccessible,” Schmeling says. “Without that education, access to start-up capital is limited.”
As a result, there’s a psychological barrier between veterans and civilians that EBV—and programs like it—hopes to eradicate. Dawn McDaniel, a 2011 graduate of Syracuse’s EBV-F program, has dedicated much of her post-Army career to bridging that gap. The president of Bravo Delta Consulting in Hartford, Conn., she helps businesses build and leverage their veteran workforce. “A lot of the time, the civilian population gets its information [about veterans] from the media or movies, such as Stripes or Black Hawk Down,” says McDaniel, who was named the Connecticut National Guard’s 2014 Military Spouse of the Year. “Civilians think veterans can stand behind a gun but [that they] can’t possibly work in an office—that they struggle to translate their military skills. For veterans to successfully integrate into corporate culture, employers need to understand military culture so they can provide more support for them. Veterans are accustomed to having direction and guidance. They have the skills, knowledge, and ability to acclimate, but they can get frustrated with the lack of structure. This happens a lot, whether veterans go into business for themselves or end up working for other people, even other veterans.”
Derek Blumke, an EBV participant, agrees with McDaniel. He says civilians aren’t fully aware of the kinds of benefits veterans bring to the table, such as the “failure-is-not-an-option” mentality. “It’s a resounding trait that all of us have in the EBV program,” says Blumke, an Air Force veteran of the war in Afghanistan who has recently launched a technology company called Soteria Labs in New York City. “The military helped improve my work ethic and leadership skills; gave me the confidence to co-found Student Veterans of America [a veteran-support organization], while attending the University of Michigan; and inspired me to launch a tech-based, personal travel security solution. Most importantly, it taught me to take care of my own people—the most valuable trait a leader can have.”
Nick Green, a fourth-generation master plumber, is a 2012 graduate of LSU’s EBV Program. “You know the saying: ‘It’s not personal, it’s business’? I’ve always had a hard time with that because it seemed like one fed the other. In the military, you’re a soldier 24 hours a day. But in business, that mindset can kill you. EBV has helped me learn how to separate the two in healthy ways.”
Rob Enslin is a communications manager in the College of Arts and Sciences. He also is a musician; journalist; and author, whose latest book, Now’s the Time: A Story of Music, Education, and Advocacy (Epigraph, 2014), is co-written by Ned Corman.