John Reed owns the Double R Ranch, 30-acres in Gatesville, Texas, where he and his family raise horses and cattle. Reed has a big dream for his ranch: for it to be a refuge for disabled veterans and others with physical or emotional trauma. He wants it to be a place for soldiers, and their families, to find healing together.
EBV participant John Reed plans to open a ranch offering healing for disabled veterans and their families
Until last year, Reed was a sergeant in the Army, serving tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Combat injuries led to medical retirement, leaving him with severe emotional issues as well as hearing loss and damaged knees. “I have real bad PTSD. The only place I feel comfortable is with my animals. I thought maybe that would work for others,” he said. Reed realized the need for this sort of operation when he returned from duty and found that his disability was destroying his marriage. While there were plenty of medical services available to him, he couldn’t find help for his wife and children, who needed to learn how to cope with the man who returned from the battlefield so changed.
Someday soon, Reed’s dream could be a reality, thanks to a new program offered at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School. He and 15 other disabled American veterans were the first to participate in the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV), which offered wounded warriors with vision and determination the tools needed to be able to make their businesses a success.
Dallas resident Natasha Espinoza is the sort of student you’d expect to find at Mays. She’s young, trendily dressed, and full of excitement about her proposed business venture, Royal Recreation, a boutique for “sneaker freaks,” those that pay top dollar for rare footwear. You would never guess by looking at Espinoza that she is an Army veteran, a Purple Heart recipient, and that she struggles daily with debilitating injuries sustained during a tour of combat duty in Iraq.
EBV participant Natasha Espinoza presents her business proposal on the final day of the program
It’s for people like Reed and Espinoza that the EBV program began in 2007 at Syracuse University. It was offered in consortium with that program through the Center for Executive Development at Mays, with UCLA, and Florida State University. Participants were required to complete a three-week on-line course prior to an eight-day residency on one of the four campuses. This crash course in small business start-up and operation is supported by a year of one-on-one mentoring from business faculty volunteers.
One of the best features of the program is that it is 100 percent cost-free for participants. Donors underwrite the entire program, including travel and lodging.
Mays Interim Dean Ricky Griffin says that partnering with Syracuse in this venture was “the easiest decision [he’s] made in the past 15 months as dean,’ as Mays is a natural spot for this type of program.
“This university has a unique history that reflects a strong entrepreneurial spirit and a pervasive military culture,” Griffin said citing noted Aggie entrepreneurs such as Lowry Mays as well as the tradition of the Corps of Cadets, which enables A&M to produce more officers than any other school with the exception of the military academies.
A&M President Elsa Murano echoed Griffin’s thoughts. “The folks that are in this program are the epitome of one of the values that we treasure so dearly here at Texas A&M and that is selfless serviceâ€¦A&M has a legacy of loyalty and love of country.”
Lt. Gen. John A. Van Alstyne “66, Commandant of Texas A&M’s Corps of Cadets, greets EBV participant Keith Wright at a reception at the Sam Houston Sanders’ Corps of Cadets Center
While on the A&M campus, participants heard from some of Mays best faculty who taught on a variety of topics, including innovation, sales, marketing, accounting, financing, supply chain, and business structure and strategy. Bootcamp was an accurate title. While the student vets may not have had to endure physical hardship, they did have a marathon of mental exercise to complete, culminating in a final presentation of their business plan in front of an audience of their classmates, local entrepreneurs, and faculty members. Participants were often faced with 12-15 hour days as they took a dream and crafted a workable business plan around it.
Guest presenters provided part of the curriculum as well. Successful entrepreneurs told participants about their own, real-world challenges. A disability specialist presented daily about benefits and services the vets could take advantage of as they set out on their new venture. A banker and a law expert both gave participants advice about common pitfalls of entrepreneurs and helped them to get the inside track on those vital components of the business world.
There was a little time for entertainment, too, as the group was treated to a dinner at the Sam Houston Sanders’ Corps of Cadets Center. They toured the museum, ate real Texas barbeque, and visited with the next generationâ€”Corps members that will soon be officers in the military. EBV participants also spent an evening at Messina Hof, a local winery owned by Mays graduate Merrill Bonarrigo “75 and her husband, Paul, who gave the would be-entrepreneurs a realistic look at what it takes to start a business.
Those that took part in the program at Mays were a variety of ages, some in their early 20s others in their early 60s. Some were amputees, others had scars, several wore hearing aids. They were of different ranks, races, genders, and education levels, with varying lengths of service in all four branches of the service, but they were united by the shared experience of military life. It didn’t take long for the members of the group to unite into a close-knit family, helping each other with their projects and giving encouragement through the long and challenging classes.
Army veteran Orlando Casteneda aims to take his passion for art and turn it into a burgeoning small business
Many of their business plans focus on veterans services, from websites that help others get the benefits they deserve, to affordable housing for the disabled. This group of entrepreneurs isn’t out to make millions for themselves; their focus on service extends beyond their military deployment. Take for example Orlando Casteneda, an Army vet from Arlington, Texas. When he was medically retired, he went to work raising money for scholarships for the children of disabled veterans. Discouraged with the number of businesses and individuals that said they supported the troops but wouldn’t open their wallets to show it, he determined that the best way to get the funds he needed would be to start a business and raise the capital himself.
Casteneda’s trade in customizable wearable art began while he was serving in Iraq: He drew a design on his patrol cap and people noticed. Friends liked it so much, they asked him to personalize their combat wear. In 2003, his vehicle hit a roadside bomb, leaving him with brain trauma that affects his vision, hearing, and memory. While recovering at a military hospital in Germany, his business continued to grow as he made personalized items for other patients. The light bulb moment came when he was offered $100 for a hat that cost him $3 to make. Today, his work can now be seen on celebrities such as rapper Lil Flip and NBA player Devin Harris. This kind of success only fuels Casteneda’s passion for using his art to raise money for other disabled veterans and their families.
Casteneda says he gained more than just business knowledge from the EBV program, he also found important business contacts: two other participants with previous business experience have agreed to serve as his CEO and chief marketing director. “If we make enough money, we’re going to be able to finance everyone else in the class,” he says, noting that his EBV classmates all had excellent ideas that he wants to be a part of.
“Boots on the ground” at Mays
Donald Martinez was medically separated from the Army only a few days ago. He has a two-inch, pink scar running down his right wrist, a memento of a humvee rollover. After multiple surgeries, he still can’t do a push up or fire a weapon. What is harder to see are the emotional scars he bears. He, like many veterans of this war, is a victim of post traumatic stress disorder, which leaves him sleepless, anxious, and unable to focus. His experiences with these unexpected setbacks motivate him in his new business venture as a financial advisor. His dream is to help young soldiers plan for financial security in life beyond the military, so that they can be prepared for whatever might happen when they go into the field.
“All of us in the [EBV] program joined the military before the war on terror, not knowing what we were getting into, unlike today’s officers and enlisted,” said Martinez. “Despite the war, people are still volunteering for the military, and that’s why I am doing what I am doing as a financial planner for those coming in. I want to provide them protection and service that I did not get when I came in.”
That preparedness is part of the military mindset–and part of the logo for the EBV program: a set of combat boots standing at attention. This image symbolizes troops at the ready, prepared for action. That idea was prevalent throughout the week of residency at Mays as the student vets equipped themselves for action with education.
To send the participants off into the real world with their new skills and knowledge, a formal graduation ceremony was held at the Annenburg Conference Center at the George Bush Presidential Library at the conclusion of the week. With much fanfare, the EBV participants entered through a saber arch provided by the Ross Volunteers. The Singing Cadets provided stirring entertainment, including Lee Greenwood’s “God bless the USA.” President Murano and other top A&M system administrators attended the event.
Texas Governor Rick Perry “72 gave the keynote address the program’s closing ceremony
The capstone of the evening was an address from Texas Governor Rick Perry “72, who lauded the vets for their service. As a former Corps of Cadets member and Air Force captain, Perry’s remarks had special significance for the audience.
“Texas has always been a place that has respected its veterans,” said Governor Perry. “Texans understand that men and women that have sacrificed for our freedoms are special individuals. Therefore, how can we take care of them?” He introduced a plan being developed by the state called The Texas Veterans Leadership Program, which will help returning soldiers to reorient into civilian life.
“The future of America is in young men and women’s hands, just like yours,” he told participants. “Thank you for giving back. Thank you for understanding that this country is great.”
For a closer look at this year’s participants and the program, visit the 2008 EBV Photo Gallery.
Applications are now being accepted for the 2009 EBV program. Details may be found at http://whitman.syr.edu/ebv/.