Ricardo Lopez says that his 22 years of active duty in the U.S. Army gave him the work ethic and time management skills an entrepreneur needs to be successful.

It’s a good thing, too, since his more than two decades of service left him medically disabled to the point where traditional employment would be more than challenging.

He’s still a young man, in his early 40s, but there are days when he doesn’t feel like it, days when it’s hard to even walk. “Sometimes I’m okay. But sometimes it hinders me. My whole body hurts,” said Lopez, who suffers from arthritis and bone problems developed over his years of service.

Since his retirement from the military in 2006, Lopez wanted to launch his own business in real estate investment. He knew he had the valuation skills necessary to make the business work, but he lacked the confidence to strike out on his own and take the risks necessary.

That changed last summer when he attended the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV), a program offered at Texas A&M University’s Mays Business School.

“It energized me,” said Lopez. “The only thing I was lacking was action. Fear of losing and fear that I didn’t know what I was doing held me back…now, instead of just talking about it, action! I’m taking a chance. A calculated risk.” The risk is paying off, as Lopez has now purchased several properties and sold them for a profit. He is planning more purchases of fixer-uppers and foreclosures that he can flip, with the long-term goal of one day buying a small apartment complex and operating his own property management company.

Lopez is one of the many success stories to come out of the EBV program, which was offered at Mays for the first time in the summer of 2008. Planning and fundraising are underway for the 2009 bootcamp, to be offered August 15-23.

The program

Last year, 16 servicemen and -women injured as a result of military service since September 11, 2001, participated in the EBV program at Mays. The program is designed to assist veterans with disabilities in becoming small business owners. It’s provided to participants for free, travel and accommodations included, thanks to the generosity of supporters. The wounded warriors selected for the program complete a three-week online business course prior to an intense eight-day residency period on the A&M campus. A year of long-distance mentoring with a Mays faculty member completes the course.

Ricardo Lopez, seen here giving his final presentation during the 2008 EBV, credits the program with giving him the confidence to launch his own business.
Ricardo Lopez, seen here giving his final presentation during the 2008 EBV, credits the program with giving him the confidence to launch his own business.

From budgeting to IP protection, the EBV program focuses on the elements that are important to the would-be entrepreneurs, many of whom come to the course with big ideas and a storehouse of passion, but little business experience. The course presents lessons on creating a workable business plan, securing financing, marketing, and other important areas such as taxes and legal issues.

“The other thing that we bring to this project is an everyday focus on working and living with disabilities,” says Lester. Disability experts, and veteran’s administration affairs and workforce commission representatives present to the group daily, as well as Mays faculty members and successful entrepreneurs.

Lester says there’s a great need for this kind of service. “The number of veterans with issues after they are discharged from the service is phenomenal. One-third of all the homeless folks in the United States are veterans. So, we have a really at-risk population,” he said.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, the number of U.S. veterans—many of them with physical or emotional trauma—grows exponentially each year. “There is an impending crisis looming for disabled veterans…as regards long-term employment opportunities,” said Lester, who hopes that Mays involvement in this program will help the student-veterans to take charge of their futures through owning businesses.

This year, Lester expects to have 20 participants in the innovative program.

Special people

Toni Williams has a heart for children, especially those who face added challenges due to disabilities. When Williams was honorably discharged from the Marine Corps in 2002 due to an injury that left her with a hearing loss and inner ear problems, she decided to serve her country in a new way. She joined Teach for Texas and earned a teaching certification with an endorsement in special education.

“The program brought me from just having an idea to where I am now,” said Toni Williams. The 2008 EBV participant aims to open a school for children with special needs next fall.

Through her experiences in the classroom working with special needs 6-8th graders in Dallas, an idea started to form in Williams’ mind: a school for just these types of kids; an environment where they could be nurtured and encouraged, and taught how to be a successful part of society; a place for kids from low-income families to get the care they need.

Her dream school might have remained nothing more than wishful thinking had it not been for the 2008 EBV program at Mays. Today, Williams is applying for her non-profit status, creating the school’s curriculum, and looking for a space to rent, with a plan to enroll her first class in fall 2010.

“The program brought me from just having an idea to where I am now,” she said. “It’s been a tremendous support system for me as I’m trying to become an entrepreneur.”

Williams is dreaming big: she’d like to open branches of the school in other parts of Dallas and other cities. “This isn’t going to go away, my idea. It’s going to be solidified, and it’s going to be successful.” Williams credits the EBV program with her progress. “I tell all of my friends from the service that if they have any spark of wanting to become an entrepreneur, it’s a wonderful program.”

EBV is offered in consortium with the business schools of Syracuse University, UCLA, Purdue University, and Florida State University. Applications are accepted on a rolling admissions basis, so there is no set deadline for applying to the program. More details are available at https://mays.tamu.edu/ebv/.

Experiences like Lopez’s and Williams are made possible through the generosity of individuals and corporate donors. If you would like to support a veteran in this program, you can give at https://maysapps.tamu.edu/maysdonate (select “Disabled Vet Bootcamp” from the drop down menu) or contact program director Richard Lester directly at (979) 862-7091 or rlester@mays.tamu.edu.