Innovation Destination: Hartford had the honor meeting Michael Zacchea, a combat-wounded medically retired Marine Lieutenant colonel who started the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) at the University of Connecticut in 2010.

Zacchea, who is Program Manager of the EBV explained how the program is helping veterans become entrepreneurs, start their own businesses and re-integration into civilian life.

To learn more about UConn’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities watch a video.

INNOVATION DESTINATION HARTFORD: Can you describe the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities program?

MICHAEL ZACCHEA: The program is designed to help people start businesses but, in a broader sense it’s really about economic re-integration into civilian society.

It’s a year-long program that basically mirrors a UConn academic year, so it includes a fall semester and spring semester and summer session. The program includes a 30-day online course and a 10-day bootcamp that is about 81 hours of instruction and about 45 hours of homework and assignments.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that we have a year-long mentorship phase where we help veterans actually start their businesses. We have mentors—graduate students, most of whom are veterans—who will mentor a caseload of veterans. The mentors will hold them accountable for writing a business plan, identifying barriers to entry, developing solutions to those barriers for entry and then executing on those solutions.

The mentorship part is where we really produce the results that distinguish the EBV from other programs.

We also have after-program care. Even though the program is supposed to last for a year, I stay in contact with all the graduates. I’ve helped people buy businesses, sell businesses and grow businesses. We’ve had a number of people who started a business and were not successful the first time and have gone on to start second businesses, which is really important in terms of identifying the skill retention.

We’ve helped a number of people become serial entrepreneurs. They start successful businesses and they say: This is great, I’m going to start a second one or third one. That’s another very important indicator as well.

I think we’ve discovered a formula for both economic and social value creation that is very productive but also very sustainable.

IDH: It sounds like a very successful program. How many annual participants are there?

MICHAEL: Our most recent program had 25 attendees and no attrition. We have a maximum of 25 attendees each year.

Before this most recent class we produced 90 businesses that produced more than $22 million in gross revenue and 170 employees. We’ve also helped 18 people find full-time career-track employment, not entry-level, but career-track employment. We’ve helped another 11 people get into a full-time professional education program, whether a Master of Business Administration or law school. Three different people from this last class have gotten their first contracts with the federal government. Those are all outcomes we’re very proud of.

IDH: And the program is not just for Connecticut veterans, right?

MICHAEL: Correct. I recruit primarily in Connecticut and secondarily in New England and the tri-state area.

About 25% of our graduates are from Connecticut, about 50% are from New England, 75% are from the East Coast and the rest are geographic outliers who have for one reason or another applied to the EBV program.

In this last class we had 13 veterans from Connecticut. I strive for a 50/50 mix, so 50% who are within two to three hours driving distance, which includes New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts New Hampshire and Rhode Island. I really consider the economic impact regional. For measurement purposes, yes Connecticut, but for real economic value creation it’s regional.

IDH: Can you provide a little history about the program and how you became involved?

MICHAEL: Sure. I was medically retired from the Marine Corps and moved to Connecticut in 2007. I wanted to get involved in veterans advocacy and I wanted to go to business school. I applied to the University of Connecticut and got in in 2008. I became an advocate for UConn veterans and wound up being one of people who started the veteran student organization at UConn.

In the fall of 2009 I was taking a class with a professor who was connected with the person at Syracuse University who started the EBV program there. The professor thought I’d be a perfect fit to start a program at UConn. We developed a business case for bringing the program to UConn and made the case both to Syracuse University and UConn and ultimately to the General Assembly that we should start this program at UConn.

The EBV program is not tax payer funded, it’s all privately raised money. We started our first class in 2010. There were 15 people and, of the 15, 12 started businesses. We had a 100% conversion rate of people who either reentered the workforce or started businesses. The program has just grown from there and gotten better every year.

IDH: How many veterans have graduated from the program?

MICHAEL: At this point, we’ve had 135 people graduate from the program, including 35 women. The women who are in representation is much higher than the national average.

IDH: That’s interesting. Why do you think that is?

MICHAEL: I think there are a couple of reasons. One, women have had more difficulty entering the workforce as a result of the recession. Two, women generally have a less linear career path then men as a result of family obligations and things like that. I think that women entrepreneurship is something that is a growing trend.

IDH: Tell us about the EBV program’s annual business pitch event. How exactly is Connecticut entrepreneur and inventor Eric Knight involved?

MICHAEL: Eric is actually involved in the beginning. He counsels the veterans on their ideas and innovation. Because he’s a very creative guy, he talks about different ways of solving problems. So he’s at the front end.

At the back end we have successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and other subject matter experts who judge the pitches. The veterans compete in groups for a nominal cash prize in terms of best pitch, and most innovative idea. Then the class will vote on the awards. The spirit award is for motivation and energy, the veteran award goes to the person who is most likely to help veterans, and the tech award goes to someone who’s most leveraging technology.

IDH: What types of businesses have come out of the program?

MICHAEL: About 25% our computer and IT services. Probably another 25% are contracting. We’ve helped people start trucking businesses, laundry businesses, a deli, a marketing company and a fitness company. This year we had someone who is doing high-tech 3-D manufacturing. We also helped start a couple of law firms and a medical practice. We usually have one person a year who wants to start a line of clothing and one who wants to start a farm. Agribusiness is definitely trending.

IDH: How many other schools have an Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities program?

MICHAEL: At present, we are one of eight, but starting in 2016 we are going to have two additional.

IDH: What types of resources does the program provide for veterans?

MICHAEL: The first thing is that we give them a years’ worth of access to the UConn business library. They have access to information about marketing and research to help them develop their business idea.

The second thing is we give them a business class laptop and we consider that mission-critical equipment. I think that’s another reason why be in a little bit more successful. Even now we still have veterans who either don’t own computers or don’t have regular access to the Internet. So really that’s a crucial role. In the past, we used to give them a business suit, and that too was an important part. We did not do that this year, unfortunately. I hope that will be able to do that next year because I really consider that an important part of the program.

Other support that we give them includes the mentorship from the graduate assistants in the class. Concurrently I teach a class and social entrepreneurship. Basically the EBV is a social enterprise. So I have graduate students in the class learning about starting a social enterprise and getting real-time experience, both as interns in a social enterprise and then also getting broad and deep experience in starting businesses. I have a caseload of six or seven. For our graduate students that’s a real resume distinguisher.

We give our graduates a lot of mentoring. We connect them to previous graduates from previous sessions, who either can mentor them or sometimes can partner with them. That’s a whole other dynamic of creating value for past graduates and current graduates.

They also have access to the network of mentors and financiers—people who we are in contact with. There have been deals that have been built out of those relationships, and that continues to this day.

IDH: What do you enjoy most about the opportunity to work with veterans?

MICHAEL: It’s very exciting for one thing. I love doing getting up in the morning, I love the interaction with people. In every class we’ve had at least one person who is emerging from a period of homelessness. This class we actually had three people who are homeless so that’s really satisfying, knowing that you’re turning someone’s life around.

The ideas themselves are exciting. I like the feeling of being able to learn about a new business or create a new business idea that’s engaging creatively. And then emotionally, every instructor and every judge says that they get far more out of it than they put into it and for me that is true. It’s been an integral part of my healing. I was severely wounded and saved by two Marines and I feel like I owe a great debt that I can never repay but this is part of paying forward that debt. I really think I’ve been given a great gift.

Many veterans have been very honest talking about how they either survived a suicide attempt or sought help when they had suicidal ideation. I really think that this program saves peoples’ lives. I feel a real sense of urgency in terms of saving—not just helping change the direction of peoples’ lives—but saving lives.

IDH: You’re doing really important work.

MICHAEL: That’s what it feels like to me.