|For someone planning to start a small business, it helps to have weapons of skill in one’s arsenal, such as proficiency in leadership, accountability, experience working with teams and the ability to handle stress.
That’s why Sandra Kauanui, director of the Lutgert College of Business Institute for Entrepreneurship, sees men and women who have served in the military as ideal candidates for business start-up training — specifically in the new Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program she’s leading at FGCU.
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“It’s a great opportunity for veterans to do something they really want to do that’s meaningful,” said Kauanui, an FGCU professor of management who’s crafting the statewide curriculum for the nonprofit program the Florida Legislature funded with a $1 million grant. “A lot of them come from leadership roles in the military. They’re used to working with structure and follow-through. And now, maybe they don’t want to work for somebody else.”
FGCU is one of five Florida schools selected to participate (the others are the University of West Florida, which is charged with implementing the program; the University of North Florida, Florida Atlantic University and Hillsborough Community College). Veterans do not need to be enrolled at FGCU to participate.
With a proven record of entrepreneurial development through the institute Kauanui directs — along with support from the Small Business Development Center at FGCU and other sources, notably the U.A. Whitaker College of Engineering (Kauanui cites engineering professor Joseph Cuiffi as a “huge help”) — it’s fitting FGCU is a host site.
So from the halls of the Lutgert College of Business to the shores of the FGCU waterfront, instruction on how to start, manage and grow a business will begin in early March and conclude in late May before an anticipated statewide competition by mid-June. Kauanui is confident this test-pilot undertaking “won’t be a one-time deal if we can move veterans through the program successfully.”
One program player who’s confident this initiative isn’t one-and-done is Amy Ridgway, a 2015 business management graduate with a concentration in entrepreneurship who’s coordinating the program at FGCU while working on her master’s in business administration. Ridgway has been spending much of her time leading up to the program’s launch refining the curriculum with other professors.
At FGCU, business professor Eric Arsenault will join Ridgway, Kauanui and Cuiffi as program mentors. “The joint collaboration between the business and engineering colleges has been great,” Ridgway said.
If all goes as planned, FGCU will stage an internal competition in late May among the best business plans devised by veterans — hopefully in front of Tamiami Angel Fund investors who could help bring the concepts to market — then pit the local champ against similar winners at a statewide forum on the FGCU campus the second week of June.
Ridgway intends to invite Florida Gov. Rick Scott and other state officials to that final competition in a celebration of sorts, in anticipation of the program’s collective, inaugural victory. “They’ll be able to see the end result of all the hard work,” she said, which in turn could ensure the program’s permanent funding and continuation.
Three steps toward success
The program is implemented in three phases, the first of which is seven weeks of online development training covering the basics. “We’ll have our faculty assigned to groups of students for guidance and mentoring,” Kauanui said.
Phase 2 takes place on campus in seven sessions spread over three weekends so as not to interfere with participants’ jobs or schooling. This is where veterans get face-time instruction from experts as they refine their business plans and prepare for the last-day competition.
The final phase involves ongoing mentorship and follow-up support from SBDC consultants to help the new businesses get up and running successfully.
“This won’t cost them a penny,” Kauanui said. “The grant even provides for meals, hotel rooms and transportation if travel is involved for the on-site training.”
While Kauanui ideally would give preference to veterans with Southwest Florida ties (“They are most likely to stay right here and open a business,” she said), participation in the program is open to any man or woman who is either active duty or served for at least three years and was honorably discharged, and who lives in Florida or plans to relocate here. The goal is to attract as many as 400 veterans statewide, or up to 80 at each program site.
The Sunshine State is a perfect setting for this program. Florida has 1.5 million residents who are veterans — third-most of any state — and there are 20 military installations around the peninsula.
From a business perspective, beyond the service industries, Florida is a leader in high-growth sectors such as aerospace, manufacturing, logistics, research and development and technology, producing more than 750,000 defense-related jobs alone.
Kauanui wants to make sure veterans get a deserved piece of the action. “We’re taking classroom instruction to another place,” she said. “We’re excited to be serving the men and women who serve our country.”