Stephen Berge of Cape Coral couldn’t have expected that joining the U.S. Marine Corps in 2000 would perhaps be the best business decision he’ll ever make.
It was his military service that qualified Berge to enroll in the inaugural 2016 class of the Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program, coordinated by Florida Gulf Coast University’s Institute for Entrepreneurship. And after taking the business-startup program’s series of online workshops followed by personal, onsite training by FGCU staff, and the chance to pitch his business idea to a group of judges who doled out funding through the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, Berge emerged with the jackpot: a refined plan, self-confidence in his management training and $10,000 of seed funding to get the ball rolling after the judges voted his model the best in class.
Now, just one year later, some $3.2 million in contracts already have been awarded to Berge’s new enterprise: Bravo, a federal contractor supplying construction, medical and utility equipment as a certified, service disabled veteran-owned business. His achievements now have Berge, the first FGCU-trained veteran entrepreneurial star, headed to Jacksonville for a Nov. 30 appearance before Gov. Rick Scott and the board of directors of Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development organization, of which Scott is chairman.
“It’s amazing … I really can’t believe what’s happened this past year,” said Berge, 37, who served as a Marine reservist until he was deployed to Iraq in 2004-05.
Berge has roots in his family’s former construction business, which brought them to Southwest Florida from New Hampshire 27 years ago as the region’s growth exploded. It was after Berge’s Marine service that he returned to a local construction industry that had tanked in the recession. Berge found himself out of work, so he went back to school and earned a nursing degree at what was then Edison State College (now Florida SouthWestern) in Fort Myers.
It was during one of his shifts in the Lee Memorial Hospital emergency room, just as he was formulating the concept for a business that specialized in solid-surface windowsills, that a veterans’ outreach specialist informed him by email of the new Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program.
“My wife (Katrina, a first-grade teacher) is a business-minded woman, and we always talked about doing something for ourselves,” Berge said. “When I found out about the program, we discussed it and submitted the registration packet.”
After completing the program, using much of his $10,000 winnings to build a database of construction contracts and starting to grow his business, Berge went from working three days in the ER and two days on his new project to where he recently dropped to part-time nursing duty so he can concentrate full-time on Bravo, the focus of which has, as Berge puts it, “pivoted” in the direction of federal government contracts in the months since he graduated from entrepreneurial training at FGCU.
“I try to focus on what I know from my experiences in the Marines, in construction and in the medical field,” Berge said. “At first, the idea was to get into niche markets in private general contractor and construction industries, to supply them with the equipment they need, but after a few months, we pivoted into government jobs because the process is much quicker. You don’t have to wait two or three years to know if you got the contract.”
As Berge’s business has grown, so too has the scope and popularity of the veterans’ entrepreneurial effort at FGCU. Dr. Sandra Kauanui, a professor of entrepreneurship and management who directs FGCU’s Institute for Entrepreneurship — and who leads the veterans program for which she helped craft the curriculum not only at FGCU, but for all the sites where the program is staged statewide — said the seed funding distributed this year is up to $65,000, thanks to both the Community Foundation and the Schulze Family Foundation, which added to the pot.
“We are truly passionate about the program, as we have been able to give back in some small way to the veterans who have given so much to us,” Kauanui said.
But as far as Berge is concerned, he’s the one who’s grateful. He said he’ll get about two minutes to address the Enterprise Florida leadership Nov. 30, but instead of talking up his own business, he’ll be saluting the help he has received from FGCU — not only from the veterans program, but subsequent assistance the Small Business Development Center at the university has given him since.
“They brought in successful business leaders — many of them veterans — who talked about putting in all that time and effort for yourself, instead of for someone else,” Berge said. “They also talked about their many failures, but how they always looked for new opportunities, and for me, that was a shot in the arm.
“Besides these mentors, the staff … Dr. Kauanui, Dr. Arseneau (Eric Arseneau, associate director of the Institute for Entrepreneurship and assistant professor) and other people who study successful business practices … they went through all the steps, from incorporation to licensing to creating a business model to financial planning. It was a great, compact experience to see things from all angles.
“They prepared me, and every veteran in the program, for the realities of starting a business,” Berge said. “Without FGCU and the state offering this program, I wouldn’t have this amazing opportunity.”