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Entrepreneurship boot camp empowers disabled vets

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Syl Kacapyr

Alex van Breukelen knows firsthand the challenges of launching and running a successful business. He opened The Americana bar and restaurant in Baltimore 18 months ago while in the U.S. Marine Corps. He has been managing budgets, marketing plans, human resources and more ever since.

But there was still a lot he didn't know, from pricing and costing to financial analysis and marketing concepts, he said. "There were so many different aspects of restaurant management and entrepreneurship that I just didn't know I was missing," said the 13-year military veteran.

Thanks to a new entrepreneurship training program offered through Cornell's Leland C. and Mary M. Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship (PIHE), van Breukelen gained the skills he needs to build a successful business. Van Breukelen was one of 11 veterans who participated in the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) at the School of Hotel Administration (SHA) Sept. 29-Oct. 6.

"If I had known two years ago what I have learned [at EBV], I would be leaps and bounds ahead of where I am right now," said van Breukelen. He went on to win $5,000 and an award for the best venture impacting veterans at the EBV National Business Plan and Pitch Competition Oct. 19-21 in Denver. The annual EBV program begins with an online curriculum that participants complete before they arrive on campus for a weeklong residency program. After they leave campus, they have access to ongoing technical assistance from faculty experts and EBV partners.

"We know that we are not able to teach the students everything they need to know to start their hospitality or real estate businesses in one week," said Neil Tarallo, SHA senior lecturer and PIHE academic director. "However, we do know that we can provide a strong foundation from which they can build. Perhaps most importantly, we can give them hope by working with them to create a path by which they can succeed."

The EBV program began in 2007 at Syracuse University. Since then, seven other universities have joined the EBV consortium, offering experiential training in entrepreneurship and small business management to veterans who were disabled as a result of their service.

Cornell's EBV was the first to offer a program on hospitality and real estate entrepreneurship. It covered topics including business plan development, accounting, marketing strategies, Excel and other software programs, and financing opportunities available to veterans. Sessions were led by more than a dozen SHA faculty members; speakers from the Culinary Institute of America, Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families, and the U.S. Small Business Administration; and finance, real estate and community banking professionals.

"I know from experience that entrepreneurship can empower people to change their lives in a way that few initiatives can, and it is especially exciting to open the world of hospitality entrepreneurship to our disabled veterans," said Tarallo.

That empowerment comes with hard work. EBV is designed not only to build veterans' skills and confidence but also to teach them to examine every part of their business concept with a critical eye.

"During EBV, I rethought my idea a million times. Sometimes my confidence had gone lower, but I think I need that. The next day I came in and my confidence was through the roof," said participant Rick Yarosh. "It's like the Army -- we have to break it down before we build it back up. That's what we did in basic training. EBV really is a boot camp."

Ashlee McGandy is a staff writer at the School of Hotel Administration.


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