News & Events

UCLA drills disabled vets on business

Aug 11, 2008
Anderson School program for entrepreneurs provides basic training to 15 recruits.
LA Times
Tiffany Hsu

Former Marine Sgt. Shawn James has found moving from the military world to the business world a difficult journey.


Add a disability, and potential partners shy away in droves, said the 33-year-old San Diego resident, who dreams of starting a company involving hybrid vehicles.

 

"There's a stigma attached, and while I could dispel a lot of that if given the opportunity, it's that first initial access that's the problem," said James, who was left with respiratory problems and lower back pain from injuries sustained during a severe storm in the Indian Ocean.

 

So he's spent the last several days with 14 other men at the all-expenses-paid Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans With Disabilities at UCLA. Offered for the first time by the UCLA Anderson School of Management, the program is based on a model launched by Syracuse University last year and replicated this year at Texas A&M University, Florida State University and Syracuse University.

 

From Aug. 2 until Saturday's graduation, the veterans absorbed the basics of entrepreneurship from speakers and teaching assistants -- many also veterans -- and Anderson School faculty members. Participants also worked through online courses in the three weeks before they arrived and will be mentored by faculty members over the next year.


The program's intense 12- to 13-hour days were no sweat, despite being crammed with one-on-one sessions and talks from people such as Richard Heckmann, founder of US Filter and Heckmann Corp. and a Vietnam veteran. After all, as former Army company commander Stephen Thomas said, "these guys have been to real boot camp."

 

"This week is my vacation for the summer," joked Thomas, 44, of Tennessee. Fresh off a year learning about technology at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, he is headed to Huntsville, Ala., to help manage a project related to unmanned ground vehicles.

 

Thomas said he'd like to eventually open a small events center in Huntsville with the marketing, strategy and operations tips he's learned at UCLA Anderson.


For nearly 20 years, the Anderson School has operated comparable programs for women and minorities, said Al Osborne, the school's senior associate dean. Veterans also need help in bringing their entrepreneurial visions to life, and the ones struggling with injuries and psychological trauma, along with insecurities about their business abilities, are more likely to abandon their goals, he said.

About 1,015 disabled veterans' business enterprises are certified to work with the state, said J.P. Tremblay, a spokesman for the California Department of Veterans Affairs.

 

"But that's by no means an inclusive number; there may be more," he said.

 

There are many other business owners who don't know how to compete for such contracts or have trouble navigating tricky business waters, experts say.

 

"We're not medical doctors, but we are economic ones -- and business is a war that they've lived a different version of," Osborne said. "If we can give them economic freedom and help them bring themselves and their families back to normalcy, we'll be there for them."

 

To fund the boot camp, the Anderson School's Harold and Pauline Price Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, which conducted the program, raised $250,000 from the business community. Other schools nationwide have expressed interest in hosting their own entrepreneurship boot camps, but Osborne said officials at the four schools this year wanted to go slow and work out kinks.

Most veterans were gung-ho about their chances in the business world.

 

"I don't think anything holds me back," said Steven Yeschin, 25, of Los Angeles, who had surgery for kidney failure and is deaf in his left ear. "I just hold the phone with my right hand."

 

"It slows me down, but it can't stop me," Thomas said of the 85% range of motion in his left leg, which was fractured along with his jaw and right leg in a September 2003 roadside ambush in Iraq.

For most participants, the UCLA boot camp was a chance to switch focus from trauma and scars to balance sheets and customer needs.

 

Greg Murray, 24, came to refine a concept he had hatched after years managing Casa de Balboa, his family's luxury vacation rental company in Newport Beach.

 

Last week, he worked on his management and operating skills so he could develop Honestly Green, his proposal for an eco-friendly company selling alternatives to paper and corrugated packaging.

 

After four years in the Marines and two tours in Iraq as a scout and reconnaissance sniper, Murray came back to the U.S. with eye problems but also ambition.

 

"This is like going from the AAA level to the Major Leagues," he said of the UCLA program. "You learn things you'd never thought of or more efficient ways to accomplish stuff you always thought was common sense."


Others, such as Yeschin, were trying to expand existing companies.

 

For the last 15 months, he has run Yeschin CHB Logistics with his father, despite having no formal business education. Although the customs brokerage firm pulled in $2 million in revenue last year, Yeschin said he often lets clients delay their payments, and he hopes to learn how to acquire more funds so he can afford more clients. He applied for the program after hearing about it from a friend.

Advertising to draw customers was also a problem -- until one of the professors at the program suggested Yeschin buy out some of his firm's rivals and gain their clients.

 

Similar real-world knowledge that James picked up will be far more useful than the theory being taught at his community college, he said.

 

"They spared no expense and freely offered information that an average student pays quite a lot to obtain," he said.

 

And there were side benefits: Thomas said that as the participants networked, two started talking about going into business together.

 

James, meanwhile, began building a working model of his company. Before he joined the military in 2002, he said, he spent a decade floundering in his native Indiana. Now, he's "beginning to take the first steps to following a dream."

 

"The biggest hurdle in business is when and where to put my foot down first, and they're steering us in the right direction," he said. "It's been a life-changing event for me."