Teaching Entrepreneurship - VA Maryland Health Care System
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VA Maryland Health Care System


Teaching Entrepreneurship

Project Opportunity graduation class.

Graduating Class: First Row Left to Right: John Way, Aris Dennard, Alfonso Ricks, Rodney Remson, Jr., Phillip Scott Second Row Left to Right: Devin Moss, Daniel Braswell, Talford Greene, Ronald Kelly, Larry Betz Not Pictured: Vincent Batteast, Sr., Craig Bush, Mary Heyward, Herbert Sowe

Friday, June 9, 2017

After years of military service, some Veterans want to be their own bosses, write their own rules, and make their own hours. For others, injuries sustained while serving make it impossible to join the workforce, causing worry and stress over financial uncertainty.

Enter the VA Maryland Health Care System's Vocational Rehabilitation Service."Our goal is to assist all Veterans who have difficulty obtaining and maintaining competitive employment with finding a match to meet their individual vocational preferences,' said LaVerne Harmon, Compensated Work Therapy/Transition (CWT) program manager. Existing programs--the VA Therapeutic and Supported Employment Services (TSES) Programs, which includes the Compensated Work Therapy/Transitional Work Program (CWT/TW) and Compensated Work Therapy/Supported Employment Program (CWT/SE) -- help Veterans retool, retrain, re-educate, or re-orient themselves to the current job market. "These programs promote greater community and financial independence by using community resources to provide effective employment support and career development for Veterans through education and training," said David Teshiera, a vocational specialist at the VA Maryland Health Care System. But what about Veterans who fall outside the scope of existing programs?

To better serve Veterans who fall outside the scope of existing programs, vocational specialists at the VA Maryland Health Care system developed a new strategy to meet a specific need. After having identified a growing need among Veterans who either need assistance to strengthen their financially struggling business or to start their own small business by bringing their business ideas to fruitions, vocational specialists realized that some Veterans need entrepreneurial training."Why not work for themselves?" said Teshiera.

To meet the need of this segment of the Veteran population, vocational rehabilitation specialists at the VA Maryland Health Care system collaborated with Project Opportunity, a non-profit organization based on the Eastern Shore that trains Veterans to be successful business owners and is the only free entrepreneurship training program for Veterans in Maryland. The collaboration, supported by a $5,000 grant from the VA Maryland Health Care System's Mental Illness Research Education Clinical, Center (MIRECC), resulted in a 10-week, 30-hour rigorous course that gives Veterans the tools and know how they needed to launch a successful business.

The course—conducted on a pilot basis at the Baltimore VA Medical Center—consists of a series of three-hour-long workshops that help Veterans determine why they want to start a business, learn characteristics of successful entrepreneurs, take self-assessments, participate in focused training in concrete skills, assess business ideas and business planning, and other elements required to maintain a successful business. The first fourteen Veterans graduated from the pilot course in May, with business plans ready to launch an array of businesses such as a pest control company, a catering company, a clothiers, a media production company, a children's book industry, an asphalt paving company, a computer networking company, a lead testing company, and a deck power cleaning company, among others.

“Project Opportunity offers a good option in response to the high unemployment rate among the Veteran population. Veterans are extremely self-disciplined and highly motivated. They know how to problem-solve and they know how to multitask," said Joe Giordano founder of Project Opportunity. ."Those qualities are used in the military and translate well in the civilian world." 

The collaboration's goal is to help Veterans expand their occupational choices, to reduce or overcome their employment barriers, and to enhance their success in owning and operating their own small businesses.“The collaboration effort was truly outstanding. Becoming an entrepreneur is not easy. It takes a lot of hard work, dedication, sweat, and failures before eventually becoming successful," Giordano said."Additionally, Project Opportunity has a thorough application process that includes attending an orientation session, completing a candidate screening assessment, and a follow up telephone screening."

Vocational specialists screened candidates for the pilot back in January. Upon completion of the course, participants reported that they felt armed with the necessary tools to move their ideas and their existing businesses forward. Take Alfonso Ricks, a clothier with an existing struggling business, Platinum Custom Clothiers:"I feel that I now have the tools to grow my business. Men don't have time to shop. I bring fabric samples to them wherever they are—at their office or home--and they can choose their own fabrics and the look of their own custom suit," said Ricks, who currently employs 14 tailors, but who is looking to expand. Larry Betz, a former Lt. Colonel, was looking for something new to do after a 24-year-long career in the U.S. Army. With a background in science and engineering, Betz simply didn't want a job so much as he wants to do something that gives back in addition to his volunteer work."There aren't many books focused on science for young children," he said."I want to write a series of science books, mostly focused on space, that will inspire children to select a career in science," he added.

Daniel Braswell, an Air Force Veteran, learned that certified lead testers conduct lead level assessments of homes and properties on a freelance basis."The costs of having your house tested for lead vary widely, based on who's doing the testing," he said, realizing that there was a need for a company to provide high quality lead testing at standard fees.

“Instilling hope, encouraging self-direction, supporting empowerment and providing care that is holistic, individualized and person-centered in a respectful manner will by far be the most positive effect from this training," said Harmon.

Vocational Services will follow-up with the 14 graduates to stay abreast of their vocational needs and progress and will continue to assess Veteran interest and funding options to offer this course again.


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