Cocktails and dreams: Entrepreneurship education for military veterans

(Photo: Unsplash, Jakub Dziubak)

Fans of 80s movies will undoubtedly have a soft spot for Tom Cruise’s Cocktail, the breezy romp about the aspirations of young Brian Flanagan. Recently separated from the Army, Flanagan yearns to make his mark in the business world after attending college, but takes up bartending to cover his nut.  He teams up with Doug Coughlin, the silver-tonged booze slinger who trades on his charm, and who is convinced that Flanagan’s formal education is worthless in the real world. To Coughlin, streetwise cynicism and empty pleasures are the true currencies of the world. As the film progresses, Coughlin realizes that the bar business is far more of a “business” than presiding over nightly drinking parties, and that Flanagan’s rather boring mastery of income statements and balance sheets are far more valuable than Coughlin had thought.

If we remove the megawatt smiles and the gallant boyfriends choosing love over money, this particular Hollywood narrative is not all that far removed from the bitter realizations some business operators face. Having dreams and a vision for a business venture is one thing; possessing the skill-sets and know-how to realize those dreams is quite another.

The Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) offers medically separated service members an invaluable opportunity to hone their business ideas and bring their entrepreneurial ideas to successful fruition. The program affords veterans access to leading university faculty and cutting-edge resources and facilities at no-cost (yes, your tuition would be $0) to the participant. With over 1300 graduates of EBV since 2008, the program has seen 68% of its graduates go on to start their own businesses.

EBV is a national program based out of Syracuse University and offered through 10 universities throughout the United States. There are schools in the Northeast (UCONN, Cornell, SJU and Syracuse), Midwest (Missouri and Purdue), South (Florida State, LSU and Texas A&M) and West (UCLA), whose business schools offer intensive faculty instruction and campus resources for a 9 day series of immersion courses, which teach crucial skill sets needed for entrepreneurial success. EBV is one of several initiatives run through the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), which sponsors interdisciplinary educational programs specifically targeting veterans (as well as family members) as they transition to their post-service careers. Since its inception in 2011, IVMF has helped over 90,000 service and family members, including 20,000 in 2017 alone.

Each EBV program is designed to lead veterans through a 3 stage progression. Initially, veterans will complete a 30-day online course that will outline the basic themes and approaches to entrepreneurship, while familiarizing them with the basic language and terms of business. The second phase will be a 7 to 9 day residency at one of the participating institutions, with lectures, forums and seminars running throughout the day. The final phase involves a 12-month support program, one that draws on an expansive network of mentors, entrepreneur resources and partnerships.

The chapter at which I had the pleasure of meeting many EBV participants was The Hotel School at Cornell University, widely regarded at the leader in hospitality education. It occurred to me that the partnership between Cornell and EBV was particularly well-suited to transitioning veterans who entertain notions of opening their own businesses. At one time or another, who hasn’t thought about opening their own bar or coffee shop? Unfortunately, it’s a sad fact that the types of businesses most likely to fail include bars and restaurants. Many enter the hospitality arena thinking that the food and beverage industry is not unlike hosting their own dinner party every night of the week. Or that the bar business is little more than having your drinking buddies over and getting paid to do it. ‘

It’s true that the hospitality industry involves being sociable and being present for your patrons’ happy hours or family celebrations. That’s the enjoyable ‘front-of-house’ veneer of the business. The ‘back of house’ operations are the engine of the business. All EBV courses include sessions on everything from legal and insurance issues, operations, purchasing and inventory management, HR management, finance, marketing, revenue management and accounting.

I was on campus for a different event, but met the Director of Cornell’s EBV program, Neil Tarallo, who introduced me to the program and to several participants. He’s not merely a senior lecturer at Cornell’s SC Johnson College of Business, he’s been active with military entrepreneurship programs for many years. He’s taught entrepreneurship seminars at numerous locations around the world, and acts as the curriculum director for the Small Business Administration, Office of Veteran Business Development’s ‘boots2business’ program.

I ran into the EBV group again on the last evening of their program. From the mood of the room, you’d never guess they had just completed a rigorous week-long immersion curriculum. It wasn’t merely festive; the group radiated a feeling of excitement. These were former active duty service members who had been exposed to a new world, a new way of approaching their lives. A few of them shared with me their eagerness to translate the knowledge the program had imparted to them into actionable steps. They were fortified with technical ‘know-how’, and now, in the true spirit of a college commencement, were excited to begin realizing their dreams.

Cocktail ends with Flanagan opening his new dispensary of drink, called ‘Cocktails and Dreams’, which embodies the culmination of his Army perseverance and business acumen. He’s also informed that his wife is expecting twins. As any military parent will tell you, having a place that allows you to both afford and endure twins…well, that’s a place you want to call your own.

For more information on EBV, visit their website: http://ebv.vets.syr.edu/

EBV is one of several programs offered by IVMF, also at Syracuse: https://ivmf.syracuse.edu/

By Chris Field