This new program teaches veterans how to become entrepreneurs

Career paths for veterans aren’t always clear cut; However, while in the military, many veterans gain the exact kinds of skills that can lead to a successful venture: focus, the ability to work through awkward situations, and leadership.

But becoming an entrepreneur is not something that most people, including veterans, know how to do. A new program at William & Mary’s Raymond A. Mason School of Business is trying to open those doors.

The William & Mary Veteran Entrepreneur Scholars program, which launched with a pilot cohort this summer, was made possible by an anonymous donation from alumni. It is taught boot camp style, with the goal of helping veterans start their own businesses.

“Veterans are smart and resilient,” said Will Gregory, lead instructor and founder of Veteran Entrepreneur Scholars. “They keep their sense of humor when everything goes crazy. That’s a superpower to start a company. Everything when you’re doing a startup is falling apart. You have to solve problems on the fly with sometimes little information and a lot of demand on you. The military is one of the best places to cultivate those founding skills.”

According to a study by Intuit QuickBooks, 17 million new entrepreneurs will join the economy by 2022. And veteran-owned businesses, like the Black Rifle Coffee Company, are on the rise.

Jonathan “JD” Due, executive director of the Center for Military Transition at William & Mary, said guiding veterans into entrepreneurship can mean different things: as a primary job or as a second source of income. And small entrepreneurial endeavors are also seen as a way to solve problems, while generating additional capital.

“That combination is powerful both for solving problems and for building businesses,” he said.

However, support and empowerment programs for veterans need to be in place, because becoming an entrepreneur is not just about being trained. It requires community support and outreach to access things like funding.

Charles “Chuck” Williamson, an Army veteran who is currently pursuing an MBA at William & Mary, went through the pilot program. He and a friend have been working to develop a game that teaches military tactical skills, and he said the program opened his eyes to what it takes to launch a successful company.

“The military is great at teaching you how to deal with setbacks and challenges, but not really the actual specific skills like meeting with investors or incorporating a business,” Williamson said. “They teach you how to interview, not how to raise capital. But through the program, I learned a lot of things that I needed to learn.”

Williamson said he will continue to work with his friend on his game as he completes his MBA.

Gregory said the first official cohort is scheduled to start in late November and there have been many applicants. They plan to keep the cohorts small at first, so that each group gets to know each other and provide peer support and mentoring. An active support system for follow-up is also in the works, with cohorts running on an ongoing basis for now.

“Our goal is for them to be able to leave the show and start working,” Gregory said.

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