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Veterans in Business

It is no secret that Pensacola is a military town. A lesser-known fact is that The University of West Florida ranks 5th in the country on the list of Military Friendly Schools – a distinction the Institution has held for ten years. The partnership between The University’s Military and Veterans Resource Center (MVRC) and the Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program bolsters UWF’s position.

The Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program assists veterans with applying practical business knowledge to their burgeoning business ideas. Veteran entrepreneurs learn how to take their ideas from the concept level to fully functional corporations or LLC’s. The Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program provides access to local resources, including business leaders and mentors.

The University of West Florida offers a 60-hour Veterans Entrepreneur Advanced Master Class to qualified veterans. The class meets half-days on Saturdays for nine weeks. The semester ends with a Celebration and Pitch Competition between the attendees. In years past, the MVRC raised close to $40,000 in cash and in-kind services, which they awarded to the top three pitch winners.

Leading the MVRC entrepreneurial training program is Program Coordinator, Robert “Bob” Foster. Foster is on the Board and Executive Committee of the United States Army and is a Member of the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. In his role as program coordinator, Foster dedicates himself the ongoing success of the program at all levels – from creating training materials and running the class, to recruiting veterans, mentors, and guest speakers.

Successful in business, Foster has his own entrepreneurial experience to share with enrolled veterans. His experiences allow him to coach and mentor participants drawing from real-world knowledge. Veterans learn how to successfully launch their new business venture using tried and true business principles.

During the course, veterans walk through a business model canvas process, which helps them outline the structure of their own business model. At the end of the nine-week course, participants either have a corporation or LLC established or know that business ownership is not for them. In less than two years, veterans completing the program are responsible for creating 22 new Northwest Florida companies.

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The only requirement is that businesses remain within the state of Florida. It is, however, preferred that companies stay in Northwest Florida, allowing the community to also benefit from the program. You may recognize a few of VFEP’s success stories: Crappie Candie Bait Co., owned by Gary Pheabus. Crappie Candie Bait Co. makes fishing lures that imitate natural food to “trick the fish.” Smokey Jerky, LLC owned by Matt Foresman. Smokey Jerky uses a proprietary smoking process in addition to prime meat handcrafted flavors. Florida Coconuts, LLC owned by Alex Hill. Hill sells south Florida coconuts along the beaches so beachgoers can enjoy fresh coconut water. Last year, Governor Scott recognized Hill with the Governor’s Young Entrepreneur Award.

Mentors are one of the most valuable parts of the course. Citizens volunteer their time and develop relationships with the students that extend beyond the program allowing for networking outside of the military. Knowing how important networking is for a small business, Foster takes the students to the Chamber of Commerce, Florida Forward, One Million Cups, and other places to develop contacts. Due to the number of those volunteering to mentor, Foster has increased the size of each class from 10 to 20 students.

If this program sounds like something you or a friend are interested in, visit veteransflorida.org to register and learn more or e-mail Bob Foster at rfoster2@uwf.edu .

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