Mission accomplished: Veterans’ boot camp completes fifth year

“I wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact the EBV would have on me," Blass said.

In 2006, at age 46, with 25 years in the military behind him and two master’s degrees and a doctorate in business administration in hand, Fred “Randy” Blass was set to transition into retirement and civilian life. He had pretty much mapped out the next stage of his life: Teach management and entrepreneurship classes two days a week at the Florida State University College of Business and spend the rest of his time boating, fishing and golfing.

“That was the plan,” he says.

But in less than a year, the retired Air Force lieutenant colonel was bored and looking for something service-oriented and meaningful to engage him. He was tinkering with an idea for a nonprofit organization when he received a phone call from a friend and former colleague who had taught with him at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The call would mark the end of his brief retirement and the beginning of a venture that has changed the course of his life and the lives of veterans from across the nation.

That venture led Blass to establish the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (commonly abbreviated as EBV) at Florida State. The EBV is a cutting-edge educational program that is helping military veterans who have suffered physical or mental disabilities during post-9/11 combat operations to reassert their independence —and more easily provide for their families —by acquiring new skills in entrepreneurship and small-business management.

This year’s EBV participants arrived on Tuesday, June 19, for an intense week of classes, workshops and breakout sessions. They also received professional advice from industry professionals on best practices that will help them start a business or take their current business to the next level.

The idea for the boot-camp program actually originated during a visit by Blass to Syracuse University in New York. Another educator fresh out of the military, Michael Haynie, had left the Air Force Academy and accepted a faculty position at Syracuse’s Whitman School of Management, where he was named executive director of that school’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. Haynie called Blass to tell him about his plan to create a program that would teach entrepreneurship skills to military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The plan specifically targeted veterans with service-connected physical or mental disabilities.

The need was clear. About 2.8 million men and women have served in the military since 2001. And the rate at which they’re leaving military service with enduring physical or psychological disabilities is unprecedented in U.S. history, according to Haynie. He estimated that about 30 percent will live out the rest of their lives with those disabilities. For many of them, traditional employment — a 9-to-5 job — would be a challenge.

Haynie named the Syracuse program the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities, and he invited Blass to fly to New York and teach a couple of courses during the weeklong program. Blass accepted.

“I wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact the EBV would have on me,” said Blass, an associate in organizational behavior at the FSU College of Business and director of the college’s Center for Veteran Outreach and The Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship. “I wasn’t prepared for men and women coming back from the war with injuries and showing such gratitude to me, thanking me, after all they had given for their country. I wasn’t ready for that.”

The Syracuse program had begun receiving national media attention and inquiries from premier universities from across the country interested in learning more about the EBV that led Haynie and Blass to consider forming a consortium of universities that would replicate the program.

“We were motivated to make the EBV a model and grow it outside the walls of Syracuse, but we wanted select, marquee kind of schools with an active alumni base who could fund the program at the level it needs to be funded,” Blass said. “And we wanted participants who demonstrated a passion for entrepreneurship.”

Immediately upon his return to Tallahassee, Blass approached College of Business Dean Caryn Beck-Dudley about establishing similar program at Florida State. To keep costs down, he proposed holding the weeklong boot camp on campus during the summer and asking business faculty with extra time on their hands to teach the sessions.

“The dean was enthusiastic about it and said if I could raise the money, she would support me,” Blass said. “I had no idea what I was getting into. It’s expensive to fly a vet and put him or her up for eight nights in a hotel and provide meals.”

Blass estimated it would cost about $5,000 per participant to pull his plan off. He intended to open the initial FSU boot camp in June 2007 with 15 veterans.

Beck-Dudley and Blass ran the idea past a handful of Florida alumni and supporters and were buoyed by their enthusiasm and encouragement. In the fall of 2006, Blass launched a one-man fundraising campaign with a goal of $75,000 and an e-mail list of 150 potential donors.

Undaunted by the looming recession, Blass was determined to make the program a success at Florida State.

“The timing might not have been ideal, but the idea was timely,” he said. He e-mailed and pounded the pavement, talking to everyone he met, explaining the need and laying out his vision. Donations started trickling in, but by February 2007, he had just $15,000 and was getting nervous. However, someone then posted his e-mail message on Warchant.com, a website devoted to coverage of FSU sports, and suddenly things started looking up.

“Our alumni really came through, which I think shows the power of the passion folks have for our returning veterans and the allure of entrepreneurship,” Blass said.

Scott Bodenweber, a 1994 accounting and finance graduate from Florida State and CFO of the Fort Lauderdale-based Hudson Capital Group, told Blass he wanted to contribute to the program each year. When Blass mentioned the need for computer access, Bodenweber offered to fund laptops for use by participants.

When James R. Douglass Jr., another College of Business alum who heads the private capital investment group Douglass & Associates in Pittsburgh, heard about the program, he also stepped up to the plate. Both have made substantial donations each year since 2007. And Blass credits a colleague in the College of Business, Professor Pam Perrewé, and the Center for Human Resource Management for which she is director, with “pushing us over the edge.” Within two weeks, it all came together at the critical hour; Blass had raised enough money for the inaugural boot camp to move forward.

Fifteen veterans with service-related disabilities attended that 2007 boot camp. Now in its fifth year at Florida State, participation has grown to include 23 veterans for this year’s program.

(A similar boot camp for spouses or caregivers of veterans with disabilities also was developed at Florida State and Syracuse. This past April, 14 budding entrepreneurs came to Tallahassee from as far away as Oregon to take part in FSU’s first annual Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans’ Families.)

The success of the EBV programs at both Syracuse and Florida State laid the foundation for similar programs at six other universities. The EBV Consortium now comprises the Anderson School of Management at the University of California Los Angeles, the Mays Business School at Texas A&M University, the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University, the School of Business at the University of Connecticut, the E.J. Ourso College of Business at Louisiana State University and the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University.

The program continues to be largely privately funded and offered at no cost to veterans. As it has gained prominence, it has attracted national corporate sponsors, such as Wal-Mart, Humana, PepsiCo and the global law firm of DLA Piper, which also provides pro bono legal aid for EBV graduates. EBV participants have been invited to ring the opening bells at the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ stock markets and throw out the opening pitch at Tampa Bay Rays games; the program also has been the recipient of a benefit concert at the Grand Ole Opry.

The EBV has become an integral component of the U.S. Department of Defense’s efforts to transition military members with disabilities from military to civilian life. In 2009, the Department of the Army named the EBV as a national “best practice” for programs serving soldiers and their families.

Many who consistently support the EBV are motivated by respect and gratitude to returning veterans and Florida State. Douglass says his involvement, which in addition to financial support includes mentoring boot-camp graduates, stems from his desire to honor his late father, Col. James R. Douglass Sr. His son, James R. Douglass III, also is a military veteran and a graduate of the Florida State College of Law.

“I see this as a convergence of my gratitude to FSU and the respect I have for the military,” said Douglass, who also has endowed scholarships for military veterans at the College of Business and the law school in honor of his father.

Prior to joining the faculty at Florida State in 2006, Blass was an officer in the Air Force, where he served in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm and later achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel. His professional education includes a doctorate in business administration from Florida State; a master’s degree in administrative science from George Washington University; a second master’s in military arts and sciences from Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala.; and a bachelor’s degree in American studies from the University of South Florida.