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Veterans are finding new careers with help from UGA


Army veteran Reginald Foster knew for years he wanted to open a business. With the help of the University of Georgia’s Small Business Development Center, he is on the cusp of making that a reality.

“I’d probably still be trying to figure out how to get through the business plan,” said Foster, who retired from the U.S. Army in March after 25 years of service. “(SBDC consultant Eric Frickey) really helped me a lot as far as putting in the financials, the income statements, putting in projections. I started working with him a year ago. We’ve developed a relationship over time. He’s been very helpful as far as pointing me in the right directions.”

Foster discovered the SBDC, a unit of UGA’s Office of Public Service and Outreach, through Boots to Business, a nationwide program taught by SBDC staff at military installations across Georgia. After taking the two-day course at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Foster enlisted the SBDC to help him open a Tropical Smoothie franchise.

Foster’s story isn’t unusual. Susan Caldwell, area director for the Augusta office of the SBDC, said some participants in Boots to Business end up as SBDC clients. The two-day program was developed in 2013 by the Small Business Administration and Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. The course introduces soldiers leaving the armed forces to entrepreneurship as a post-military career. More than 900 active members of the military have taken the course since it was first offered in late 2013.

Veterans are a force in small businesses across the country, including Georgia. Businesses owned by veterans employed nearly 172,000 people and accounted for more than $57 million in sales in the state in 2012 according to the US Census Bureau.

“The discipline, the focus on mission, those (skills) are so transferable to the entrepreneurial environment,” said Columbus SBDC area director Mark Lupo, who helps teach the course at Fort Benning. “The mindset is different for those individuals versus someone working in a corporate job getting paid a salary.”

Foster found his skillset matched nicely with opening a franchise, where he can fit into a system similar to the regimented procedures of the Army. He’s preparing to finalize a lease on a property off Augusta’s Bobby Jones Expressway in a retail area that fits the parameters Tropical Smoothie prefers for its locations.

Boots to Business is taught four times each year by staff at the UGA SBDC offices located near a military base. Lupo — a veteran himself who trained at Benning 30 years ago — was part of a team that ran the course last month inside the Soldier for Life building, tucked away on the fringes of the base not far from the main gate. A handful of soldiers preparing for retirement listened intently, learning how major brands like Chick-Fil-A and Nike were started by veterans like them.

“This class in particular is really great for someone like me who dreams of working for themselves, owning their own company,” said 28-year-old Army Spc. Michael Polk. “It kind of makes you feel more comfortable with the idea.”

The course helped Luis Fontanez, a 23-year Army veteran, start his own window covering franchise with Budget Blinds. Fontanez took the course in 2014 not expecting to end up with his own franchise.

“You start looking for information and the online search is big. You get lost,” Fontanez said. “It’s a huge place to try to gather information. The Boots to Business program may help you narrow some things down. … Things are getting better every month. I like it. I work when I want to.”

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