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Vets head back to bootcamp, this time to learn entrepreneurship

Institute for Veterans with Military Families

Popping the occasional Tylenol and drinking plenty of Red Bull are how Tom Voss and David Kendrick get through the long days at the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV).

Voss, 28, from Wuawatosa, Wis. and Kendrick, 25, from Rochester, are both Army veterans hoping to start their own businesses.

For eight days at Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), Voss, Kendrick and 25 other veterans spend 14 hours a day in classes learning how to be entrepreneurs.

"It’s been a rollercoaster," Voss says of trying to wrap his head around all the information. "Reality hits you in the face with these stories that they’re telling you, but at the same time it’s motivational."

Voss initially tried to use his G.I. Bill to go to school after serving in Iraq, but he dropped out twice. With encouragement from his sister, he eventually earned a degree to be a social worker. Now he's hoping to start his own "dry hootch" franchise, a coffee shop for veterans and community members to reconnect and socialize in a substance-free environment.

Kendrick had trouble working a traditional 9-5 job after leaving the service and is now working on becoming a motivational speaker.

He says the bonds he forms with with the people he meets at speaking engagements are similar to the bonds often made in the military - they stay with you.

He exudes confidence about being a successful speaker, as might be expected from someone trying to become a motivational speaker, but he is nervous about convincing investors.

"The passion is there, I don’t think we have a problem with passion," he says. "It’s just now how are we going to put that passion into words? Because it’s something I myself have been doing for the past year and I can explain to friends and family, but how can I explain to the people who have the money to invest in my business?"

"Vets will hire vets"

The EBV started in Syracuse in 2007, but it's now run at seven other colleges across the country, including UCLA and Texas A&M.

The program's expansion comes as colleges put more focus on entrepreneurship and as the unemployment rate remains high among veterans - 12.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Helping them to start small businesses is an important part of reducing veteran unemployment, according to Raymond Toenniessen, Director of New Initiatives & External Relations for the IVMF.

"Vets will hire vets and I think when you start to add up all those businesses and all those employees, I think it can really start to move the needle on the unemployment problem," Toenniessen says.

The EBV wraps up on Saturday with a pitch session to potential investors and awards ceremony, but the program doesn't totally end there. Toenniessen and the other mentors will be advising the vets for the next year.