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Vets offered support to start businesses

Participants who take the NYU training learn how to work up a business prototype, solicit investors, develop a customer base and handle legal and accounting matters.

New York University offers an intensive 12-week program designed to help former military personnel or their spouses develop successful businesses. Chris Joseph, a recent graduate of the program, now sells his Caribbean cuisine at the farmers market at the Northport VA Medical Center. (Credit: Barry Sloan)

With the fading aroma of jerk chicken and curried shrimp mingling with the lilt of Caribbean music, Chris Joseph acknowledged the dejected latecomer, palms upturned apologetically.

“I’m sorry, sold out,” the Army veteran-turned-caterer explained, standing near his table at the farmers market set up inside the Northport VA Medical Center.

Business had been bustling. An hour earlier, the row of empty chafing dishes brimmed with stewed oxtails, barbecued ribs, peas and rice.

Joseph, of Central Islip, is one of more than three dozen veterans who have just completed an intensive 12-week program offered by New York University designed to help former military personnel or their spouses develop successful businesses. 

Participants learn how to work up a business prototype, solicit investors, develop a customer base and handle legal and accounting matters.

“It has helped me immensely,” said Joseph, who wants to grow the fledgling catering service that he runs out of his home. He sees himself hiring a handful of employees and buying a trailer where he can prepare his Afro-Caribbean cuisine. 

One of Joseph's instructors, James Hendon, graduated from the program in 2016.

Today, Hendon directs the Veterans Future Lab, what NYU describes as the state's first business incubator for veterans. Both the lab and the Veterans Entrepreneurial Training program are affiliated with the university's Tandon School of Engineering.

“James helped me learn how to think like an entrepreneur,” said Joseph, as he doused the heaters for his chafing pans. 

Hendon, a 2002 West Point graduate and Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, pointed out that many younger veterans leave the service without the skills needed to find work because they went directly from high school into the structured environment of the military. 

That lack of skills can translate to trouble finding a job. 

The veteran unemployment rate, for example, climbed to double digits a decade ago as hundreds of thousands of younger men and women returned home from serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

In 2011, unemployment for male veterans ages 18 to 24 hit 29.1 percent, compared with 17.6 percent for male civilians in the same age group, labor statistics show.

The NYU training, started in 2015, typically is offered twice a year to veterans as well as National Guard and Reserve personnel, and their spouses. The program covers tuition, books and some startup costs. Applications are due Aug. 5 for the next program, which begins Sept. 4.

The business incubator offers graduates and other veteran entrepreneurs a year of free office space and support services in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.      

NYU isn't alone in encouraging veteran entrepreneurship. Syracuse and Cornell universities belong to a consortium of 10 business schools that sponsor a program called Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans, said Leah Lazarz, a program spokeswoman for Syracuse.

More than 1,600 veterans have graduated since the consortium was founded in 2008, she said. Three in four graduates have gone into business on their own, and 92 percent of those startups are still up and running, Lazarz said.

Lindsey Dixon is an Air Force veteran who went through the NYU training.

After her discharge in 2006, Dixon was out of work several months before she landed a job with Teach for America, a nonprofit that places college graduates in schools as teacher-leaders. Today, she is director of career readiness for the Urban Assembly, a Manhattan-based schools incubator.

Dixon, of Brooklyn, enrolled in the entrepreneurship program with the intention of developing both for-profit and nonprofit entities to promote educational opportunities for less-privileged children and adults. The nonprofit would offer pay-it-forward micro loans of up to $5,000 to help students cover costs typically not met by scholarships, such as child care.

“I have two master's [degrees], but I’ve never been in a program that was so applied, nor had I done one day of actually starting a business,” she said. “It’s been like a mini MBA —- intense but worth it.”

For Joseph, the training changed the way he looks at himself. 

"I made a lot of mistakes before, because I was always thinking like an employee rather than like a CEO,“ he said. "I’ve learned a lot about organization and running a business.”

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