Take a military daughter, add degrees in psychology, management and human-resource development, mix in more than 20 years in the Air Force and eight years of company ownership and you’ve got a candidate poised to succeed as an entrepreneur. Except for one thing – the needed expertise to scale from the startup stage to a large-scale company prepared to seamlessly compete for and win major government contracts.
For that, Karen Gregory and 39 of her peers found help from Veterans Florida and the University of Central Florida Incubation Program.
The Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program, a 15-week course offered at the UCF Incubator, is giving Gregory and other qualified veterans the ability to learn not just the basics of starting a business but the real-life challenges associated with customer relations, revenue models, pitch presentation and other critical components of running a successful company. The UCF Business Incubation Program is being reimbursed up to $85,000 by Veterans Florida to run the class.
“Basically, I took my military experience and put it into business consulting,” Gregory said. She left active duty in 2009 as a lieutenant colonel and started Human Resource Strategies and Solutions in Cocoa.
The company has experienced highs and lows as contracts were won and ran out, leaving Gregory to depend on the flexibility and loyalty of her team as she has needed to ramp up and scale down. Now, with a new five-year contract secured last September, she wants to “fill in the gaps” to be certain that while current work is completed, there is still room in the pipeline to look ahead to other awards in the future.
That knowledge is something the UCF Business Incubation Program is positioned to supply.
“We have been doing business incubation for 20 years and, frankly, have the tools and the resources to assist this uniquely qualified group,” said Gordon Hogan, director of UCF’s incubator program and an Army veteran.
Through a combination of online assignment, full-day sessions on Saturdays, and interaction with each other, the group is learning the realities of life in the constantly changing world of an entrepreneur.
For instance, Nelson Neeld Wilson, owner of Gator Engineering and Aquifer Restoration Inc., would be perfectly cast as an instructor in “How to Grow Your Company 101.” By forming strong relationships with his customers and going out of his way to solve any environmental issues associated with what began as a petroleum-cleanup company, Wilson has grown GEAR to the point where it has received multi-million dollar contracts with the VA, SpaceX, Blue Origin, Orange County Public Schools and others.
His goal now is to grow the company to $15 million a year in revenue and he said the training he is receiving in the class and by networking with other attendees has been invaluable.
“I went to college on the GI bill and I held three jobs,” he said. “When programs like this one are offered you take advantage of them because there is always something you can learn.”
After joining the immediately after the 9/11 attacks, Brooklyn native Edward Sanchez held a variety of jobs while he earned degrees to enable him to pursue his dream career – creating simulation games for the military and websites for the entertainment business. But he found the lack of availability of those jobs did not help him with paying the bills for his family, including two young children.
He applied for the entrepreneurship class with the hope of gaining expertise to further develop his current job in a real estate company that shares commissions with worthwhile causes. Instead, he ended up formulating his own idea for a company.
“I have learned that the best thing I can do is go out and talk to people – classmates, family, friends, people at Target – and find out what their issues are,” he said. “I need to test the marketplace, not operate on assumptions.”
The veterans classes are facilitated by Hogan, program managers Ricardo Garcia and Rafael Caamano, incubator site managers Carol Ann Dykes, Michael Weiss and Rick Parks, and Chait Rendu, venture development manager.
Hogan said the 40 participants in the current class represent a broad range of skills, experience and cultural backgrounds. “We couldn’t have selected a more diverse group and the whole class is benefiting from it,” he said.
Following the completion of the education phase, participants will receive ongoing mentorship from Florida Small Business Development Center consultants and business leaders from their local areas.
For more information on the program and future classes, contact Rebecca Hertz, program coordinator, at Rebecca.Hertz@ucf.edu.