“Man, if they had something like this when I got out, life would have been better for me,” Dr. W. Chris King, dean of academics at the Command and General Staff College, said during the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation’s FastTrac NewVenture for the Veteran Entrepreneur course graduation Feb. 21 at the Resiliency Center.
Twelve soldiers soon to be transitioning from military to civilian life attended a 10-week course offered through the Army Career and Alumni Program, exploring what it means to be an entrepreneur and develop a business model many of them hope to use in personal businesses outside of military life.
The Kauffman Foundation launched FastTrac in 1993 and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. In 2011, the foundation began developing a specific curriculum targeted to military veterans. The course has been offered to veterans and some active-duty military in city settings, but the course that ran from December to February at Fort Leavenworth was the first and only one offered on a military installation with a specific intention of helping soldiers transition from military to civilian life.
“FastTrac came to us with a really, really great idea, and it would seem fairly straightforward and simple,” King said. “Being the United States Army, we make even the easiest things hard.”
Legalities of accomplishing the class took several months to work through.
“It was tremendously difficult to put all the pieces together,” King said.
There is normally a fee that could reach close to $800 per seat to attend the training, but the CGSC Foundation agreed to pay individual costs for soldiers attending the course and Accenture provided a grant to the CGSC Foundation that helped pay for costs of materials normally sold for the course.
“There was a lot of work involved, it took a lot of people,” King said. “It was a great idea and here’s the evidence of that. It really was something that was very, very important for these people individually, and I think the bigger concept is what you really got. It’s another pilot that is a proven concept and we need to share it broadly across the surface.”
Students met once per week for a minimum of three hours. Current business owners and experts in various fields of entrepreneurship — like marketing, taxes, human resources and law — spoke to students during class periods aiding them in the development of their business models they presented to the class before graduation.
Alana Muller, president of FastTrac, was present to congratulate the graduates after they received their graduation certificates. She shared a quote from Kauffman Foundation’s founder and benefactor, veteran Ewing Kauffman.
“He thought that everybody should have the pride of having a business of their own,” Muller said. “He thought we all had the capacity to do this. He wanted to provide that opportunity. He would be so proud of you. The day that he launched FastTrac in January 1993, it was his last public appearance. He was a very sick man. He died later that year, but not before he bought FastTrac for the Kauffman Foundation, and he said, ‘You should not choose to be a common company. It is your right to be uncommon if you can. You seek opportunity to compete. You desire to take the calculated risks, to dream, to build, yes even to fail, and to succeed.’ And I wish that for all of you. I wish all of you an uncommon company.”
Linda McGurn, facilitator of the Fort Leavenworth FastTrac course, has worked as an executive in Fortune 50 companies, owned her own company and has recently worked on projects for the military. Her role was to help participants apply what they were learning, answer questions and provide resources that would be helpful to them.
“The very first day we had people describe what their business concept was,” McGurn said. “What they have done over these last 10 weeks is refine their concepts in a way that makes them actually feasible to launch. They really matured in their thinking and also were introspective about ‘what is it really going to take to start a business?’”
After 32 years in the Army, Lt. Col. Dale Wallace, Combined Arms Center headquarters, is retiring. He is starting his own real estate business in southern Florida, buying properties, refurbishing them, and then either renting them out or selling them depending on what is the best business option for that property.
“I think one of the big things to take away here is that it makes you go through an expectation management process,” Wallace said. “It’s very easy to allow your optimism to cause you to have unrealistic expectations about your business. That’s one of the things that this prevents. It makes you go through an empirical process of reviewing the different facets — a different facet every week of your business model — and analyzing it to see if it’s feasible or not.”
Maj. Alan Newton, network chief at the Digital Leader Development Center, has been building his livestock herd for eight years. He just got a loan for his retirement home that he’s incorporating into his business to get a tax write-off for the construction of his ranch house. He’s starting his own ranch and took the course so he could figure out taxes, benefits of opening a business, and hear ideas and advice from other people. Over the 10-week period, his plan morphed into a much more focused, profitable and flexible plan.
“The research that I was basically forced to do to flush out really taught me a lot about what I wanted to do,” Newton said. “I did research on the cost of raising cattle, the cost of raising pork, the S-corp, LLC and C-corp, the differences, the tax advantages of each, the cost of all the inputs into the product and then finally marketing and my potential customers. I’ve talked to three different meat packers to get their pricing.”
Brett Rosene, ACAP manager, became aware of the FastTrac program in 2012 and said he realized what an opportunity it would be for soldiers. Now, after seeing the presentations and hearing from the participants, he said it was a success.
“What we’re hearing is these guys are going back to their units, talking to their peers, and their superiors and subordinates,” Rosene said. “I’m getting phone calls saying ‘What is this? How can I be a part of it?’ We’ve already got a waiting list for our next class.”
McGurn said for the course starting in March she hopes to combine the first two sessions to make a six-hour off-site at the Kauffman Center to give participants a better opportunity to get to know one another. She also hopes to get the word out about their presentations to ensure they have a big audience and support system.
After the next course in March ends in May, a sponsor hasn’t been secured to continue offering the course through ACAP for soldiers, but Rosene is hoping that changes.
“We cannot have a program where we charge soldiers to attend one of our sponsored programs, so someone else has to pay for it and then give us the seats,” Rosene said. “Once I find someone willing to pay for it and give us the seats, we’ll announce whether we’re going to continue.”
“It’s about $16,000 per class for 20 people,” Rosene said. “It’s expensive. If your foundation has $100,000 in reserves, that’s quite a chunk of money that’s coming out, but I want to talk to some of the banks, and other business foundations. Talking with the FastTrac folks, we think we might be able to work it out. They saw the success that we had with this as the pilot program. They like what they saw, and I think that we can keep it going.”