Working to help veterans start businesses

Angela Corrieri, president of Startup Parners Inc., left, Jeffrey Wells, executive director of Maryland Cyber development and Laura Willoughby, executive director of the Chesapeake Innovation Center, tour the center's new location near Fort Meade.

Military veterans have a knack for building successful businesses, professionals say, but they have more trouble than non-veterans attracting investors.

That's a challenge now being tackled by a crop of Maryland-based initiatives aimed at helping veteran entrepreneurs.


The organizers of a first-of-its-kind venture capital fund for veteran-owned businesses are trying to narrow the investment gap. Others have created a technology incubator to encourage veterans to specialize in cyber-related business. And instructors at a 10-week boot camp near Aberdeen Proving Ground are trying to help veterans bring services and products to market.

The Veterans Opportunity Fund, believed to be the nation's first such fund dedicated to veteran-owned businesses, was launched last fall by the Maryland Technology Development Corp., a quasi-state agency that invests in startups. As organizers work toward raising $30 million in capital, they expect to make their first investments within two months, said Rob Rosenbaum, president and executive director of TEDCO.


"We discovered that veterans are an underserved group within the investment community and statistically are an overachieving group in the business community," Rosenbaum said. "We saw an opportunity to fill a need and make money for our investors."

The Chesapeake Innovation Center, the technology incubator and accelerator operated by Anne Arundel County's economic development agency, has launched CyberVets.

With the help of a $10,000 grant from the state's Office of Cyber Development, organizers plan to offer seminars, educational programs and networking events on topics such as finding investors, getting financing and becoming certified as a veteran-owned business, said Laura Willoughby, the Innovation Center's executive director.

The center is moving near Fort Meade this summer, in part to tap into the veteran community and the need for cybersecurity contractors near the base.

"The idea was to … bring in multiple resources that exist for veterans around the state, and to make it easier to access resources," Willoughby said. She said she wants "to enable more veteran-owned businesses to operate and be successful, reducing the fail rate and keeping those businesses here as they launch, so we can keep the brain trust here."

Commercial demand for cybersecurity has been growing in areas such as banking and health care, said Jeffrey Wells, executive director of the state Cyber Development office and a disabled veteran.

Maryland, home to the National Security Agency, other defense agencies and private firms, "truly is the epicenter for cybersecurity," he said.

"Cybersecurity is a people business," Wells said. "We are fortunate enough to have 13 military installations in the state that are generating veterans."


The boot camp for entrepreneurs in Aberdeen has graduated two classes of veterans since starting last fall. Angela Corrieri, president of the nonprofit Start Up Partners, started several high-tech businesses herself. She sold one to a Silicon Valley firm. Another helped small businesses take their accounting systems electronic. She also has developed security software for retailers.

Start Up's courses cater to veterans who want to start or grow businesses.

Corrieri began helping disabled veterans after a car accident left her paralyzed from the waist down. As she was working to improve access for people who use wheelchairs, she said, she was troubled to find out about chronically high unemployment rates for veterans, especially the disabled.

That work eventually led to the boot camps. The nonprofit has no paid staff and little overhead. Corrieri relies on presentations volunteered by attorneys, accountants, bankers and successful entrepreneurs.

"We take veterans through the complete business cycle: identifying a problem or an opportunity, devising or coming up with a solution or product or service, see if it makes sense moneywise and make it and sell it," she said. "They have to do that within six weeks."

Veterans often make good business owners, Corrieri said.


"We have the most professionally trained fighting force in our entire history," she said, including many with specialized training in technology.

"They are disciplined. They're well-trained, and they are committed. That's the kind of commitment and other attributes you need in starting a business. You need to be able to do it until the job is done. Once they have revenues, there is a good chance they will succeed."

Willoughby, of the Chesapeake Innovation Center, expects to work with Corrieri's program. She sees opportunities to trade resources and referrals.

Most of the boot camp students work day jobs, but devote their off time to their startups. Business ideas, some of which have already generated revenue, include sales of baked doughnuts and barbecue sauce.

Michael and Paulette Roberts, husband and wife veterans, took the course last fall. Michael Roberts, 53, who retired from the Army in 2002 after serving 20 years, now works as a training manager for a government contractor in Aberdeen.

He enrolled in the boot camp to pursue an idea to create flavor-infused cooking and dipping oils — a hobby he started to make popcorn and other snacks for his office co-workers.


During the 10-week course, he developed logos, packaging, marketing and names for flavors of his Squirrel Brand Oils. The oils and a line of nut snacks, which Roberts now makes at home, are being sold online and at fairs. He is exploring ways to move into or open a commercial kitchen.

Roberts said the boot camp "was kind of a catalyst for us getting started." He said the focus on veterans attracted him.

"Everyone has the same background and understanding. I had wanted to do something, but I never had an opportunity that presented itself."

Roberts wants eventually to open a small storefront operation.

"We're still progressing and looking for avenues to expand, and if we can find a niche and make it cost-effective, we could make that jump," he said.

The Maryland Technology Development Corp.'s veterans fund already is seeing strong interest, Rosenbaum said, with a pipeline of more than 30 companies seeking investments.


Many are technology-based, have already attracted "angel" investors and are ready to launch products or planning to expand, Rosenbaum said.

He expects the fund, which is capitalized privately and uses no state money, to fund from 15 to 25 businesses over the next two to four years. Strong demand is expected for businesses offering educational technology, used in classroom settings, medical devices, cyber security and medical information technology.

Rosenbaum said studies have found veteran-owned businesses tend to be more profitable in than those not owned by veterans.

"Folks who have been through the military are very disciplined in the way they operate," Rosenbaum said. "Folks in the military don't tend to take no for an answer. If there is an obstacle they can work their way around it and find a solution."