Veterans Entrepreneurship Program helps veterans forward after service

When military men and women return home from service, some want to take another big risk by going into business for themselves.

A program at Hillsborough Community College in Tampa is making their transition into a new career a smooth one.

Through the Veterans Entrepreneurship Program in Tampa, veterans are taught what it takes to launch a business from mentors, some of them veterans themselves.

"It took that type of course to bring my mindset from a military mindset to a business owner's mindset," said Scott Neil, co-owner of the American Freedom Distillery, set to open in St Petersburg in late January of 2018.

Owning a distillery and making whiskey for a living is Neil's second career.

"I joined the Army back in 1986, right out of high school, and I spent 25 years in the Army Special Forces," said Neil.

He was one of the first green berets on the ground in Afghanistan after September 11. He fought foreign fighters in Iraq and Africa as well.

"We ousted over 50,000 Taliban and 10-20,000 Al Qaeda in 90 days with less than 100 Green Berets," said Neil.

He ended his military career in Tampa at Special Operations Command, but he was faced with one of the biggest challenges of his life when he decided to venture out into the civilian workforce.

"I realized at that time that I need to do something here. I want to live the American Dream that I've been defending, and that's when I started to really understand what is it going to take to transition out of the military?" questioned Neil.

A vacation with a friend to Yellow Stone National Park gave him his answers.

He was inspired during a stop at a small craft distillery.

"You just saw them work as hard as they could for a great product from America. We actually stopped our trip short and we planned to hit every craft distillery from Yellow Stone to Florida," said Neil.

Upon returning home, he joined the HCC Veterans Entrepreneurship Program to help him learn how to turn his passion into a profit.

Neil is one of many veterans in the program who was inspired to start his own business from his life experiences.

Robert Blacklidge, an Air Force veteran, got his MBA after leaving the military, but he still couldn't find a job. It led him to create a website called CourseAlign. The business model connects educators with recruiters to match skills to potential employees.

"We'll be able to provide the curriculum developers, the universities, with real-time data, so as they develop curriculum, they'll actually see what employers as hiring for and what skills they're looking for, both hard skills, like Java, along with soft skills, like team building," explained Blacklidge.

Dan Watson, a Coast Guard veteran turned firefighter, said he hopes to give back to the low-income families he often interacts with through his business Evado Cattle Company. His company will one day work with local ranchers to provide affordable pasture-raised beef.

"The side part of that is using some of our profits to then purchase beef for families who can't afford it or have normal access to it," said Watson.

"You can't get this at a university or a college level. The professors just can't give you what our business advisers and our mentors have so generously given of their time," said Entrepreneurship Program Manager Rosie Lee.

Mentor David Dye, whose father was a veteran, often advises veterans with start-up tech ideas. He founded a successful IT consulting company called Clear Cadence six years ago.

"We see it all. It's kind of like being at Shark Tank on television. They come in, and they give you their idea. They're all different, and they're all very interesting," said Dye.

According to Lee, the last group of program participants launched 11 new businesses. They expect up to 9 more to launch before the end of the year.

HCC accepts 25 people to the program each year beginning in February.

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