Professor Emeritus Leads Fundraiser to Save Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans at UConn

The program enables local veterans to start small businesses, but lost donations during the pandemic and now needs $200,000 to survive.

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There is a boot camp for veterans at the University of Connecticut, but it has nothing to do with push-ups or physical fitness. The program prepares local vets to open a business.

However, the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans, or EBV, is now at risk, after losing funding during the pandemic.

Now, led by a professor emeritus, the community is rallying to save the program through fundraising.

On a cold fall day, welcoming lights and sweet aromas entice regulars in for a warm brew at Ini Sips Premium Coffee and Tea. The New Britain shop is veteran- owned by Gulaid Ismail and his wife Davina.

“We said we want to give people that home brewing experience,” Gulaid Ismail said.

When the retired Marine Corps veteran, who served in Iraq, came back from overseas, he learned how to transition his skills to business through EBV.

“It was the best decision I've ever made,” he said.

It enabled him to open the coffee shop alongside Davina.

“At one point someone referred to it as getting your MBA in 10 days,” Davina Ismail said.

Along with business training, the program gave Gulaid Ismail the camaraderie that is so important to veterans.

“It gets you around people to get your mind active and start getting some sense of motivation again, if you've lost it prior to coming home from overseas,” he said. “This program not only helps local veterans launch their businesses in the community, it also offers them crucial support in the following years.”

“It's continued to help us over the last almost a decade now. Different opportunities, different connections, networking,” Davina Ismail said.

That is why the small business owners are so concerned to learn that the program is at risk.

“It was kind of heartbreaking because I know how much of an impact it had in our lives. And just the importance of it. It's again, it's such a safe place,” Ismail said.

Program founder and veteran Mike Zacchea launched the first EBV course in 2010 to be that safe place. In the past decade, the program has also had a big economic impact.

“Two-hundred-eighteen graduates,” Zacchea said. “We have started, at last count, 187 businesses, for profit and not-for-profit businesses. Produced over $150 million in gross revenues, over 500 jobs.”

He said EBV was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID-19, and lost donations as a result of the pandemic.

“The impact was severe. The future of the program was in doubt,” Zacchea said.

That caught the attention of UConn professor emeritus Tom O’Brien.

“Once I got wind that they were going to ax the program, I just could not, would not let that happen,” he said.

O’Brien is now posing a challenge to the community. The program needs $200,000 to survive and he is prepared to match up to $100,000 in donations.

“This one I'm doing for the veterans is more than giving back,” O’Brien said. “I'm making an investment in, I think I'm saving lives. I think this program is what is necessary for the veterans.”

So far, people have stepped up and raised about $50,000, half the fundraising goal.

The effort is incredibly inspiring to Zacchea.

“When I was wounded in 2004 in Fallujah, I got blown up in an RPG, and three Marines whose names I never knew rode cover under fire to drag me out of the kill zone,” Zacchea said. “I see analogy there, that you know, something that’s really important, a program that's really important to our nation's future, that we set off the alarm and people came to the rescue.”

Gulaid and Davina Ismail are also grateful to see others supporting more success stories like their own.

“It restores faith or whatever that you know, that there's people out here that really want to see you succeed,” Gulaid Ismail said. “Not just veterans, but there's some civilians as well that really believe not only in a U.S. veteran, but also in programs that are empowering veterans to continue to move forward.”

Progress on the fundraiser can be seen on the website for the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans.

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