North Dakota’s Center for Innovation in Grand Forks is launching a Veterans Entrepreneurship Program (VEP), the fourth in the nation, aimed at equipping veterans with the tools to start their own business.

The program, which is free for attendees and funded through grants and donations, will begin with a five week online training course and end with an eight-day “boot camp” on UND’s campus. The course focuses on concept development, self-study, finances, marketing and other aspects needed to prepare for launching a business.

Often, it is just what veterans need, says Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) director Tyler Okerlund.

“It’s to give them [veterans] the final help to put their dream into play,” he said.

He added that after serving with the military many veterans feel “stuck in a rut.” Often veterans feel a strong desire to lead after taking orders from someone else for so long, he said.

Okerlund speaks from personal experience. He is a disabled veteran who served in the U.S. Navy and North Dakota Army National Guard over a span of nearly a decade.

And he’s certainly not alone. There are around 30,000 veterans in the North Dakota area, Okerlund said. When he was asked to find a program that would help support this population, the Veterans Entrepreneurship Program was his first choice.

“It has a lot of meaning to me, to show other veterans that there is a place where you can go to learn how to do this,” he said. “It just takes a strong commitment in order to learn.”

The Center for Innovation will be the fourth site in the nation to hold a Veterans Entrepreneurship Program. Currently these programs are held at the University of Florida, Oklahoma State, and University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. There, the program has been so successful that overflow applicants are being sent to attend in North Dakota.

Okerlund attended one of the final presentations at the program in Florida, and said he was amazed at the positive responses.

“The show of support in the community was incredible,” he said. “I’m trying to ignite that here in North Dakota.”

The program is run by Michael Morris PhD who is a titan in the entrepreneur education field, was the Founder of the School of Entrepreneurship at Oklahoma State, and is now at the U of Florida and serves on the UND School of Entrepreneurship academic advisory board.

Faculty that will be involved with UND’s program include Jeff Stamp, who serves on the faculty for the eight-day boot camp, and Tim O’Keefe, an instructor at UND’s School of Entrepreneurship.

Okerlund sees many plus sides to the program, a big one being that all expenses are paid for the attendees including travel, lodging and food. However, he sees a big picture benefit for the state of North Dakota as a whole as well.

“With all the talk of North Dakota becoming an entrepreneurial hub, we’re all trying to do something different in our communities,” he said. “This is how we put things together for those who serve.”

Currently, the Veterans Entrepreneurship Program is accepting applicants from all across the nation. They have received nine applicants and have a cap at 25, Okerlund said. Deadline to apply is July 29, and the first phase (5 weeks of online study) will begin August 22. Apply here.

Feature Photo: “Marines march in 2011 New York Veterans Day Parade “DVDSHUB (CC BY 2.0)

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Marisa Jackels