By Diane Mastrull
The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The competition was for an invaluable entrepreneurial opportunity.
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But which of the 18 contestants would win?
The double-amputee with a fledgling landscaping business? The artist with post-traumatic stress disorder launching a fine-arts clothing line? The hearing-impaired retiree with a solution for tinnitus?
One by one, they stepped before the panel of 10 judges, Shark Tank-style, with five minutes to pitch their business ideas.
Not that any of these men and women could be considered losers. They have served in the military, suffering disabilities for that duty. To help them and others move on, a St. Joseph’s University alum has donated $1 million to fund the first five years of an entrepreneurship- training program for disabled veterans.
The inaugural class of St. Joseph’s Veterans Entrepreneurial Jumpstart Program (VEJ) — ranging in age from 31 to 82, and hailing from 11 states — convened on campus the last week of April for an education-intense, mentor-rich residency program.
It wrapped with the face-to-face showdown with business-savvy judges. Nobody looked scared. The patriots had been through worse.
Carrying out a mission
“In the very beginning, we worried, ‘Would we even find any students?’ ” said Ralph Galati, director of the Office of Veterans Services at St. Joseph’s. The disabled Air Force vet from Wallingford was a prisoner of war for more than a year after his F-4 Phantom jet was shot down over Vietnam in February 1972.
Finding participants evidently was not a worry of donor Frank Trainer, a 1968 St. Joe’s grad who did not want to be interviewed for this article. His motivation for the VEJ program, Galati said, was a story on CBS’s 60 Minutes about the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities at Syracuse University, founded in 2007.
If St. Joseph’s could establish an affiliation with the Syracuse program, Trainer said, he would fund getting it up and running. That was three years ago, and Syracuse opted against bringing any more schools into the program.
In spring 2014, Trainer directed his alma mater to wait no more and go forth with its own, said Galati, who did so with program administrator Andrew Colket, 33, of Bryn Mawr, an Army National Guardsman who nearly drowned when his armored personnel carrier overturned in a septic canal in Iraq in 2005.
“Part of this fits in with our mission,” said Joseph DiAngelo, dean of the Jesuit university’s Haub School of Business.
“St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, was a disabled vet. He was a soldier who lost use of his leg and went into hiding in a cave until he got well”
Pursuing their goals
John O’Brien, 49, a retired Marine captain from West Chester, lost his left leg and arm in a training accident Sept. 22, 1993, near Camp Lejeune, N.C. He was pinned in the cockpit of an AV-8B Harrier after a fiery crash, and his burn infections led to amputations.
O’Brien later worked in real estate, pilot training, and health coaching before his wife urged him to start his own business.
“No computer will ever replace my services,” he told the contest judges. He hopes to grow his one-man Shiloh Springs Property Services L.L.C. into a “massive” lawn-care business.
“Money is out there in the blades of grass,” he said. Mowing, mulching, and planting are “wearing me out. So I need to hire some people . . . who share my dedication to service and quality.”
Derek Rodenbeck, 31, of Malvern, an Army veteran who served in Iraq until 2013, thinks fortune awaits in applying artists’ designs to clothing. “You are the canvas,” he said of the idea behind his Lvnup line. While starting with T-shirts, the plan is to expand to dresses, swimsuits, and jackets, and to have his own cut-and-sew facility.
Sharon Cary, 50, of East Falls, who installed communication lines in the Army from 1982 to 1985, wants to turn a volunteer after-school mentoring program for young girls into a business.
“I’m ready to do this and get paid,” said the mother of two girls. Her Precious Jewels Prevention Program L.L.C. needs a school or storefront in which to operate and funding for computers and supplies.
Cash awards went to three: $5,000 to an Army veteran from Kansas whose start-up has developed a smartphone app that enables exchanges of contact information; $2,500 to a Texas Air Force vet to help get his tinnitus-suppression device to market; and $1,000 to an Army vet from Indianapolis creating Christian products.
Though he was not a winner, O’Brien praised the generosity behind the program, which includes six more months of free mentoring and in-kind services from local entrepreneurs and businesses.
“It speaks of true patriotism,” he said. “They’ve all written big checks. The only check we ever wrote was to give our life in defense of our country.”
Watch video clips of three contestants’ “Shark Tank”-style presentations before the judges at St. Joseph’s University, and cast your vote for the one that you would have chosen to fund, at www.philly.com/vetsbiz