After serving as an Army Major for 12 years, including Operations Just Cause in Panama and Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf, Clarence Briggs faced the challenge of transitioning to the civilian workforce.

Seven years ago, Briggs, like other transitioning Veterans, encountered confusion from the business community regarding his military work experience, and he also had to re-calibrate his perceptions and expectations to the private sector.

“There is a good deal of anxiety about moving from the military, where so much of your day is structured and controlled, to civilian society, where the level of uncertainty is greater,” Briggs tells Local Tech Wire. “I relied on various parts of research and instinct–. There was no training program to outline what should and should not be done in starting your own business.”

The dilemma Briggs faced in 1996 is repeated hundreds of times each year in Fayetteville and in other military-connected communities across North Carolina. Collectively, Veterans leaving the armed forces have a wealth of managerial and technical talent…a potential economic development resource that, too often, has been unnoticed.

Briggs is one of the success stories. Since leaving the Army, he has built Advanced Internet Technologies (AIT) into a global provider of Internet services. After just seven years, Inc. magazine has ranked AIT as the 35th fastest-growing private firm in the United States.

An opportunity for other Veterans

Fayetteville-bassed AIT and Venture Management of Raleigh have now teamed with The Veterans Corp. to offer business training to N.C. Veterans. The Veterans Entrepreneurial Training (VET) Program includes the FastTrac classroom program, access to leading business people, hands-on workshops and computer equipment. All VET Program facilitators are successful entrepreneurs themselves.

“The lessons inherent to military life…discipline, teamwork, the ability to expect the unexpected…provide Veterans the raw ability to become successful entrepreneurs,” said retired Navy Commander Desiree Linson, director of education for The Veterans Corp. “They just need the right tools to get started.”

Developed by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation for Entrepreneurial Leadership, FastTrac has been used to train more than 40,000 entrepreneurs. Research shows that 88 percent of FastTrac graduates are still in business two years after starting and 74 percent are still in business and turning a profit five years later.

The Kauffman Foundation is providing the curriculum to The Veterans Corp. with the belief that Veterans have the skills to make outstanding entrepreneurs, which Briggs can relate to.

“AIT’s involvement is very personal for me, since I have been where these Veterans are going,” Briggs says. “When you think about it, the typical Vet with 10-to-20 years in service has led hundreds or thousands of people, managed millions of dollars in equipment and resources, and planned and executed missions where mistakes can result in injury or death.

“In many ways, these folks have already run businesses, though they probably don’t look at it that way. This program is a means of harnessing that managerial knowledge and focusing it toward capitalistic goals; it’s taking an existing skill set and re-shaping it.”

An ‘incentive to stay’ in N.C.

The National Veterans Business Development Corporation, commonly referred to as The Veterans Corp., was created by an act of Congress in 1999. Federally chartered as non-profit organization, the corporation’s mandate is to provide access to capital, training and services to Veteran business owners and Service-Disabled Veteran business owners.

The VET Program, like all programs offered by The Veterans Corp., is open to all honorably discharged Veterans, as well as active Guard and Reserve members and transitioning military personnel. Part of the goal of the VET Program in North Carolina is to persuade transitioning military personnel to start their businesses here.

“The state as a whole loses when people who leave the service also leave the community,” says Briggs. “It’s especially frustrating because often, Veterans have put down roots where they are last stationed and don’t want to move again. This initiative may provide them with incentive to stay.”

Program targets 1.5 million Vets

AIT will provide classrooms for the Fayetteville VET Program, and the company’s newly formed business incubator is also part of the partnership with The Veterans Corp. and Venture Management, which is focusing on a potential 1.5 million veterans in North Carolina, Virginia, and the Washington, DC, area.

“I’ve mentored hundreds of entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs in my lifetime. Veterans are ideally suited and can make a significant contribution to our economy,” said Sue Weems, director of Venture Management. “We’re extremely pleased to have a veteran like Mr. Briggs involved. We believe he and AIT provide a concrete example of the value of harnessing the skills of veterans in developing successful businesses.”

The Fayetteville VET Program started last week at the AIT Center. The Veterans Corp. subsidizes most of the program cost. Veteran participants pay either $250 or $350 for the course, depending on the specific course they register for. All Veteran participants who complete he program receive a $675 certificate for a Gateway computer or Gateway services.

Veterans who wish to participate in the program may apply on The Veterans Corp. website.

AIT: www.ait.com

Veterans Corp.: www.veteranscorp.org

Venture Mangaement: www.venturemanagementinc.com