IVMF: Empowering Veterans through Entrepreneurship and Education

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The Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University is inspiring economic success for veterans through an ambitious nationally recognized entrepreneurial program. IVMF is a beneficiary of the Advancing Diversity Education Fund, underwritten by AdvancingDiversity.org, MediaVillage and the media community.

There are more than 15,000 books on the topic of leadership and ever since Plato waxed lyrical on the art of ruling, the business world has been enamored with distilling the tenets of exemplary leadership. There is one distinct group that is always under scrutiny to deliver on the obligation of leadership – and that is the military.

Entrepreneurs who originally hail from the military make formidable leaders with an uncanny ability to evaluate risk in a VUCA world, make decisions with limited information and persevere even in the most challenging situations. History is full of examples of this iconic leadership – from the story of a young Army veteran, Phil, who started a sneaker company selling shoes made in Japan after completing his Stanford MBA to a Yale-educated Vietnam veteran who understood the critical role of logistics after serving in the Marine. Sounds familiar? Today their companies, Nike and FedEx are the two most recognized brands in the world.

Not every veteran has an opportunity or the economic means to earn advanced degrees, tap into influential networks and follow their passions. The Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University was created to provide a scalable solution that helps actualize the aspirations and potential of veterans, guided by a powerful mission: "To empower service members, veterans and their families through actionable research, innovative programs and insightful analytics". Formed in 2011, the IVMF is part of Syracuse University's strong legacy of recognizing and emboldening the 22.5 million men and women who have sacrificed their lives in service of our country, as well as recognizing the families who have stood by them through the highs and lows of military and civilian life.

According to Michael Haynie, vice chancellor of strategic initiatives at Syracuse University and founder of the Institute, "the impact of our programs is profound as it can dictate what direction a life can take -- homelessness versus Daymond John being your mentor on Shark Tank". Haynie spent 14 years in the Air Force and was given several opportunities for educational enrichment including completing a PhD in Entrepreneurship and Business Strategy. During his studies, he developed a passion for teaching and after leaving the military, he was appointed Professor of Business at the Whitman School of Management. Life as an academic provided Haynie with an opportunity for reflection, observation, and analysis, and he was struck by "how disengaged academic institutions were in the life and plight of veterans". Given the alarming statistics on the percentage of veterans who suffer from a mental illness, and the subsequent high incidence of suicide (twice that of the general population), Haynie immediately knew that in order to break the vicious cycle, economic empowerment had to be the key. Small business ownership or direct employment were two viable steps to enable a veteran and their families to have a life of emotional stability, reliable health solutions, and financial security.

Raymond Toenniessen, who serves as associate vice president, strategic initiatives at the University and Institute, spent four years in the Army and joined Haynie as a national program manager ten years ago, and has helped build the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans (EBV) into a nationally recognized program that today serves veterans across six universities. The EBV is one of eight programs designed to meet the Entrepreneurship and Small Business needs of veterans and their spouses at any point in their journey: start-up to scale-up to established business. In addition to deep expertise in research and measurement, IVMF also provides digital learning pathways through the Onwards to Opportunity Program, that serves 18 military bases around the country and provides credentials from Project Management to Cybersecurity to HR and IT. The community based service, AmericaServes "provides veterans, transitioning service members, and their families access to a simple and effective way to access and navigate a range of supportive services in their communities" -- this is a critical 360 degree support network across employment, health and housing to help veterans transition successfully back into everyday civilian life.

The Institute also collaborates with the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications at Syracuse University, which has created two inspiring Department of Defense-sponsored 10-month programs that provide active-duty service members with credentials in photojournalism and broadcast journalism. Students from all branches of the military enroll in the Military Photojournalism (MPJ) and Military Motion Media (MMM) programs as mass communication specialists, photographers, and videographers, with the students at the Institute and Syracuse University serving as the "context and inspiration for the military storytelling during their academic learning" per Haynie, who also highlights the important 50-year close collaboration between Newhouse and the Department of Defense.

Haynie and Toenniessen speaks proudly of recent graduates who have gone on to start and lead successful businesses. From Operation Iraqi Freedom vet Sherman Williams who started Body Acqua and just signed a 47-store Walmart distribution deal to Christine Guerera, a decorated US Air Force vet and Shark Tank winner, who created a canine premium nutrition company called Turbo Pup, to ex-Marine Chris Dumbach who leads a landscaping and construction company, and recently won a $1 million contract working with the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to maintain the national cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. The IVMF programs provide an important opportunity for economic advancement and veterans of color over-index significantly in many of the programs, enabling the Institute to address challenges of educational inequity that still unfortunately plagues many of our institutions.

Today is Veterans Day and as we pay tribute to our heroes across the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps, let us reflect on the intrinsic leadership qualities they display in combat, the monumental sacrifices they voluntarily choose to make to protect us and the often painful return to civilian life. As Haynie reminds us, as a society, we have "a moral obligation not only to salute our heroes but to economically empower them to live fulfilling and healthy lives" -- it is our turn to step up in support, embrace their talents and honor their service in profound gratitude.

To support the IVMF, support the Advancing Diversity Education Fund.

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