The road to entrepreneurship is often long and bumpy, but how many Americans can say they drafted their business plans in a war zone? In between missions at a forward operating base in Iraq, 44 soldiers in the Massachusetts Army National Guard have been polishing their dreams, not just their rifles. Once a week, the group tunes in - via an Internet link and webcam - to small-business classes put together by Louis Celli, a retired Army master sergeant in Billerica, Mass.
Knowing what it's like to be on active duty, Mr. Celli says he's only too happy to accommodate interruptions. "We went through an entire class where every 10 minutes they were like, 'Hold on, we've got to go into stealth mode for a minute,' " he says. A sandstorm knocked out the satellite connection once.
It's the first time a live course like this has been offered to deployed soldiers, says John Madigan, a vice president of The Veterans Corporation. Congress established the nonprofit in 1999 to support the business ventures of returning soldiers. Veterans do not own businesses at a higher rate than the general population, Mr. Madigan says, but the 5 million they do own contribute about $202 billion annually to the US economy.
Celli first offered the class only to stateside vets, but he expanded it rather spontaneously when Sgt. 1st Class Rich Guzofski e-mailed him from Iraq eager to take the course. Celli agreed to try it by e-mail, but then Guzofski wrote back saying dozens of his fellow soldiers wanted in on it, too. "I kind of freaked out - I had to get creative real fast," Celli says.
In less than a week he heard back from Citrix Online, a California company that offered to donate GoToMeeting software. It allows Celli to e-mail a link that allows the soldiers to see whatever Celli's doing on his computer screen. Soon after, he launched the class from his home office. He also has voice and webcam connections, so he's practically there - except for some time delay for voices and images to travel to the other side of the world.
At 8 o'clock on a recent morning, Celli dials up two students for an extra class geared toward their business plans. On top, he's dressed in a jacket and tie, which show up in the webcam while his shorts and sneakers stay out of view.
For Sergeant 1st Class Guzofski and Sgt. Paul Martin, it's already 4 p.m. in Iraq, and a "cool" 114 degrees.
In a webcam interview with the Monitor before class starts, Guzofski says he's been thinking about starting a property management company. When he talks with fellow guardsmen, conversation often veers toward all kinds of ideas for businesses. "For a lot of us," he says, this class "was just the kick in the pants we needed to get going."
For Sergeant Martin, it has meant he can keep his wife informed of his progress toward starting a bricks-and-mortar bookstore/coffee shop, as well as an electronic-books website. "It helps her understand what I'm looking for and support me," he says.
As for fitting in homework, Martin says, it's not too hard to find a few hours here and there, especially since there's no beach to distract him. Guzofski is quick to add: "If something comes up that's mission-related, the class goes by the wayside."
The unit is due back in December, after about two years away. Celli plans to keep the class going until then, well beyond the original nine weeks, because "it's been a lifeline to them," he says.
This kind of opportunity can be a jumpstart for a successful return to the homefront, says Fred Medway, a psychology professor at the University of South Carolina who studies military deployment and reentry. "Usually people in the Guard and Reserves have more difficulty with the separation from friends and family.... They haven't had the experience.... Then you throw on top of it the fact that they're leaving jobs where they've had a degree of stability; they have worries about what things are going to be like when they come back," he says.
The class helps because "it gives the service people a chance ... to focus on the process of coming back, and on self-improvement while they're there," he adds. But the one caution is to avoid creating expectations that are too high and could lead to disappointment when they return.
Celli agrees, and says if anything, "expectations are falsely elevated before the class." Once he marches them through, they realize it's going to take a lot of work. "I ask the hard questions.... I'm not family - I don't have to worry about their feelings."
The Veterans Corporation gave Celli a grant to teach these classes, and he's chosen to offer them free to the soldiers. In the past year and a half, he's also instructed about 250 local veterans, who have gone on to launch everything from a tour-boat business to a company that sells snack mix made from an old family recipe.
Celli will also soon open an office for his Northeast Veterans Business Resource Center, one of several regional sites supported by The Veterans Corporation.
"It's quite important because some veterans, especially the older ones, still believe in the old-fashioned way: Let's shake hands and talk," Madigan says.
During this day's class, Celli shows Martin a half-dozen online resources that will help him develop his e-books plan, and encourages him to write his own, too. "But don't sell it for $1 or $2, or people won't take it seriously." Either make it free, or charge at least $10.99, he advises.
The microphone in Iraq is turned off because it causes an echo, but Guzofski and Martin continue to type questions and responses into a chat window that Celli has running on his screen. At 5 p.m. Iraq time, they write: "We have a mission to do in 20 minutes." Without blinking an eye, Celli starts to wrap things up.
Once "my guys" come back to the US, Celli says, he'll have a graduation celebration and give them each 500 business cards and a website, the future online home for whatever business they create. Citrix plans to give them GoToMeeting software.
Celli loves teaching fellow members of the military because of their commitment, discipline, and leadership skills. Especially career vets. "They've learned all these great ways to do things, and it's been harnessed for so long that ... they just have that I-can't-lose attitude."
• For more information, log on to www.veteranscorp.org or call The Veterans Corporation at 1-866-2-VETCORP.