Paying it forward: Pros help veterans launch successful start-ups

Raymond Collazo says starting a business is like war. He'd know — he's been in both.

He deployed to Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in March 2012. His platoon was assigned to work with engineers in clearing roads of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). When he returned to civilian life, he decided to make a film of his war experiences.

"My cousin and I wrote a screenplay," Collazo said. "If it wasn't for the military, I would've never been inspired to write it. … The protagonist is a veteran returning from combat and entering a civilian life."

The challenges of making a film led him to a business idea. He founded a start-up called FilmLinkUp, a social media platform that connects students in film, media and theater. Collazo said to think of it as a mix between Facebook and LinkedIn for those looking to collaborate on television and film projects.

"Our pilot program is currently assisting students at the State University of New York Orange and the Digital Film Academy by providing job opportunities submitted by companies and production companies seeking assistance with their media and film projects," Collazo said.

Collazo was able to raise about $25,000 for his start-up from friends and family and is looking for another $23,000 from people who want to invest.

The military-entrepreneur complex

To get FilmLinkUp running, Collazo leaned on a program developed to help veterans who specifically want to start their own business, offered through the New York City law firm Cahill, Gordon & Reindel. Brock Bosson, a former military prosecutor who is an associate at Cahill, Gordon & Reindel, is one of the lawyers who provides pro bono legal advice to veterans like Collazo.

"Starting a business is daunting enough, and I think that they [veterans] don't necessarily have the understanding, in many cases, of some the legal complexities and business complexities entering the market," Bosson said.

The law firm offers the pro bono services in partnership with the New York State Small Business Development Center, which provides transitional support, personal legal assistance and benefits assistance, depending on the individual veteran's needs. Cahill, Gordon & Reindel has advised more than a dozen veteran entrepreneurs, and Bosson said it's a model more law firms need to adopt.

"This really is a call to action. … Law firms, consulting firms, accountants can bring one-on-one technical advice to veterans who are starting new businesses, and they can accelerate their entire trajectory and make them successful earlier than they otherwise would have been," Bosson said. "We have made efforts to tell other law firms about our pro bono program and how it has been a game changer for veteran entrepreneurs in hopes that those other firms will replicate it," he said.

"This really is a call to action. ... Our pro bono program has been a game changer for veteran entrepreneurs." -Brock Bosson, former military prosecutor who is now an associate at Cahill, Gordon & Reindel

Nationwide, about 1 in 10 U.S. businesses are veteran-owned, and according to the Small Business Administration, veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than non-veterans.

The SBA says that between its district offices and partners, there are more than 1,400 locations across the nation where veterans can receive, usually free, business counseling, training, procurement assistance, access to capital and disaster-assistance loans. This includes local chapters of the Small Business Development Center, SCORE, Women's Business Center, Veterans Business Outreach Center and SBA district offices.

Most of the SBA partners have relationships with local firms that provide low-cost or pro bono legal services, and they can help connect veterans to those services.

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Veterans starting their own businesses were given counsel on everything from drafting articles of incorporation to dealing with web developers to following all appropriate laws and procedures when setting up shop. Bosson would not quantify the typical start-up costs for businesses, but said, "In most cases, the value of the services we provide to our clients would represent a significant portion of the new venture's start-up costs if our clients were paying for those services."

Linda Browne was a physician in the military for 20 years, retiring as a lieutenant colonel in 2012. She, too, was able to utilize the Cahill, Gordon & Reindel's pro bono legal services for veterans and just a few months ago opened her own, soul food café in the heart of New York City.

"When you open a business, there are just a lot of different legal things that have to be done. Even incorporating yourself, becoming an LLC, a lot of things," Browne said. "They really led us and guided us through the maze of all of the legalities of opening up a business."

Belief before business

Some veteran business owners are paying it forward with their success.

Robert Pricipato was an aircraft electrician in the Air Force for 17 years, serving three of those years abroad. He retired in August 2014 and has launched two businesses — a military-themed online apparel company, Military Muscle, and Bomb Coffee, which he co-founded earlier this year with a Navy veteran. Military Muscle has also created a foundation to combat veteran and military suicide and PTSD.

Through Bomb Coffee, Pricipato is trying to draw attention to the fact that about 22 veterans take their life every day. Bomb Coffee is donating 22 percent of all sales from November to organizations that help veterans with PTSD and work on veteran suicide prevention. And Pricipato said Bomb Coffee plans to do the same thing again throughout the year.

"It's something we feel strongly about, to get resources to people battling with PTSD. When we launched Bomb Coffee, we wanted to not only make something different and fun but also use it to help others," Pricipato said.

Pricipato didn't rely on any support services to get his businesses off the ground, though he said the Air Force and his base in particular did offer access to the Boots to Business program, an entrepreneurial training program offered by the SBA as part of the Department of Defense's Transition Assistance Program. "I've always been in some form of business," he said, dating back to experience in retail sector and in multilevel marketing programs as early as the age of 16.

He has learned — through success and failures — that having a mission-driven company is the key. He doesn't think of Military Muscle as just an online apparel company. In fact, it started as a motivational company before getting into apparel sales. And now the company uses a direct resourcing program — donating apparel such as T-shirts to nonprofits and military families and veterans in need — to sell.

"We've helped people pay bills, put food on the table, people in financial struggles," Pricipato said.

Military Muscle has also created five work positions for veterans.

"If you do things right, the money will be there, people will buy what you are supporting, and the belief in what you are doing will be a lot higher than when it's just about products."

This story is part of NBCU's Share Kindness. Follow the series on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. #ShareKindness