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Meet The New Entrepreneurs

In a classroom at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, a professor is running through the calculations needed to figure out "the IRR". That's the internal rate of return. A group of 20 men and women take notes. "The cash flow I get in year one needs to be brought back by some rate of return," he tells them, scribbling on a whiteboard.

The students listening intently are not aspiring Wall Street titans. They are disabled veterans who have either started small businesses, or hope to.

They're here for a 9-day "Entrepreneurship Boot Camp", and UCLA isn't charging them a dime.

"I was injured in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan," says Army combat veteran Edward Ruvalcaba. He joined the military right out of high school and says he's witnessed "the History Channel" up close: Panama when Noriega lost power, Berlin when the wall came down, Gulf War I and II. Somewhere in the first Gulf War he contracted serious respiratory and skin problems (remember the oil field fires?) which require him to be on several medications. "I'm working through it," he says, without an ounce of self-pity.

Last year Ruvalcaba started a janitorial company called Guaranteed Cleaning Services, in Brea, California. "I've been somewhat successful," he says, adding, "this boot camp here has really shed a lot of light on some of the errors I've made." He's learned that his pricing isn't competitive. He isn't charging too much, but too little. "That's in my nature of serving my country and believing that I'm just being humble, and I'm learning here that if you're not profitable, then you shouldn't be in that type of business."

The "boot camp" for disabled vets started at Syracuse University, and has since spread to four other universities: UCLA, Purdue, Texas A&M, and Florida State. If you had to pay for this education, it would probably cost $10,000. But donations cover all expenses.

Soldier shooting
AP
Soldier shooting

"It's a battlefield out there, you need to be a good strategist," says Anderson's Al Osborne, who says at least 45,000 disabled vets have returned from war, with injuries that are not always visible.

Osborne says veterans, by experience, "understand what needs to be done now, what needs to be done later, how I can delegate, they understand how to work and build teams." Those are important tools for entrepreneurs.

They are traits which have served Amy Sufak well as she transitioned into civilian life. The 11-year Air Force veteran hurt her back traveling the world as a public affairs officer. Now she's started Red Energy PRin Colorado Springs. "I was very fortunate to start this business during a down economy," she says. Companies are letting go their in-house PR and marketing staff and contracting out to firms like her's. One downside? Some clients don't know what to make of her. "There's a whole generation behind me that has not been touched by the military at all, so that's difficult because they don't see the value in that." Still, at the boot camp, she's learning important tips, like how to increase staffing without increasing costs-bill clients for extra personnel. "It's helped us critique our business plans."

But why start a small business now? In this economy? "I'll tell you one thing, it's been my family," Edward Ruvalcaba says, suddenly choking up with emotion. "Being away from them..." As demanding as it is to run a small business, it provides more time at home than being half a world away in a foxhole.

"You and I maybe don't have the luxury of understanding of what it is to be in an arena where somebody is shooting at you," Al Osborne says, explaining one reason these vets may excel. "That gets you focused, I think, on things you need to survive. Business today is not unlike war."

Questions? Comments? Funny Stories? Email funnybusiness@cnbc.com

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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