Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

January 20, 2015

Supporting student-veterans working towards a degree and a dream

Veterans Incubator for Better Entrepreneurship (VIBE)

“This program launched just over a year ago and we already have three or four viable companies that are attracting investors. People from all over the country have called me to ask what our students are doing. VIBE is a start-up itself, but this really can be a national model.”

Phil Potter
Director, VIBE, UW Tacoma


The Veterans Incubator for Better Entrepreneurship (VIBE) recruits University of Washington Tacoma students with military backgrounds into a cohort-based program that provides coaching, mentorship from local business leaders and peer support as they flesh out and implement their ideas for new businesses. On Veterans Day 2013, the Tacoma campus launched the VIBE program, which Alfie Alvarado-Ramos, director of the Washington State Department of Veteran Affairs, celebrated as “the only one of its kind in the nation.” VIBE students benefit from specialized mentoring that integrates their in-class learning and their broader goals. Director Phil Potter says, “This is a learn-by-doing experience. We’re looking to help veterans understand what it takes to plan a business, start a business, launch a business, but do it within the educational context so they’re not alone. We want to make sure these students know what it takes, and put them in positions to succeed.”

Veterans are natural entrepreneurs: Potter believes military veterans naturally have the necessary skills to run a business. “If you take a look at a spec sheet for what we think good entrepreneurs are and what we know veterans are, they match up really well,” he says. ”They both understand when to lead and when to follow. Both groups are innovative and push themselves. They have a tendency to complete an outcome or a mission, oftentimes in the absence of ideal resources. And at the end of the day, they just get things done.” VIBE member and U.S. Army veteran Steve Buchanan runs ChooseVets, a task-outsourcing business founded on his confidence in other veterans. He says, “The Army has already background checked them, they’ve been trained and they know how to call you ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ and get a job done.”

“Often one of the biggest challenges working with young entrepreneurs is their lack of practical experience, but this is not a problem with our military veterans. They know how to run meetings, delegate tasks, set goals and get things done.”

John B. Dimmer
VIBE mentor; co-founder of the Tacoma Angel Network


Helping student-veterans translate their skills to the civilian context: Potter considers “incredible veteran talent” one of the South Puget Sound’s best “natural resources.” However, many of VIBE’s student-veterans report struggling to find an outlet for their skills after returning to civilian life. Shem Zakem, a former Army signal support systems specialist who recently graduated from UW Tacoma, remembers, “I thought that the training and skills I had from communications would have a good translation to the civilian sector, but I came to find out that…not so much.” VIBE seeks to “unleash that talent for great things,” says Potter.

The cohort model facilitates creative collaboration and peer-mentoring: VIBE students come to the UW with different military training and enroll in a variety of degree programs. As a result, they often find that one of their best assets is each other. Zakem describes his symbiotic friendship and professional relationship with attorney and business school graduate Buchanan, commenting, “Steve can say, ‘I’m having trouble with my software, what should I do?’ I can go to Steve and have him explain what an LLC is,” referring to a limited liability company. Now as alumni of VIBE, Zakem and Buchanan are focused on growing the businesses they nurtured during their time at the UW. Both are receiving widespread attention for their work: Zakem’s company, Bettery, was identified by the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs as one of the top new veteran-led startups in the state, and Buchanan was invited to attend the State of the Union address with the Washington state delegation as an innovative business leader seeking to benefit veterans.

Cohort now, professional network later: In the challenging, risky world of entrepreneurship, a supportive community can make a big difference. VIBE provides a space for UW Tacoma students who are veterans and aspiring entrepreneurs to come together as professional collaborators. “We’re not just in VIBE together, we’re friends­, too,” says Buchanan. Zakem adds, “It’s not a competition, it’s a team effort. Everyone has contributed to everyone else’s company in one way or another, whether it’s advice or a sympathetic ear. So we’re all invested in each others’ successes.” Most VIBE students are also committed to the Puget Sound region for the long term, notes Potter. As a result, VIBE relationships can grow into a professional network with a lasting impact on the community.

“There are a lot of programs out there to help veterans from the ‘handout’ mindset rather than the ‘hand up’ mindset. I’d rather have someone help me in a way that will help me move up the ladder rather than just help me in the short term.”

Shem Zakem ‘14
VIBE member; U.S. Army veteran; B.S., Computer Science and Systems, UW Tacoma


UW faculty are a key resource: As entrepreneurs and students, VIBE members can draw on courses and faculty across the University to help further their business goals. When Zakem realized his background in computer science didn’t prepare him to run the financial side of his company, he signed up for a class at the Milgard School of Business. “I could have banged my head against the wall teaching myself, but I took a class and learned it in three months,” he says. Zakem also sought out advice from faculty members such as Andrew Fry, assistant director of Industry Partnerships and lecturer at the UW Tacoma Institute of Technology, who is also an experienced entrepreneur.

A curriculum driven by student needs: VIBE is mostly a mentor-led model, says Potter. Local companies and business leaders run small seminars for VIBE students that are tailored to their current needs and interests. Because it is a small group­—the first cohort was 15 students—mentors can meet them where they are. Potter says, “They come in at different stages—not just different stages in their business development but also their academic career. This requires a flexible curriculum.”

The university as convener: Comparing VIBE members to entrepreneurs going it alone, Zakem says, “Being associated with the University of Washington lends us instant credibility.” A number of business incubators exist across the country, but VIBE benefits from three key attributes that are rarely found together: one of the largest veteran populations in the country, the Puget Sound’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem and the faculty and expertise of a world-class public research university. The University brings these elements together and connects veterans with the people who want them to succeed, such as vocal VIBE supporters U.S. Senator Patty Murray and Joint Base Lewis-McChord Commander Colonel Charles Hodges, along with the local business community.

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