More than 1.5 million veterans live in Florida, and of those 1.5+ million veterans, nearly a quarter are seeking to open their own business venture. This means that roughly 375,000 veterans living in Florida are aspiring entrepreneurs. However, dreaming of starting a business and actually making that dream a reality are two very different things. This is where the UCF Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program steps in to help the brave men and women who served their country venture out into the world of entrepreneurship and make their dreams realities.

The UCF Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program is part of a larger network of six Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Programs, which are partnered with incubators across the state. We sat down with InBIA members Ricardo Garcia and Rafael Caamaño, who instruct the program, to learn more about their work.

Rafael, an Army veteran, and Ricardo, an Air Force veteran, first began their program in 2014 by providing one-on-one entrepreneurial advice and coaching sessions for veteran entrepreneurs who were in the early stages of their businesses. However, once they realized the impact of their services, they decided to take their program to the next level so that they could help even more veterans. In 2015, the two partnered with the state of Florida to establish an entrepreneurship curriculum for veterans. This allowed Rafael and Ricardo to start teaching yearly advanced classes. Now, the two veterans have expanded their program to include biannual advanced courses as well as monthly meetings.

This success didn’t come easy; Rafael and Ricardo did go through some growing pains.  In the first year of teaching the program, they had a class of 40 prospective entrepreneurs in varying stages, which made it very difficult for the two veterans to help everyone. The next year, they refined their course, changing it into an advanced class limited to 20 entrepreneurs who were within six months of launching. This adjustment streamlined the class, allowing them to focus more on each student. However, they did not want to leave those aspiring entrepreneurs at earlier stages behind, so Rafael and Ricardo created monthly workshops for beginning entrepreneurs. As Ricardo remembers, “The success rate went up significantly.”

They also created a business pitch competition in which the top two winners would receive a free year in the business incubation program. Another way they have strengthened their program is by looking for partnerships with other programs; Ricardo spoke to the value of collaboration for entrepreneurship centers.

“Programs within other communities can look for partnerships and make collaborative efforts such as co-hosting events with businesses within their community,” said Ricardo.

One of the most valuable partnerships Ricardo and Rafael have made is with a veteran law firm that donates its services to entrepreneurs in their program. Ricardo believes that veterans looking to start their own business should start first by looking at their own ecosystem.

“My best advice for any veteran entrepreneur is to leverage resources and connect with [their] communities,” said Ricardo.

Together, the two men are working tirelessly in Central Florida to empower veterans through business guidance, education, mentorship, and resources designed to accelerate their entrepreneurial success.