RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Milwaukee, a new business program called VETransfer is helping some military veterans finally realize their dreams to become entrepreneurs. As Erin Toner of WUWM reports, those participating hope their good fortune will have a trickle-down effect on other veterans who are having a tough time finding work in this very tight job market.
ERIN TONER, BYLINE: Marine Corps veteran John Miller is the founder of a company called Illumatek. His consigned artists elaborately engrave windshields for motorcycles that are also lit with fiber optics so bikes are more visible.
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TONER: Miller's own bike, a killer Harley, is on display in a downtown Milwaukee shopping mall. Onlookers marvel at the airbrushed red and gold flames, shiny steel skulls and images of the grim reaper. Miller, who served in the '70's, wasn't injured in the military, but a decade ago he was badly hurt in a crash that totaled his Harley. That's how he got the idea for Illumatek.
JOHN MILLER: I got run over on my Harley and then the person that ran me over put their truck in reverse and backed back over me to see what they'd hit. And I decided that I would never have somebody say I didn't see you again.
TONER: So Miller put all of his savings into starting his fledgling business in the motorcycle market. But he wanted to expand to reach new customers, people who drive semis, boats and ATVs. Miller brought his business plan here to VETransfer, a new business incubator in downtown Milwaukee.
KEN MYSZKA: Fifteen-thousand square foot, we got a great deal on it. We have a nice cafe for people to sit around and talk, as well as hold meetings in a more informal manner.
TONER: Ken Myszka is one of five former business executives who received a $3 million grant from the federal VA to open and operate VETransfer.
MYSZKA: What we're trying to do is, when somebody has a good concept that we think it's going to work and they're truly passionate about doing it, to inject a little bit of money at exactly the right time without all of the strings and hassles that your normal venture capital or that kind of investment would come with.
TONER: VETransfer itself doesn't provide financing. Rather it connects clients to investors who are looking to support veteran entrepreneurs. The staff, located in a former Old Navy Store, also helps vets navigate government regulations, and they get free Internet and office space. Myszka says the program has worked with more than 100 veterans in just four months.
MYSZKA: We have everybody from a dredger, to - we've got a photographer, to Illumatek, which is a little bit more high-tech manufacturing.
TONER: John Miller says as Illumatek grows, he'd like to hire more than 100 new employees, especially young veterans who are returning from the wars injured or simply cannot find jobs in this economy.
MILLER: We have so many kids coming back that are disabled, so many kids coming back unemployed and they volunteered to fight for what we have here and them coming back unemployed isn't fair.
TONER: Former Marine A-Sun Truth knows what it's like to struggle in the job market. Since coming home in the 1980s, he's been a repo man, a cab driver, a personal trainer. But now he's hoping entrepreneur will stick, with the help of VETransfer. He's preparing to launch a website that will let users exchange tickets and coupons.
A-SUN TRUTH: What they helped me do is refine my business model. And really implement a lean startup strategy. I really appreciate the input from these guys.
TONER: Truth says if his business goes well, he'd like to give jobs to fellow veterans – men and women who proved they can work hard.
TRUTH: Guys who know how to perform, 25 hours a day, eight days a week. Guys who don't know how to quit. Guys who don't know how to lose.
TONER: If VETransfer is successful after two years, the VA plans to launch a second business incubator site in the Twin Cities.
For NPR news, I'm Erin Toner in Milwaukee.
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