The Veterans Incubator for Better Entrepreneurship (VIBE) at the University of Washington Tacoma has for several years been a resource provider for military veterans seeking support and mentorship in starting their own business.
The program's director, Thomas Kuljam, who served as an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force Reserves for 18 years after serving two years on active-duty in the Air Force, said VIBE has strived to become "the epicenter of business creation" in the South Puget Sound.
To take VIBE to the next level, Kuljam and VIBE's advisory board are launching a business plan competition in February. Kuljam said the aim of the competition is to bring together military veterans and non-military veterans who have a passion for entrepreneurship.
"We're allowing people to come out and share their idea, and hopefully win and create and retain jobs in Tacoma-Pierce County," said Kuljam, who has 25 years of business banking experience. "It's open to all colleges in the South Puget Sound. I think I'm going to be pleasantly surprised by the turnout."
On Feb. 10, entrepreneurs identifying as veterans or non-veterans from area community and technical colleges, will be invited to come before VIBE to pitch a new business idea. They then will be paired off with other entrepreneurs to form a team. The team will write an executive summary of the business and submit to the VIBE judges March 24.
In order to qualify, leadership teams must comprise at least one veteran and at least one college student. There is no limit to the number of people on a team. Teams will be notified March 31 if their executive summary passes to the second round. Teams that pass to the next round will be paired with an experienced mentor who will help them write their business plan.
Leo Regala, a veteran who served in the U.S. Army's 11th Armored Calvary Regiment Forward Observer for three years, including one year in the Vietnam War, is a VIBE mentor who will provide his finance and banking experience to a team.
"I felt like I needed to give back to veterans from war," Regala said about his commitment as a VIBE mentor. "I was fortunate to not have PTSD or other issues. The reason for that is I had a solid support system. I thought VIBE was a perfect fit for me. (Veterans) want to get started in their new lives. I want to be there to help them along."
On April 14, leadership teams will enter the investment round, where they will pitch their business idea to judges and people invited to the event from the broader community. Judges and other community members will each be issued $5,000 in VIBE Bucks (much like play money), which they will divvy up among the top five teams that they want to see graduate to the final round.
On May 5, a grand-prize winner will be selected. The winner will receive up to $25,000 and up to $25,000 in in-kind services. The agencies providing in-kind services are Olive Group, a Tacoma firm that provides marketing strategy to business startups; Smith Alling, a Tacoma law group; and Ferguson Architecture in Tacoma.
"Our hope is that this competition really helps launch the VIBE program to the next level," said Jake Nyman, owner of Olive Group. "It's a great program for veterans coming out of the military who are trained and motivated and who really want to do something on their own."
VIBE is located in Room 307A in the Tioga Library Building, 1907 Jefferson Ave. To learn more about the competition, call 253.692.5813 or visit tacoma.uw.edu/veterans-incubator-better-entrepreneurship/welcome-vibe.