Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.
Veterans transitioning from active duty military to civilian life face a unique set of challenges, says Daniel "Michael" Hyacinthe, a veteran who served as a U.S. Navy Seabee and founder of Wimage
, a Grand Rapids-based children’s media and technology company.
Among those challenges is finding employment opportunities, he says.
“Veterans come out older so we find jobs in the food industry, hospitality industry, consumable goods sector, and a few technology start-ups as well,” Hyacinthe says.
It’s difficult to say how many of these Veterans would seek out entrepreneurial opportunities to start businesses or build up an existing business — and a newly launched program in Battle Creek may provide some insight.
On Monday, a cohort of military veterans attended their first session in Battle Creek of the Michigan Veteran Entrepreneur – Lab (MVE-Lab)
, a three-month entrepreneurship and acceleration program for military veterans in Battle Creek that will meet every Monday at the Battle Creek Area Chamber of Commerce
which is partnering on the program. Mentors including Hyacinthe will guide participants as they work to hone or launch their small business start-ups.
The program will culminate with a pitch night on December 4 at the Kool Family Center where a total of $20,000 with the top award being $10,000, will be awarded to those selected by a panel of judges that will include entrepreneurs who have successfully launched businesses, as well as community stakeholders.
The MVE-Lab is offered through GVSU's DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation
through a $250,000 grant from the Michigan Veterans Trust Fund
, Hyacinthe says.
“The purpose of the fund is to support vets that have immediate emergency needs, but several years ago when we were expanding this program and seeking funding, the MVTF was looking for interesting ways to contribute to veterans in Michigan,” Hyacinthe says.
While attending GVSU where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Entrepreneurship in 2013, he got to know Shorouq Almallah, director of the DeVos CEI, and together they pitched the concept for the MVE-Lab to the leadership of the MVTF. After securing the funding for the program, the first MVE-Lab cohort met in Grand Rapids in 2018.
More than 400 military-connected students attend GVSU. The university has an organization called Laker Vets
to support these students and a wide range of programs for student veterans, including the GVSU Veteran Promise
, which guarantees enrollment to high school seniors who serve; an accelerated bachelor’s program
; a peer mentoring program
; a veterans entrepreneurship program
; and the Peter Secchia Military and Veterans Program
, which expands programming and provides career support, including the transition from military to civilian careers, says an article on its website
In August, GVSU was recognized for the ninth consecutive year with the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency's highest honor for Veteran-Friendly Schools (VFS) earning Gold Status
The MVE-Lab is yet one more example of GVSU’s commitment to veterans, Hyacinthe says. The program, which is also available to spouses and dependents over the age of 18, has since expanded to Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Muskegon with Battle Creek being its 12th
Since its launch five years ago Almallah says the program “has successfully trained 150 veterans and their families in 11 cohorts and five different regions in Michigan.”
This has resulted in $175,000 in startup grants that have been deployed through partnerships with banks, foundations, and financial institutions. Almallah says more than 65 percent of graduates remain in business, with gross annual sales of $799,516 and a gross capital investment exceeding $3.1 million.
On the national level, “More than 2.4 million U.S. businesses are owned by veterans, about nine percent of all American firms. They employ 5.8 million employees and dole out $210 billion in annual payroll,” says an article on the Entrepreneur
To support the creation of even more veteran-owned businesses, the U.S. House of Representatives by a unanimous vote of 407-0 in June passed the Veteran Entrepreneurship Training Act which codifies into law the Boots to Business
program, a training course administered by the Small Business Administration, which teaches veterans and their families the fundamentals of business management, including market research, organizational design, and financial planning. The Veteran Entrepreneurship Training Act of 2023 authorizes this program for five years.
This is the latest effort in a growing number of programs available to veterans who want to be their own boss or take existing businesses to the next level.
A critical mission of support
Like other MVE-Lab cohorts, members of the one in Battle Creek will receive input on whether entrepreneurship is for them, how to start a business or expand an existing one, identify their customer base, and develop a value proposition through mentorship from Hyacinthe and fellow mentor Charles Solano, a former Marine and owner/operator of Biggby Coffee shops in Battle Creek
Solano says this is a great opportunity for veterans and their families who come alongside them to learn from professional and knowledgeable instructors in a comfortable environment where they’re encouraged to speak up.
“I was very impressed with the course content. It is all there,” he says. “As a multi-store franchisee of a successful coffee shop chain that has been refining and making improvements on their system since 1995, I noticed many, many similarities in content provided through the MVE-Lab.”
Hyacinthe says he could have benefitted from such a program had it been available when he was getting Wimage, LLC up and running. His company produces a children’s television program, available on public television stations, called “Wimee’s Words” which reaches more than 30 million homes throughout the United States. Hyacinthe also signed a three-book deal with Harper Collins Publishing with the first of those books – “Wimee Creates with Vehicles and Color” – released in July.
“I think it would have given me the opportunity to be on the right footing at the right time to network and understand where some of the resources are,” he says of the MVE-Lab.
A self-described “serial entrepreneur” and native of New York, Hyacinthe moved to Grand Rapids in 2010 to be closer to family. After leaving active duty military service in 2005, he says he was trying to figure out what would come next for him.
“Like many veterans, I was trying to figure out who I am and what’s my purpose and next mission,” he says. "I felt isolated and lost, things that many veterans feel.”
He chose to complete his education at GVSU because it supported veterans — the university had started an initiative called “Has Heart”
to support wounded veterans by inspiring them to create artwork. Seeing the positive difference that program made led to the founding of Wimage.
“I saw the impact that Has Heart was making and I thought we could use this same art and creativity model for kids to learn at an early age,” he says.
While he was able to get his business enterprise up and running relying on his own determination, he says he knows there are a lot of veterans who struggle to assimilate into civilian life.
An estimated 250,000
men and women leave or retire from U.S. military service and return to civilian life each year. As of 2021, there were a reported 16.5 million
former service members in the U.S. In transitioning to civilian life, navigating the VA healthcare system, finding affordable housing, and applying for jobs can be a difficult and drastic shift, says an article on Military.com
A study conducted in 2016 by Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families
found that a lack of social capital, adequate mentorship, maintaining a positive work-life balance, and financial factors were among the most significant obstacles for aspiring veteran business owners. The study also highlighted the proliferation of courses, programs, and accessible incubators that have helped veteran entrepreneurs get started over the course of a decade.
Hyacinthe says programs like the MVE-Lab and the mentorship it provides are critical to helping veterans achieve their entrepreneurial goals.
"Creating social capital through MVE-Lab is integral to creating a rigorous and supportive platform for veteran entrepreneurs," he says "We invite professionals, entrepreneurs, and business leaders who are passionate about helping veteran-owned businesses to engage in the program as mentors and coaches to provide feedback, valuable connections, and business acumen."