Project Op­por­tu­nity gate­way to vet­eran en­trepreneur­ship

The Enquire-Gazette - - News - By BOBBY JONES Staff Pho­to­jour­nal­ist

Joe Gior­dano is a ded­i­cated vet­eran whose pas­sion about help­ing his fel­low com­rade-in-arms res­onates to­day the same as he was when he served in co­or­di­nat­ing se­cu­rity dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Ea­gle in sup­port of the wel­com­ing home of the 52 hostages from Iran af­ter their re­lease from cap­tiv­ity in Jan­uary 1981.

Af­ter re­tir­ing from the Army in 1993, Gior­dano quickly be­came frus­trated with try­ing to get a job, which even­tu­ally led him to start­ing his own busi­ness.

“I watched all of my fel­low vet­er­ans come back from con­flicts in Desert Storm try­ing to get a job and I just saw them strug­gle. The Mary­land un­em­ploy­ment rate then was 16 or 17 per­cent,” Gior­dano said. “I just couldn’t un­der­stand why em­ploy­ers didn’t want to hire vet­er­ans.”

In 2010, the re­tired Army master sergeant’s com­mit­ment to help­ing vet­er­ans was fur­ther ev­i­denced by him found­ing Project Op­por­tu­nity (PO), a free en­trepreneur­ship-train­ing pro­gram, based solely on the pur­pose for help­ing vet­er­ans who want to start their own busi­ness or want to ex­pand their cur­rent small busi­ness.

Ac­cord­ing Gior­dano, who has 35 years of hu­man re­sources and lead­er­ship man­age­ment to his credit, the an­nual pro­gram teaches vet­er­ans how to de­velop, re­search and pro­duce a com­pre­hen­sive busi­ness plan. PO cov­ers all nine coun­ties of the east­ern shore, and dur­ing the 10 weeks, classes are split be­tween five in Eas­ton, Md. and five in Sal­is­bury, Md.

“We ro­tate to ease the com­mute for stu­dents,” Gior­dano, a 20-year Army vet­eran, said.

“With Mary­land hav­ing the high­est un­em­ploy­ment rate for among vet­er­ans in the country, many of us vet­er­ans who work with vets are con­cerned. The econ­omy is a lit­tle stag­nant,” Gior­dano said.

In ad­di­tion to found­ing PO, Gior­dano has an ex­ten­sive ca­reer as a per­son­nel ad­min­is­tra­tor and train­ing su­per­vi­sor with the Army; five years as the hu­man re­sources ad­min­is­tra­tor for the Wi­comico County De­part­ment of So­cial Ser­vices; two years as an em­ploy­ment spe­cial­ist with K&L Mi­crowave; and twelve years as owner of Con­sult­ing, Train­ing, and De­vel­op­ment Ser­vices.

Gior­dano noted there have been nu­mer­ous stud­ies done on vet­er­ans to show that vet­er­ans are prime can­di­dates to be­come suc­cess­ful small busi­ness own­ers and en­trepreneurs.

“They pos­sess what I con­sider the four most im­por­tant qual­i­ties needed to be a suc­cess­ful busi­ness owner – they are ex­tremely self dis­ci­plined, highly mo­ti­vated; they know how to prob­lem solve and they know how to mul­ti­task, ” Gior­dano said. “Those qual­i­ties are used in the mil­i­tary and trans­late well in the civil­ian world. That’s why I hire only vet­er­ans as in­struc­tors, be­cause they re­late bet­ter in the class­room as they get to know each other.”

Project Op­por­tu­nity ac­cepts 12 vet­er­ans per course. The pro­gram is a 30-hour in­ten­sive course de­signed to pre­pare par­tic­i­pants to re­search and com­plete a busi­ness plan.

Top­ics ad­dressed over the 10 weeks range from busi­ness plan­ning to ef­fec­tively us­ing so­cial me­dia and web­sites. The fi­nal week, par­tic­i­pants present their busi­ness plans.

“My fa­vorite part of the pro­gram is we have a for­mal grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mony and each of the grad­u­ates have to get up in front of a room full of fam­ily and guests. It re­ally is im­pres­sive to see from the first time when they walk into the class­room to ac­tu­ally hav­ing a fairly com­pre­hen­sive de­vel­oped busi­ness plan.”

Through­out the course, var­i­ous per­for­mance mea­sures are com­pleted – like see­ing how many vet­er­ans have reg­is­tered their busi­nesses with the state.

Gior­dano noted it’s dif­fi­cult to keep tabs on all of the stu­dents once they grad­u­ate, but there are sev­eral suc­cess sto­ries. One vet­eran stands out – Chuck Davis. Davis is a 2014 grad­u­ate of the course and now owns a win­dow wash­ing com­pany called Kiss my Glass.

A Navy hospi­tal corps­man 2nd class vet­eran, Davis is quick to tout the ben­e­fits of Pro­gram Op­por­tu­nity.

“I was into my first year of start­ing a win­dow clean­ing ser­vice when I ap­plied for Project Op­por­tu­nity in 2013,” Davis said. “It gave me a great foun­da­tion to build a busi­ness plan. It was ex­tremely help­ful to make sure that the di­rec­tion I was go­ing in was the right one. Ev­ery guy who gets out of the mil­i­tary who wants to go into small busi­ness should go to Project Op­por­tu­nity. It is with­out a doubt, the most thor­ough, well thought out way to build a busi­ness plan that I’ve ever seen.”

The 12 vet­er­ans at­tend­ing the South­ern Mary­land class April 13 have al­ready been se­lected, but Gior­dano is work­ing to get more classes sched­uled.

“We’re hop­ing to have classes in the fall both in South­ern Mary­land and we’re in ne­go­ti­a­tions to have a class start in Prince Ge­orge’s County dur­ing that time frame as well, Gior­dano said. “I have a wait­ing list of about 110 vet­er­ans, with 40 of them from Prince Ge­orge’s County. I’m fairly con­fi­dent that we’ll be able to make that hap­pen.”

Other county lo­ca­tions slot­ted for fall classes in­clude Eas­ton, Anne Arundel and Howard. To get on the wait­list, vet­er­ans can visit the Project Op­por­tu­nity web­site.

To have the re­sources to make so many classes hap­pen, Gior­dano said there is an im­mense amount of com­mu­nity sup­port – in­clud­ing help from county work­force de­vel­op­ment of­fices. As a non­profit, the com­pany also writes grants and re­ceives spon­sor­ships from vet­eran-owned busi­nesses.

Those wish­ing to get into the course have to pass a three-step process.

“We first sched­ule an ori­en­ta­tion ses­sion were we ex­plained the pro­gram,” Gior­dano said. “I like to call it the good, the bad and the ugly of en­trepreneur­ship, to make sure they fully have a good idea of what they may be get­ting into. Then af­ter, we have a can­di­date screen­ing as­sess­ment of 20 ques­tions where we ask for de­tails to see how much thought they’ve given to their busi­ness ven­ture and every­thing else that goes along with it. Once we get those as­sess­ments, we do a fi­nal tele­phone screen­ing, and then we rank or­der them from top to bot­tom. We start at the top and of­fer seats in the class un­til we’re filled.”

Gior­dano ad­vises any­one who wants to ap­ply for Project Op­por­tu­nity to have a thor­ough un­der­stand­ing of their cus­tomer pro­file.

“They also need to un­der­stand cash flow anal­y­sis and run the num­bers to see if the busi­ness con­cept is suc­cess­ful,” Gior­dano said. “They need to truly rec­og­nize that a busi­ness is a liv­ing, breath­ing, work­ing doc­u­ment that is con­tin­u­ally re­viewed, up­dated and mod­i­fied as the econ­omy and busi­ness dic­tates.”

In the end, Gior­dano is pleased his pro­gram helps vet­er­ans- di­rectly through busi­ness ven­tures and in­di­rectly as well.

“Ev­ery sin­gle stu­dent has promised to hire vet­er­ans first. That makes me feel good to know that th­ese vet­er­ans are pro­vid­ing fu­ture em­ploy­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties down the road,” Gior­dano said. “They de­serve a re­ward and a break when they come back from serv­ing our country.”



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