Project Opportunity gateway to veteran entrepreneurship
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.”