A non-profit that provides tools for veterans to learn how to start and run their own business will be honored on Feb. 16, when TiE Tampa Bay presents its award for social entrepreneurship to Action Zone Inc.
“Action Zone is an entrepreneurial support organization where military community members are empowered to explore their entrepreneurial dreams,” said Rosie Lee, executive director.
The Tampa organization provides veterans structured curriculum, practical workshops and access to subject matter experts and mentors who volunteer to guide and advise them over a 19-week program.
Established in May 2018, Action Zone is funded by private donations and a grant from Veterans Florida, a state-created organization to provide services to veterans. Action Zone is the first nonprofit that’s not a college or university to be part of the Veterans Florida network.
Action Zone brings more to the table than a text book, said Dr. Dan Cooper, a chiropractor who is currently finishing the last phase of the program. “The networking, exposure to mentorship opportunity, connection with resources and lineup of expert contributors are invaluable bonuses,” Cooper said.
As Florida strives to diversify its economy, military veteran entrepreneurs help the state reach that goal, said Joe Marino, executive director, Veterans Florida.
“Through their ingenuity, adaptability and creativity, veteran entrepreneurs find new industries to impact in areas outside Florida’s typical economic drivers. Craft distilleries and brewers, government contractors, and cloud based applications, for example, have gone through the Veterans Florida Entrepreneurship Program and injected over $22 million into the state’s economy,” Marino said.
Action Zone is one of five companies and individuals that will be recognized for their contributions to the entrepreneurial ecosystem at TiEcon Florida, the marquee event for TiE Tampa Bay. Registration for the Feb. 16 event, which also includes keynote speakers and panel discussions, is underway here.
The social entrepreneurship award is given to an organization that has made a positive impact on social causes locally.
Lee has been interested in social entrepreneurship and making a difference in the community since childhood. When she was 10 years old, she set up a carnival booth to raise money for the Jerry Lewis telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, donating half her take to the telethon.
“I was touched by Lewis’ devotion to the cause and wanted to help while also seeing the income potential — as much as a 10-year-old can — in the process,” Lee said.
She is not a stranger to the military community. Her husband is a Vietnam veteran, a son serves in the Army and she has helped friends and family navigate the VA system.
The spark to create Action Zone came as she made a series of phone calls to veterans who had been accepted into a similar entrepreneurship program.
“I was completely bowled over by their gratitude at being granted the opportunity,” Lee said. “I made 42 of those phone calls that week and each one contained more heartfelt — and desperate — gratitude than the previous one. I cried for a week. I had been in similar places. I had been professionally lost, bereft of the means to an end, uncomfortable in my skin but without a lifeline. I had been given the privilege of doing nothing more than act as messenger, and it was life changing for me. I knew I would never do anything else with my life.”
Action Zone offers programs from Veterans Florida such as transition assistance from a military to an entrepreneurial mindset, business modeling and CEO coaching. There’s a $250 registration fee, paid to Veterans Florida. Participation in the programs is exclusive to veterans, but there also are mission-focused workshops that are open to all entrepreneurs — a move that allows veterans in the program to learn networking skills within the broader business community.
Action Zone is currently recruiting participants for its second cohort, which starts in February, Lee said.
One of Lee’s goals for Action Zone this year is to increase participation and to secure more funding and volunteers.
Another goal is to create a formal program for military spouses, who struggle to maintain professional standing when they move from one duty station to the next with their service member.
“They often start at the lower rung every time they get a new job in a new area,” Lee said. I want to help them develop businesses that are mobile, portable and sustainable regardless where they are situated, how often they move and where they end up.”