Boot Camp: Business Style


Kaylee Cusack

Document Type

News Article

Publication Date


Campus Unit

College of Business & Public Administration


Disabled military veterans from around the country look to the UND CoBPA's Center for Innovation for entrepreneurship training.

Laughter poured through the doors of the James Ray Idea Lab, punctuated by the impassioned shouts of 24 distinguished and disabled military veterans from around the country.

This raucous behavior isn’t typical for UND’s Center for Innovation, which houses the Idea Lab, but recently, during the last week of October, the environment felt a little different.

The boisterous crew was gathered for UND’s first-ever Veterans Entrepreneurship Program (VEP) Boot Camp. The rigorous seven-day experience is Phase 2 of a three-part program that prepares disabled vets to enter the world of business. UND is just the fourth university in the country to offer the free program.

“Every veteran gave their service to our country,” said VEP Director Tyler Okerlund— a disabled U.S. Navy and Army National Guard vet. “We at least owe them something, and this is just another type of program that we can offer them.”

One of those veterans, Lanny LaPlante of the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, applied to the VEP to get more hands-on learning and professional advice on growing his current venture, Blue Star, Inc., which installs navigation aids and lighting systems for airports. While other participants entered the program with simple ideas, LaPlante already was looking to snap together the final puzzle pieces.

“I’m just waiting to blow the ‘training wheels’ off of mine,” LaPlante smiled. “I’ve gained a lot since being here.”

Lanny’s story

LaPlante recalls his days as a young man in South Dakota as a catalyst to a desire to see more of the world.

“I was working for my dad, and we worked for about $40 a day — manual labor, breaking horses,” LaPlante said. “I got bucked off like nine times in one day. I wasn’t the stickiest guy in the saddle. I thought, there is more out there than just what’s here, and I wanted to go see that.”

So LaPlante enlisted in the Marines, exchanging horses for a parachute. He served as a member of a Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance jump team for hostage rescues. It was a dangerous job and the hazards caught up with him in the form of injuries. One of the worst happened during jump rehearsals when LaPlante fell 22 feet onto his tailbone, crushing nerves and leaving him with two herniated discs and a bulging disc.

LaPlante pushed through even more injuries, such as a crushed hand and a couple of broken ankles before his doctor told him it was time to get out.

“He said, ‘You’re broken. You’ve got to seriously consider the quality of your life after you leave the Marine Corps. Because if you go out and jump again, the screws won’t break — everything around your ankle will break,’” LaPlante recalled.

LaPlante left the Marines at 35, and after trying out other jobs, he started Blue Star Inc., with a friend.

“It gives you financial freedom, and you’re your own boss,” LaPlante said. “But you have to nurture it, you have to invest in it, and you have to bring in what you don’t know. Because you don’t know everything.”

Continuing education

That’s where VEP comes in. For the first five weeks of the program, LaPlante and his fellow veterans participated in an online self-study curriculum to prepare for Phase 2: boot camp at UND. And for those seven days, the veterans attended classes on leadership, marketing, finances, project management and more. Many of the courses were led by faculty and staff in UND’s School of Entrepreneurship, a regional leader in innovative practices for business success.

“A lot of them (faculty members) have been very excited about doing this,” Okerlund said. “They’ve had fun teaching these veterans because of the way that they think, because they think differently than the average college student.”

On their final day, participants used what they learned to create a competitive business pitch. After boot camp, program mentorship will continue for six to eight months with the help of the VEP.

This year’s program was supported in large part by the Edson and Margaret Larson Foundation, the Dakota Foundation and the Grand Forks Convention and Visitors Bureau, but Okerlund said an outpouring of donations also came from area businesses.

“They’re all about trying to help out the veterans as well,” he said. “That’s the terrific support that we have within a small community.”

Okerlund said the plan is to continue VEP for years to come.

“I may not have ever looked at starting a venture or a business, but I would consider this my venture,” Okerlund said. “As long as I see my venture taking off to help others build their venture — that’s a rewarding experience.”