Shem Zakem lay awake one night last year and conjured up a big idea. The Iraq War veteran wanted to go into business for himself making a Redbox-style vending machine that would help people exchange rechargeable batteries.
He would call it Green Box. It’d be good for the environment and convenient for customers. He knew it would be a hit if he could just get it in enough stores.
“People want to do the right thing for the environment as long as it’s convenient,” said Zakem, 32, an Army veteran who is nearing completion of degrees in computer science and engineering at the University of Washington Tacoma. He’s weighing a couple job offers, too.
His plan could have sputtered out as a daydream for lack of money, but he has been getting a hand developing it from the same kind of people who motivated him during his time in uniform: fellow veterans.
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Zakem is in the first batch of students cultivating business plans in UWT’s Veterans Incubator for Better Entrepreneurship, a program that connects former military service members with investors and experts to test their ideas.
It’s one of several efforts by South Sound universities and community colleges to help troops who are making a transition out of the military make a living in the civilian world.
Others include a cybersecurity master’s program at UWT, as well as a program there to help military medics gain certification as physician assistants.
Pacific Lutheran University and Saint Martin’s University are playing up their strengths, too. Both schools have coordinators who guide veterans through the academic system.
“Our job is to help people figure out what they’re good at,” said PLU President Thomas Krise, an Air Force veteran. “Everybody is better served if people are doing what they should be doing.”
The programs are gaining momentum – and students – as the Army shrinks from a force with 570,000 soldiers at the peak of the Iraq War to one that will have 490,000 by 2017. More cuts likely will follow in the years ahead as Congress and the Pentagon determine the size of the nation’s ground force.
About 8,500 military service members left the Armed Forces through Joint Base Lewis-McChord over the past year. The Army anticipates half will want to use their GI Bill benefits and pursue higher education.
On Friday, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced that 1 million former service members have used the post-9/11 GI Bill’s education benefits, which were enhanced for veterans and their dependents in 2009.
Numbers like those encourage South Sound educational leaders who want to build bridges with the military community.
“When I look at the base, what I see are 65,000 people, 85 percent of whom are college age,” said UWT Chancellor Debra Friedman, referring to Lewis-McChord’s combined population of troops, family members and civilian workers.
Friedman has been developing programs for the past two years with input from civilian and military leaders at Lewis-McChord and Camp Murray. They tell her what degrees and programs would best help their troops. The cybersecurity master’s degree, for example, was an idea that came from the Washington National Guard.
“This is a very important partnership,” she said.
These days at Lewis-McChord, the drawdown feels as urgent as a brigade readying for a combat deployment.
Mandatory classes for military service members leaving the armed forces are practically overflowing. Troops are required to start attending them a year and a half before they plan to separate, and commanders are obliged to let them go to school instead of showing up in their offices or formations.
“We spend 18 months training a soldier; we owe them at least that much time to help them get ready for the next part of their lives,” said Robin Baker, the base’s transition services manager.
Over time, the Army and Air Force Career and Alumni Program classes are intended to help troops narrow their priorities by directing them to one of four career tracks. Baker has waitlists for some of the specialized classes.
Local higher-education institutions are getting involved with veterans earlier than in the past. UWT, for example, organized its first campus tour for separating Lewis-McChord military service members last week. Half of the 20 students who attended were visiting a college campus for the first time.
“With a pending military drawdown, there are a lot of veterans who are not going to have the opportunity to stay (in the armed forces) even if they want to,” said Phil Potter, an Air Force veteran and Zakem’s adviser in the UWT entrepreneurship program.
“Tacoma’s a military-heavy community; there’s a lot of talent here,” he said.
Potter’s assignment to build up the entrepreneurship program has him scouting the downtown Tacoma campus looking for veterans with business ideas. About a dozen are in the group now. In some cases, they can earn college credit for developing the businesses they want to launch.
A special meeting room for the group is set aside above the campus library, and they’ve had several opportunities to meet with South Sound business leaders, marketing specialists and lawyers. Those doors likely would not open to them without the incubator’s help.
Iraq and Afghanistan veteran Steve Buchanan came to the group with a company that’s already operating. His Veterans Moving Company has about 10 employees mostly working for extra money while they go to school on their GI Bill benefits.
Buchanan, 36, fell in love with Tacoma when the Army sent him to Fort Lewis after he graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1999. He plans to stay here and expand his moving company with another veteran-oriented enterprise.
His idea is to create a business using social media that would allow people to hire veterans for short-term work. The veterans would develop profiles showing their skills, and the people or companies that hire them could rate them, which in turn would help the veteran accumulate references for a civilian résumé.
Eventually, the veteran would wind up with a permanent job whenever he or she wanted one.
“The goal of that company, honestly, is to hire as many veterans as possible,” said Buchanan, who’s earning a master’s degree in business administration. He also is a major in the Army Reserves and in command of a Nevada-based company.
Last Wednesday, Buchanan spent time in the incubator lab talking through business ideas with other veterans. He draws on their help, too. For example, Zakem advises him on what’s possible with a website.
“It’s a very collaborative environment, as opposed to some incubators where it’s almost like everybody’s knifing each other in the back. We all know we’re going to have success based on each other’s success,” Buchanan said.
Zakem likes that spirit, too. He has a work-study job at UWT’s Veterans and Military Services office. He couldn’t wait to talk to Potter when he heard about the entrepreneurship program.
Potter pushed Zakem to build a prototype. Zakem and his partner followed through and created one for their senior engineering project. They can now show off their green vending machine during pitches.
Zakem is on the cusp of completing a goal he set a dozen years ago when he joined the Army: to take care of his family and learn a skill that would set him up with a career. He and his wife, Melissa, are raising seven kids at their Lakewood home.
“I look at what the endgame is,” he said. “For me, the endgame is a comfortable lifestyle where I don’t have to worry about finances, where I don’t have to worry about my kids going to college.”
Zakem and his partner hope to have their Green Boxes out on the market by the end of next year. He doesn’t plan to sleep much between now and then.
“You can’t do anything productive while you’re sleeping,” he joked.
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton@ thenewstribune.com