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Competition grants $100,00 total to active-duty and veteran entrepreneurs

Competition grants $100,00 total to active-duty and veteran entrepreneurs

The Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University announced the winners of its VetSmallBiz Challenge recently. From left are Marcus Ruzek, Program Director, The Marcus Foundation; Leah Olszewski, FEMTAC; Kathryn Thomas, Yoga 4 Change; Jim Raschella, Off Duty Blue; Ken Kelso, Military Express LLC; and Maureen Casey, Chief Operating Officer, Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

By Rindi White

The VetSmallBiz Growth Challenge, a business competition offered by the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, or IVMF, at Syracuse University, announced the winners of its annual competition in March.

The challenge gives veteran-owned businesses exposure to a three-member panel of notable judges. Winners of the competition get a portion of the total prize of $100,000, plus three months of mentorship. The competition is funded by The Marcus Foundation and was open to U.S. service members and veteran entrepreneurs.

Top honors went to Leah Olszewski for her Fort Walton Beach, Florida-based company, FEMTAC. The company provides tactical apparel and gear to improve safety and support performance for women whose work or passion takes them into the field. Olszewski’s company is founded, managed and designed by women in the U.S. military and law enforcement.

In a Facebook post celebrating the news that the company received $50,000 and three years of mentoring, FEMTAC staff said: “Another step towards our product line for women who take on some of the toughest and most adventurous jobs out there. Driven by honor, built from experience, in fearless pursuit.”

The second-place prize of $25,000, plus $5,000 for Best Social Venture, went to Yoga 4 Change, an Atlanta Beach, Florida-based company owned by Kathryn Thomas.

Thomas’ company provides yoga classes for military and civilian participants who have post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and other trauma. Thomas is a disabled Naval helicopter pilot. According to the company’s website, she founded Yoga 4 Change, a nonprofit, to bring purpose-driven yoga curriculum to veterans, incarcerated individuals, vulnerable youth and those suffering from substance abuse.

Third place went to Off Duty Blue, a business that makes it easy to hire off-duty law enforcement for private security. The company, owned by Jim Raschella of Syracuse, New York, won both the third-place prize of $10,000 and the $5,000 Most Innovative Venture award.

The company website describes Off Duty Blue as a security logistics solution. Its website operates like a marketplace, with clients posting jobs in which security details are needed and officers logging in to browse jobs and choose after-hours work shifts that fit. The company is veteran- and law-enforcement owned.

The fourth company recognized by the VetSmallBiz Growth Challenge is Military Express LLC, a trucking company that employs veterans. Owned by Ken Kelso, Military Express is based in Mandeville, Louisiana; the company won the $5,000 Best Venture Impacting Veterans award.

“Military Express LLC was formed in October 2014 as the brainchild of Ken Kelso, a hard-charging Marine. He envisioned a veteran and military family corps in the transportation industry,” the company website states. “Our entire company is composed solely of drivers and driver support personnel who have earned the privilege to be employed by Military Express based upon their veteran or military family status and hiring criteria.”

Company founders hope to create the largest for-hire, driver-centric transportation business entity, with a military ethos and safety-first mindset, solely owned and operated by veterans and military families.

“Veteran-owned business plays a key role in our economy with more than 2.5 million veteran-owned businesses in the United States employing over 5 million people. We thank The Marcus Foundation for their leadership in supporting this important economic driver,” said Meghan Florkowski, Director of Entrepreneurship Programs at the IVMF. “We congratulate the six winners and all of the finalists for their vision and drive and wish them tremendous success.”

The IVMF at Syracuse University is the first interdisciplinary national institute in higher education focused on the social, economic, education and policy issues affecting veterans and their families post-service. The institute is supported by an advisory board as well as public and private partners committed to advancing the post-service lives of America’s service members, veterans and families.

The Marcus Foundation is owned by philanthropist Bernie Marcus, co-founder of The Home Depot. Marcus is a patriot and staunch supporter of the U.S. military and veterans. His foundation focuses on five areas: children, Jewish causes, medical research, free enterprise and community. 

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