What started as an effort by Bob Nilsson, a U.S. Marine vet with a broken leg to help other Vietnam War wounded heal at a Navy hospital in Queens, N.Y., has grown decades later into a nationwide crusade to transition veterans, injured and not, into entrepreneurs in the construction sector—and beyond.
Nilsson, 74, who went on to become president of contractor Turner International and while retired, remains a corporate adviser, advanced his assistance after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars by helping patients at Washington, D.C.- area military hospitals to recover from serious injury, obtain scholarships and work in the industry (ENR 1/7-14/07 p. 51).
His efforts grew more business-focused, leading to the formation of a non-profit called 100 Entrepreneurs Foundation Inc., that steers veterans to launch businesses of their own. Nilsson is its president, motivator-in-chief and social-media maven.
"We started the program because many of our veterans, once they realize they can't be deployed again, do not want a 9-to-5 time-card-punching job," he says. "It exposes the wounded and their families to entrepreneurs and business experts who give free seminars in person or online."
Turner is a key donor, along with the Urban Land Institute; the foundation of Bob Woodruff, the ABC television anchor who suffered traumatic brain injury in a 2006 Iraq roadside bomb attack; and numerous Nilsson friends and associates.
More than 700 veterans have cycled through career classes, now held at a Bethesda, Md., site near the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where many wounded vets recover. The program also is expanding to Fort Belvoir, Va., San Francisco and four sites in Texas.
Nilsson credits Amanda Weathersby, a business consultant volunteer, for boosting its entrepreneurial field beyond construction. He notes 85 new veteran-owned startups in more than 80 fields, from cloud computing to titanium prosthetic limbs produced on a 3D printer. She credits his commitment and business instincts. Nilsson "is all ears," says Weathersby. "He's not looking for everyone to build a $25-million company, but he can spot when the fire lights up."
U.S. Army veteran Clayton Hinchman, a platoon captain who lost a leg in Iraq in 2008 to an improvised explosive device and founded a computer consulting firm, says that while he and Nilsson often disagreed, the constructor was the first person to "talk to us about life and what we needed." He and 100 Entrepreneurs pushed us "to learn."
Tim Neild made it through a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan in 2012 only to suffer injuries in a late 2013 car accident that almost ended his life while on duty with the New York state Army National Guard, of which he is a 17-year veteran. "I was in an induced coma for 11 days with head trauma, a bruised left lung, a punctured right lung, eight broken ribs, two broken legs, a crushed left foot and burns on 4% of my body," he says.
Recovering at Walter Reed, the mechanical engineer who was furloughed in 2013 as an Army civilian employee, attended a 100 Entrepreneurs program in March with hopes of starting a consulting business.
"I'd like to start a consulting firm and specialize in green building.methods that can save homeowners money," says the father of a 4-year-old daughter. "I look forward to developing a relationship with 100 Entrepreneurs to learn about the start-up process."