As director of Veterans Incubator for Better Entrepreneurship (VIBE) at the University of Washington-Tacoma, Thomas Kuljam leads
the charge in helping veterans transition out of the military and figure out what they want to do with their lives. With a staff of nine (10 including Kuljam) made up of professors, nationally renowned executives, entrepreneurs both seasoned and new, and peer mentors, VIBE provides an applied training environment that supports military veterans’ entrepreneurial aspirations by promoting understanding of the modern startup lifecycle to help veterans create their own economy.
“What we do is tap into their strengths and weaknesses and really determine if they want to be an entrepreneur,” Kuljam said. “Not everybody can be an entrepreneur or wants to be an entrepreneur. We also want to have a niche in the non-profit or social entrepreneurship because I truly believe that if you can change the world through changing what people think about child hunger, transportation or veteran homelessness, that’s a lot better than trying to make a million dollars.”
VIBE is open to enrolled UW students who are military veterans, active duty service members, or military spouses or if they’re participating in the certificate program at the Key Bank Professional Development Center. Kuljam is himself a veteran with 20 years of military experience in Air Force active duty including being an aircraft mechanic. He retired out of the Air Force reserves in 2009.
“I know exactly what these men and women are going through because once you leave (the military), you’re in a different world,” he said “The military tells you what to wear, when to eat, where to go...it’s a very difficult transition.”
Upon first meeting with prospective veteran students, “we just chat,” Kuljam explained. “We have a very candid and relaxed conversation. I have 25 years of banking experience, so I know what kind of questions to ask.” From there, participants spend two to four weeks orienting and socializing to meet and learn from each other and more experienced VIBE students and mentors. Then training workshops and social activities are held combined with online learning materials and resources. VIBE is not an academic unit and does not require that its participants take specific coursework, but does recommend taking particular classes based on students’ needs and backgrounds. Next, students take on mentors as they progress on their business concepts, round out their founding team and prepare for showcase events and business plan competitions. As VIBE is designed for pre-launch startup founders, students don’t need to already have a business idea, just the motivation and genuine desire to learn about what it takes to be an entrepreneur. Ultimately, the students will gain the ability – and confidence – to launch their own startup with a greater chance of success.
“The biggest challenge right now is that confidence,”
Kuljam said. “They really have to understand that the skill sets they developed in the military can translate into the business world – the focus and the hard work is what you need, and the goal-driven mission that you have to f inish and accomplish.”
VIBE students are provided physical space, learning tools, online resources, workshops, mentorship, networking opportunities, an environment full of likeminded veterans and various training experiences geared toward preparing students to launch startups should they ultimately choose that as their career path.
As Kuljam said, “At VIBE, we don’t just teach about just making money. We teach about entrepreneurship from a holistic standpoint. We teach it from the point where we learn about the numbers, we learn about what’s good for the environment, the city, for you and your family.”
To learn more about VIBE, visit www.tacoma.uw.edu/veterans-incubator-better-entrepreneurship/ vibe-home.