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Robert Blacklidge
Posted November 3, 2017 | 4:59 PM

One Year after Landing at ECC, "Operation Startup" Soars

Program reaches out to "Vetrepreneurs" - People with military ties and business savvy

Upon returning to the Tampa Bay area in May after six years with the U.S. Air Force, retired Senior Airman Robert Blacklidge quickly found his niche.

He and his wife had been here about two weeks. Robert was sitting by a swimming pool, doing homework in pursuit of his second master's degree. On a whim, he went to a business networking session at Hillsborough County's Entrepreneur Collaborative Center (ECC) in Ybor City.

A speaker happened to talk about Operation Startup. The year-old program provides free mentoring, meet-and-greet opportunities, workshops, and other resources for people with military experience who are thinking about opening a business. It's available for veterans, active-duty service members preparing to leave the military, Reserve and National Guard members, armed forces spouses, and civilian business partners of people with military ties.

Robert was hooked.

Operation Startup is based on the premise that many people with military backgrounds have a knack for entrepreneurship. The discipline, resilience, and camaraderie taught in the military translate well to starting, nurturing, and sticking with a business idea.

"You come out of the military with a different mindset," Robert says. "We can relate quicker."

Operation Startup helps transitioning servicemen and servicewomen develop their business ideas and seek financing, bolster struggling endeavors, and fill gaps to help promising concepts fulfill their potential. It is a partnership between Hillsborough County government and Hillsborough Community College.

Since formally opening at the ECC in November 2016, the program for "Vetrepreneurs" has exceeded expectations. More than 1,400 people with military ties have participated in Operation Startup workshops at the ECC, with instruction and tutelage from experts on marketing and branding, government contracting, driving sales through social media, and human resources for small businesses, among other topics.

The program has helped launch a half-dozen Veteran-owned companies, and others have incorporated or are in the process of doing so. They include marketing and IT firms, companies that develop mobile device aps, government contractors, cleaning services, and even an enterprise that leases land to raise organic cattle.

Emphasis on some topics has changed during the first year, as leaders assessed needs and adapted. That will keep happening.

Course Align, a fledgling business founded by Robert and his associates, encourages universities to prepare students for the workplace by teaching them the data-driven skills that employers covet. Since his return to Hillsborough County in May, Operation Startup has helped Robert by "plugging me into the community."

He continues to learn and network, while helping Veterans and others pursue their business ambitions.

"It's amazing how open this community is," he says. "Serendipity is there. You just have to engage it."

Photo information: Robert Blacklidge is an enthusiastic participant in Operation Startup, which formally took off in November 2016.