By Debbie Gregory.
You may not have heard of professional comic book artist Derek Rodenbeck. His road to entrepreneurship has not been a smooth one, but his attitude is one of perseverance.
The Army sergeant returned home from a year’s deployment with post-traumatic stress disorder. Through no fault of his own, Rodenbeck was homeless for a while, living in his 1998 Subaru with his service dog, Kuma, a 140-pound Akita. He worked as a bouncer and occasionally competed in strongman contests.
In April, 2015, Rodenbeck had been one of 19 participants in St. Joseph’s University’s Veterans Entrepreneurial Jumpstart (VEJ) program, an all-expenses-paid business-development training program for disabled vets.
Participants completed online classes to develop a business plan, then spent seven days on campus with guest lecturers, panel discussions, one-on-one mentoring, and a Shark Tank-style presentation. Post class assistance included website development, tax and accounting assistance, and mentoring.
At the conclusion of his VEJ program, Rodenbeck impressed the panel of judges with his pitch for a line of clothing featuring artists’ designs.
“You are the canvas,” he said of the idea behind his brand. He planned to start with T-shirts, then expand to dresses, swimsuits, and jackets, and to have his own cut-and-sew facility.
Small-business reality interfered with that plan, however. He sold his first batch of 40 T-shirts for $20 each, but “was definitely in the red” and did not have the capital to keep going.
Recently Rodenbeck attended the awards dinner for this year’s VEJ class, where he impressed Ralph Galati, director of the Office of Veterans Services at St. Joe’s and co-creator of the entrepreneurial-training program.
“I noticed a different person that was not the quiet, reserved person” he met last year, Galati said. “I think we drew it out of him. You never know what little nugget you might drop in a class, and someone takes it and that seed germinates.”
“The struggle still exists but I’ve learned it’s how we adapt to the problems we face and utilize them to find solutions,” Rodenbeck said.
How long VEJ continues depends on how effectively Galati, a disabled Air Force vet and former Vietnam POW, meets his current mission: finding a financial backer.
Its seed money – a $1 million endowment by 1968 alum Frank Trainer – will fund the program through 2018, Galati said.
“We would love to have a local sponsor, a local large corporation or two, stand tall with decent money,” he said.
“These programs help disabled veterans realize their goals by providing education and mentorship services free of charge that are too often unaffordable for those who have served our country,” Galati said.