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Welcome home: Military veterans carve out niche as local entrepreneurs

Amy Entress and Rob Rieke are building a multi-million-dollar food processing facility in Plant City.

Michael Zanetti is trying to make things easier for employers and employees in the trade industry.

Li Cohen works like a real estate agent for solar power.

Servicemen and women develop a unique set of skills in the military that don’t always translate well into traditional civilian life. But some are finding entrepreneurship gives them the opportunity they need to continue to serve the community, on their own terms.

Here is a look at three local veteran-owned businesses finding success by working to improve our quality of life: vetSpark, which seeks to decrease our dependence on foreign fuel; TradesFactor, which makes job hunting easier for blue-collar employees on temporary projects; and AgFreeze, which will freeze nutritional value into our produce, just hours after harvest.

Li Cohen, founder of vetSpark

Formerly a public affairs officer assigned to MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Li Cohen now acts as a real estate agent, of sorts, for solar power. As an energy consultant, she makes money when there is a sale. 

“My job is basically to help businesses and homeowners access solar energy,” she says.

Cohen, who served in the Navy for 20 years, recognized how dependent the United States’ fleets and aircraft were on foreign fuel. In civilian life, the story is the same. 

“When we turn on the lights we are using coal and oil that was brought to America from somewhere else,” she says.

Cohen wanted to do something about it, so she founded vetSpark to increase access to solar energy and work toward greater awareness about “energy security.”

In the long haul, solar energy can pay for itself, and then some, over the guaranteed 25-years of the system. 

“The cost depends widely on the state,’’ Cohen says. “In Florida, although we have the lowest price per watts, we don’t have any financial incentives from the energy companies.’’

With electricity already on tap, not everyone sees the need to convert, especially when it costs $24,000-$28,000 for an average home. 

“The problem with solar is absolutely a communications problem. People need to see it as you would see buying a car,” she explains. “Today you just don’t doubt the need to buy a car. You need transportation. What are your options?”

Cohen retired from the Navy last year and officially opened her home-based business in Carrollwood this month with about $5,000 for training and software. She accepts clients nationwide and works with installers to ensure her customers receive the best value. Cohen wants other veterans to know about the opportunities available in the solar industry.

Michael Zanetti, co-founder of TradesFactor

In the construction industry, welders, carpenters and plumbers often put in 10 to 12 hours a day at very physical jobs they know will be ending soon. Yet they often lack the time and energy to look for their next project. 

So Michael Zanetti, a former Army field artillery officer who served in Iraq, and Brady Bagwan, another Army veteran, want the jobs, or employers, to find them. 

“We are creating the marketing place for the employer and the worker,” says Zanetti, CEO for TradesFactor. “This is all about enabling the workers to have a better chance of getting found by the employers.”

The blue-collar marketplace is intended to help both employers and employees in project-based industries that require skilled trades.

“While they [the employers] may love that worker, they can’t afford to keep them on the payroll,” Zanetti says.

TradesFactor provides a free “digital passport” to blue-collar workers, he says.
 
Employers, who pay a fee, can track employees’ availability and certifications. 

The Tampa-based business, founded last summer, was funded with “a number of small angel investments” totaling in the “low six figures,” he says. “Companies love it.”

TradesFactor also offers networking. “It’s not just about finding work. It's also about asking professional questions,” he says.” They really don’t have a network that is devoted to these types of trades.”

Amy Entress and Rob Rieke, partnering in AgFreeze

In the agricultural arena, two Navy veterans are partnering to fill a gap in Florida’s fruit processing industry. Amy Entress, who served as a surface warfare officer at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and Rob Rieke, who worked in intelligence at Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, are making plans to build a processing plant at Lakeside Station Logistic Park in Plant City. Their goal is to process 7 to 10 million pounds of fruit in their first year.

The multi-million-dollar business, expected to open in October, 2017, will provide individual quick frozen produce.

AgFreeze will be processing strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes and other Florida-grown commodities. The fruit is bathed in chlorinated water to remove dirt, then prepared for freezing in a tunnel with a temperature of -45 degrees Fahrenheit. 

“It’s frozen solid to the core,” explains Rieke, the company’s President and COO. “That now has a 24-month shelf life.”

The frozen produce will be sold in bulk to companies that will pack and distribute it to supermarkets, adds Entress, AgFreeze CEO.

Fresh fruit loses nutritional value as it ages, so frozen fruit can be better than fresh produce on the market. 

“Because it was frozen hours after it was harvested, it’s the most nutritional berry you can get,” Rieke says.

Finding assistance

Veterans can get start-up assistance at the Entrepreneur Collaborative Center in Ybor City through Hillsborough Community College’s Operation Startup

The program offers free services to honorably discharged veterans, active-duty military personnel preparing to transition to civilian life within a year, and current Reserve or National Guard members living in Florida. Spouses and civilian business partners also are eligible. The program allows these future entrepreneurs to develop business concepts and collaborate in a hub where teams are working to improve the community.

More information is available at 813-259-6024 or by email.

Entress, who attended a recent Operation Startup Open House, praised the program. 

“This program really helps,” she says. “It really reaches a broad range of the community and it’s helping them use their skillsets and ... do something that they enjoy.”

Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. 
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