Michael J. Zacchea, a decorated military hero and the founder and director of UConn’s highly successful Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans (EBV), has died at 53.
His unexpected death late last week left his UConn colleagues, government officials, and his “military family’’ in stunned sadness.
Zacchea, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, was a veteran’s veteran. He dedicated his first career to serving his country in Iraq, Somalia, and Haiti. He earned two Bronze Stars for Valor, a Purple Heart Medal, and was the first American to earn the Iraqi government’s highest honor, the Order of the Lion of Babylon.
When his tours of duty were over, he continued his service in a civilian capacity by helping his fellow veterans form their own businesses and successfully transition from military to civilian life.
“Mike is a one-of-a-kind hero who towers above us ordinary mortals,’’ said Professor Emeritus Tom O’Brien, the former head of the School of Business’ finance department and an enthusiastic supporter of the EBV.
The EBV program prepares disabled U.S. veterans with the entrepreneurship and small-business management skills they need to create their own businesses. Zacchea often said that veterans possessed the fortitude, determination, and honor that made them remarkable business leaders.
The 237 graduates of the program created vastly different businesses, from security firms to custom-gift companies to drone-operating training.
“The veterans adored and loved him, and saw him as their savior in a way,’’ said O’Brien, who believed so strongly in Zacchea and his work that he offered a $100,000 matching gift to support the program. “It’s really hard to express how un-ordinary he was.’’
Lt. Gov. Susan Susan Bysiewicz knew Zacchea well as the former Secretary of the State and now as Lieutenant Governor. She said his loss will be felt far and wide.
“Mike was a very passionate advocate for veterans and veterans who were starting their own businesses,’’ she said. “Mike always went above and beyond to help others, and was an inspiration and mentor to those around him.
“I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the students in his classes who have gone on to start very successful businesses in Connecticut and in other states. As a veteran, he was able to connect with recent combat veterans and engage with them, providing them the tools to become once again engaged in civilian life and employment,’’ she said.
Zacchea, who was active in community organizations in his hometown of Brookfield, was “the perfect public servant,’’ who served both his country and its people. “He will be missed, and I extend my deepest sympathies to his friends, family, and former students.”
School of Business Dean John A. Elliott agreed.
“Mike Zacchea was an extraordinary U.S. Marine, entrepreneur, educator, and UConn Husky,’’ Elliott said. “He was at the center of the veteran community at UConn, in Connecticut, and in the United States. For more than a decade he guided, befriended, and helped hundreds of people though the EBV program. He will be sorely missed.’’
A Military Hero
Zacchea deployed as the first U.S. military adviser during the war in Iraq. His mission was to build, train, and lead in combat the first Iraqi army battalion trained by the U.S. military. The battalion participated in many battles, including Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah.
He shared his story in the “The Ragged Edge: A US Marine’s Account of Leading the Iraqi Army Fifth Battalion,” published in 2017. The book highlights everything from strategy to the complicated task of uniting soldiers with different religious affiliations, the shortage of basic supplies, and the harrowing and bloody battles that ensued. He also described the friendships he made, which ultimately saved his life from an assassination attempt.
Almost 18 years ago, Zacchea was injured by a rocket-propelled grenade that resulted in a traumatic brain injury that almost ended his life, and forced him to take a medical retirement.
EBV Enormously Successful
Zacchea founded the EBV program in 2009. The program’s graduates have launched 187 businesses, producing more than $150 million in gross revenues, and creating 430 jobs.
The program brings aspiring entrepreneurs to campus for 10 days of intense training by UConn professors and other experts in entrepreneurship. After they graduate, they have a year of follow-up advising available.
Management professor David Souder said he has taught in the program for almost a decade and was impressed by Zacchea’s leadership.
“Mike always planned the EBV in-residence week to cover an amount of content that would be typical for an entire semester,’’ Souder said. “The participants would be scrambling to keep up, but also inspired to do so by Mike and each other. He made it work by following up with all the participants, helping them pick and choose the most relevant parts of the curriculum, and finding ways to supplement and reinforce what they learned after they were back home.
“Although the in-residence week is the signature activity of the EBV program, I was impressed with all the work Mike did behind the scenes to make it all possible and keep in touch with everyone who ever went through the program,’’ Souder said.
Marine Corps veteran Tony Audette, owner of Audette Motorcycles in Canton, credits the EBV program for his business knowledge and steering him away from several costly business mistakes. He said he admired Zacchea.
“Mike had the foresight and ability to build a lasting community, one that altered not just the life of veterans in direct contact with him, but also for the families and employees of those veterans, who opened their own businesses or became better intrapreneurs,’’ he said, referencing a term used for those who promote innovation with their companies.
“His legacy of compassion and leadership will be carried on by each of us who have had the pleasure to be a part of his program,’’ Audette said.
The Program Will Continue
The EBV program will continue as planned and as Zacchea would have wished, said Jennifer Mathieu, director of the Connecticut Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation at UConn. The School of Business will lean on the alumni and veteran communities, which have been responsive in the past, and continue planning for the next veteran class in August.
“I learned so much from Mike about the veteran community and the ways we can best provide support as they are starting businesses,’’ she said. “I will never forget one of our very last conversations we had about the characteristics of veterans and what we believe makes them successful entrepreneurs.
“It was evident how passionate Mike was about everything he did,’’ she said. “It is difficult to put into words the lasting impact that Mike has made on the veteran community and within our entrepreneurial ecosystem. He will truly be missed.’’
Mehgan Williams, a university specialist who worked for Zacchea, said his compassion was remarkable.
“Michael Zacchea dedicated his life to veterans, and I was fortunate enough to have a front-row seat for seven years,’’ she said. “What I most admired was his dedication. He would talk to veterans who were struggling, sometimes for 12 hours, to make sure they were OK. He would talk through the night if he had to. And that didn’t happen just once or twice, it happened many, many times.’’
Zacchea, who earned an MBA at UConn in 2012, was often tapped as an expert in veterans’ issues, whether in Connecticut or for national policy.
He served on a cross-agency working group for the Connecticut Department of Veteran Affairs focusing on veteran reintegration, education, training, and more. He also founded the Connecticut Veterans Chamber of Commerce in 2013, lobbying to pass laws promoting workforce reintegration and access to healthcare.
He was appointed to the Advisory Committee on Veterans Business Affairs for the Small Business Administration in 2015, and three years later became the chairman, advising on policies and issues impacting more than 2.5 million veteran-owned businesses.
He was quoted often, including in national media, and in 2016 he attended President Obama’s State of the Union address as a guest of U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal.