MBA@UNC Student Channels Entrepreneurial Expertise into Caregiver Retreats

Launching a business is a complex challenge with many moving parts. Getting a venture off the ground demands dedication and drive, and there are a variety of strategic skills that are crucial for long-term success. In a competitive market, how do you get the attention of investors and, moreover, your target audience?

These are questions that Allison Hughes asked herself before she decided to enter the MBA@UNC program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School. Knowing that she would soon be moving from North Carolina to Okinawa, Japan, where her husband was being stationed, an online MBA program was an ideal choice.

MBA@UNC is designed to empower would-be entrepreneurs with the kind of acumen needed to stand out and succeed in the business world, no matter where students are living. As a top program providing high-quality, interactive course work and frequent, live communication with faculty members, MBA@UNC allowed Hughes to study on her own time and at her own pace — a freedom and flexibility that was critical, especially for Hughes, who had recently become a new mom.

An Entrepreneurial Mindset

The truth is, Hughes didn’t always know that an entrepreneurial focus was the right track for her. In May 2012, just one month after enrolling in MBA@UNC, she received news that her husband had been critically wounded while serving in Afghanistan. This life-changing event forced her to step back and focus on her family. Taking a year off allowed her to re-evaluate her goals, and she re-entered the program with a new perspective and sense of purpose.

rsz_dsc_0055Over the course of her gap year, Hughes had become a full-time caregiver for her husband. Meanwhile, she was also caring for a 2-year-old and a 4-month-old, and it became increasingly clear to her that there is a lot of pressure on caregivers to take on roles that they are not trained or necessarily prepared to fulfill. Realizing that there’s abundant support for wounded warriors but not for caregivers, she and her friend — and soon-to-be co-founder — developed an idea for a series of retreats that would give caregivers some space to heal, while instilling hope and meaning in their lives. Hughes’ idea was to design programs to improve and enrich the quality of life for caregivers of America’s critically wounded soldiers by providing local support networks, workshops and holistic retreats. One example would be the opportunity to capitalize on the positive effects of yoga and meditation in a supportive environment.

Overcoming Obstacles

Having finally decided to take the entrepreneurial route, Hughes was determined to take Dr. Ted Zoller’s New Venture Discovery class. Once she was accepted, she immediately began setting up office hours outside of class to get Dr. Zoller’s advice — and this is when her business model truly began to take shape.

When she originally came up with the idea for Heels On The Ground, Hughes wasn’t sure where to begin. Knowing that it would be impossible to raise money with no proof that the business would produce results, she became fixated on creating an entire Web site. The planning process seemed daunting, though, and she felt unprepared to effectively pitch the value proposition of her venture to an investor. Moreover, she was overwhelmed by the task of fundraising, as well as developing a financial plan and marketing strategy. One of the biggest setbacks that entrepreneurs often face in getting their business off the ground is a false sense of needing a perfect solution, when really all that’s needed is a solid core idea. This, Hughes admitted, was one of the most important entrepreneurial awakenings that she had while working with Dr. Zoller.

“You only need a minimum viable product, and from there you can continue to adapt,” said Hughes. “It’s better to start small and work your way up. I realized that I was making it into more than it needed to be initially, and that was a really valuable lesson for me.”

Under Dr. Zoller’s mentorship, Hughes concluded that investors didn’t expect her to have a completed Web site. Instead, he proposed that she simply set up a landing page and build the Web site over time. Additionally, he suggested that Hughes design a crowd-funding video, which would allow her to raise enough money to launch the first retreat. Dr. Zoller also advised her to establish a partnership with a like-minded organization to launch her initial retreats, which she did with the Green Beret Foundation. Once HOTG was established as a nonprofit, potential investors and funders would recognize that this was a legitimate venture, and they would be more likely to contribute to the project.



Learning from All Angles

Hughes was particularly enthusiastic about the Business Innovation class, which enabled her to develop a strategy that set her venture apart from traditional retreats and specialize the model to cater to caregivers and their unique needs. Meanwhile, the business communications courses have provided her with the required skills to build a strong pitch, which will be crucial as she prepares for her presentation for the Carolina Challenge, a UNC competition designed to promote entrepreneurship.

Not only has Hughes learned from her professors — she’s also gleaned helpful insight from her peers at MBA@UNC. At the global immersion she attended in December 2013, her fellow students had endless suggestions for how she could develop her business in the future, including applying the program model to caregivers of people who are disabled or cancer patients.

“Everyone else is so passionate about entrepreneurship — it’s really helped validate what I am trying to do,” she explained. “It gave me that boost of confidence to push forward with my venture.”

“MBA@UNC has given me so many opportunities that I never thought were even possible,” Hughes stated. “The professors and staff are amazing in helping you 110 percent to get you where you need to be. If entrepreneurship is where your heart is, MBA@UNC will help you get there.”


About Heels on the Ground: Heels on the Ground (HOTG) is an innovative new organization sponsored by the Green Beret Foundation (GBF). HOTG complements the mission of the GBF by improving the quality of life for caregivers of wounded Green Beret soldiers. HOTG accomplishes its mission via support networks, local weekend workshops, personalized mental and physical wellness plans, educational webinars, and transformative weekend retreats. Like the wounded service member, caregivers face enormous pressures and make tremendous sacrifices, yet there are few options for healing caregivers. HOTG provides ongoing, customized support for caregivers, guiding them through the healing process and empowering them to make lasting transformations to their health so that they can thrive in the face of these challenges. As the caregivers thrive, so will their spouses and families.

Heels on the Ground-HD from Allison Hughes on Vimeo.


Hughes, AllisonAbout Allison Hughes: Allison Hughes is currently a full time graduate student at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School’s MBA@UNC focusing on entrepreneurial studies and the launch of Heels On The Ground. She received her undergraduate degree from the University of Albany in 2002 with a major in physics. She is also a caregiver to a severely wounded Special Forces Officer. CPT Breg Hughes was injured May 29, 2012 in Afghanistan. As a result of an IED strike, he received 3rd degree burns to 50% of his body. He spent 4 months in the hospital, two of which were in the ICU. He had to learn to walk again as well as feed and care for himself. He’s had 18 surgeries to date, and he’s still not finished. Additionally, she is the mother of two boys who are now 3 years and 19 months old. Prior to now, she served as an active duty, Army UH-60 pilot for 8 years. During this time she deployed to Iraq twice totaling 27 months overseas.

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