VEI Helps Veterans with New Mission: Business Ownership
I will cherish my years of service to my country in the U.S. Army for my entire life. During my last five years of service, I worked with Force XXI 1st Raider Brigade 4th Infantry Division. This elite group was the first digital division that tested, researched and worked on the integration of new weapons technology in the battlefield — a large-scale experimentation enabling survivability, sustainability and versatility. That time in the military truly helped mold me into the person I am today. But when I left, I didn’t really know what to do next. So I became an entrepreneur, starting a logistics company called LandNet. I grew my business to a team of seven, supporting and servicing clients from Ocala to Fort Lauderdale, and eventually sold my portion of the business.
I tell my story because it is not unique. Across Central Florida, thousands of men and women are leaving the military and trying to write the next chapter of their lives. They are starting businesses and putting the same skills from the military to work into their own companies. But as any entrepreneur will tell you, taking a business from an idea to a sustainable, growing company is a daunting task. You must understand so many different and unique fields. One day, you are the company lawyer or the human resources specialist, writing contracts and dealing with employee issues. Another day, you are the company accountant and finance team, balancing the ledger and ensuring proper sales taxes are paid. And it seems that every day you are the company’s sales and marketing team.
For that reason, I was proud to form the Veterans Entrepreneurship Initiative (VEI), a not-for-profit organization, along with Ricardo Garcia, who serves as director of programs, and Rebecca Hertz, our director of operations. VEI is dedicated to empowering and supporting veteran entrepreneurs through business guidance, education and mentorship. Our team has worked with, mentored and trained more than 300 veterans throughout and beyond the Central Florida region.
The group is specifically designed to equip veterans with enough entrepreneurial knowledge and tools to validate, build and execute a business idea or concept.
We recently launched a multifaceted plan of services designed to help these entrepreneurs in a one-on-one atmosphere, in an online community and in small groups.
Perhaps we are most excited about the launch of the Veterans Innovation Pitch Competition, which started taking applications July 1 for up to 20 veteran-owned companies to participate. The program, which continues until November, is a great opportunity for veteran-owned businesses in our community to come together and learn from experts, mentors and each other.
The event will culminate with a formal pitch competition between the selected companies, with the winner receiving a cash prize for the business. The competition is for established businesses with revenue or investment of at least $250,000.
For all businesses, our program has launched a new veteran entrepreneur online community where veterans can communicate with other veterans and business experts to get a quick answer to a question or have a longer, in-depth discussion.
As this grows, it will also be a place where VEI alumni can gather, keep in touch and be reminded that they are part of a larger group of entrepreneurs and that they are never alone. Veterans who are seeking more in-depth help — someone to look closely at their business and provide one-on-one coaching — can get that assistance from VEI as well.
We recently partnered with the National Entrepreneur Center in Orlando to provide space for coaching veteran entrepreneurs. Qualified companies can receive an initial assessment by making an appointment to meet with one of our VEI-certified, trained coaches.
Of course, there are many other ways we would like to help this group of people. Veterans have proved time and time again that they are well suited to become business owners and grow their companies. In the future, we are looking at adding entrepreneurial programming and video instruction. We also want to expand our services throughout Florida.
We are looking to the business community to help.
First, as is common with new programs, more corporate funding is needed. We’re thankful for the support that Orange County and Veterans Florida have provided, but that only goes so far. With more corporate support, we can help more veterans.
Also, look toward your team and yourself to provide mentorship for these growing businesses. I cannot express how helpful it is to work with someone who has experienced the entrepreneurship path and can understand the emotions of being an entrepreneur. Your words of wisdom could provide that one piece of advice that keeps a veteran company in business and changes it into a sustainable, growing enterprise.
Finally, look within your own company for ways to help veterans. Put together a plan to hire more veterans in your business — they always make great employees. Then make sure all veterans understand they can be entrepreneurs. Help them and encourage them as they start down the path.
Helping veterans grow businesses is an economic development model that can benefit all of us. According to the latest U.S. Census 2018 Business Survey, veteran business owners account for 6.1% of all U.S. employer businesses and employ about 4 million workers. Your support and involvement not only helps those who served our country, but it creates jobs. It creates wealth. It creates customers for your business and more.
I’d welcome an opportunity to talk about what you can do to help the next great Central Florida company grow and succeed.