Community-Based Organization Aids Veterans in Business Start-ups
A Virginia city is helping returning veterans build entrepreneurial careers.
It can be daunting to transition from a life of taking orders to one of giving them. So business leaders in Virginia are stepping in to help transitioning veterans not only network for jobs, but also launch a business.
The Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC) is opening an incubator space this month with roughly 3,900 square feet that boasts training rooms, meeting rooms and a workspace to serve as a home base for 10 to 15 veterans seeking to start their own businesses.
“We actually, truly, have a hub,” says center Director Emily McMahan. “It’s a place to develop, to give folks breathing room to think and network before taking on some of the operational elements of having a full office space or having a full staff. … They can come together, get outside of their house and work with others.”
While an overwhelming number of programs and resources already exist to aid veterans transitioning from military service to the private sector, AVBEC takes a unique path of tapping local businesspeople for help: from veteran-owned businesses that want to grow and to hire other veterans, to colleagues who can mentor and provide resources to help in the conversion, McMahan says. “There is a lack of coordination and community-based support for veterans transitioning from the military to the business world,” McMahan says. “I think it’s the community’s responsibility to step up, not the government’s. We know our communities better than anybody … so let us step up to the plate and lead that effort.”
That’s not to say that veterans should forgo training and programs that teach about resume writing, how to succeed at interviewing or what not to wear. “There are a lot of organizations and nonprofits and government organizations that are doing that type of training, but nothing at the community level. Our thing was ‘what if we stepped up to the table and helped veterans integrate into the community with respect to business and career?’ At some point, after they transition from the government, they have to look for it in their community. Why don’t we step up and do that? Why don’t we assist them with that integration?” McMahan asks.
AVBEC’s primary focus is to help establish and support the next generation of veteran-owned businesses and emerging talent by providing veterans with a professional space to start or grow a businesses or seek a new career. The center is co-located with Alexandria’s Small Business Development Center to provide ready access to counselors, resources, mentors and trainers.
The accelerator, as organizers prefer to call it, builds a public-private partnership focused on veterans rather than on a particular industry or field. It not only has grass-roots support from the community but also provides networking opportunities throughout the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, which includes suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. The proximity to the federal government, the Pentagon and a number of defense-based industry headquarters creates a culture for the program to succeed, McMahan says. The target clients are transitioning veterans and spouses. Spouses were not part of the original mission, but they were added based on feedback from participants who had spouses interested in starting a business or career.
Former U.S. Marine captain Nick Karnaze created his business, stubble & ’stache, after growing a “war beard” to honor the memory of one of his best friends, Sgt. Justin Hansen, USMC, who was killed in action in Afghanistan. While Karnaze had the right sentiment, he says, he just did not have the right skin care products to deal with the horribly itchy new beard. So tapping his family’s medical know-how and working with cosmetic laboratories, he went to work to create a combination face moisturizer/beard conditioner and launch the business to sell the product.
“I learned so much through trial and error,” says the 33-year-old, who had served in the Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command.
The Alexandria center will provide a huge advantage to transitioning veterans, who can tap the experience and knowledge base of those who blazed similar trails before them. “It’s nice to be able to connect with people who have done this before, who know what it’s like to start a company. … It shortens the learning curve,” Karnaze says.
The community-based aspect likely will make it an enduring program, adds Karnaze, who took advantage of other programs when transitioning but felt they lacked staying power. “They didn’t seem inclusive. You walked in, got your information and left. Here, there’s a communal spirit,” he says. Additionally, Karnaze donates 15 percent of the business proceeds to the MARSOC Foundation and the Pathway Home, charities that support wounded warriors.
With the defense drawdown and hundreds of active duty personnel such as Karnaze leaving the service, Alexandria officials wanted a program to attract veterans to the capital region. Last year, AVBEC delivered services to transitioning veterans, but it did not have a physical center for veterans-turned-entrepreneurs. The veterans now will have an actual location to attend classes or to meet with lawyers and bankers who can give them advice on starting a business. And a handful will have an office at the center from which to work. Interested veterans present business plans to organizers, and if selected, the veterans can work for 12 to 18 months out of the accelerator facility to launch a business.
“I think a lot of the anxiety of transitioning is that networking piece, and trying to figure out who you are,” McMahan says. “There is a lot of anxiety to what people do all day in business. Having exposure to that and connecting people with willing mentors and people who want to participate, I think, does a lot to sort of combat that fear and anxiety.”
“The AVBEC will be self-sustaining for the long term, its reputation for service excellence well deserved, with alumni who support their community while successful in a range of businesses and occupations in Alexandria and beyond,” says Lt. Gen. Bob Wood, USA (Ret.), an AVBEC founding member. He also is executive vice president for the defense engagement department at AFCEA International.
Organizers see in veterans the qualities that employers would desire in an employee, McMahan lists: loyalty, creativity, punctuality, honesty, the ability to work as a team and leadership. “That’s what we wanted to attract to our community.
“At the end of the day … I think veterans, when they transition, want to hold on to the fact that they’re a veteran and want to hold on to that commonality,” she says. “But they also want to be integrated into the community and be successful in their next venture.”
SIGNAL Magazine compiled Working the Frontline: Job Guide for Veterans to give veterans easy access to a number of useful services—from employers who seek employees with military experience to job fairs, government programs, resource groups and helpful interviewing and resume writing tips.