NEW YORK, NEW YORK - U.S. Marines march in the Veterans Day Parade on November 11, 2019. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Photo: Spencer Platt
Photo: Spencer Platt

Opinion: We can all support veteran entrepreneurs

As Veterans’ Day 2019 approached, an important segment of the U.S. business community was dangerously in decline. After World War II, 49.7 percent of returning veterans owned and operated a business. For Korean War veterans, that number was 40.1 percent. More than 60 years later, only 5.6 percent of post-9/11 veterans have started their own business. That may not seem like an alarming statistic to the casual observer, but it is urgent to me.

Consider the impact of FedEx on the American economy. The company, founded by Marine Corps captain and Vietnam war veteran Frederick Smith, employs 425,000 and reported $69.7 billion in revenue for fiscal 2019. Comcast, founded by WWII Navy veteran Ralph Roberts, reported $94.51 billion in 2018 revenue and has 184,000 employees. Walmart, founded by Army veteran Sam Walton, had $514 billion in annual revenue for the 2019 fiscal year, making it the world’s largest company by revenue. The company employs 1.5 million people in the United States and a total of 2.2 million globally.

Imagine, for a moment, the number of FedEx’s, Comcasts and Walmarts that are not created because veterans transitioning out of service no longer pursue entrepreneurship, despite their stated interest in doing so.

The plunging rates are not due to lack of interest. Nearly one in four veterans said they were thinking of starting a business in a 2004 study conducted for the Small Business Administration. Instead, those of us active in the veteran business community believe the decrease is due to obstacles such as barriers to financing, lack of resources, and dwindling professional networks; all of which we can change.

It’s in every Americans best interest to rebuild veteran entrepreneurship. Returning veterans should have a passion for the American dream they served to protect. Many of them understand that enduring the hard work and sacrifice of entrepreneurship will increase the strength of the American economy as an extension of the hard work and sacrifice they made to defend it. For every veteran who gives up on their dream of being a business owner, the economy silently loses an unknown number of potential jobs created. In some cases, that number might have been just a few employees, but it also might have been much more.

Just as in the ’50s, veterans in 2019 still want to be entrepreneurs, and they’re well suited for the challenge. Research has shown that veterans have skills that are important for entrepreneurial success, including creativity, willingness to take risks and leadership ability. Similar studies have shown that veteran-owned businesses have a higher degree of initial success when, and only when, they are properly supported. As a community, it’s our role to ask how we can encourage veterans to take that chance, and once they’ve begun, how we can welcome them into supportive networks and arm them with the tools of their new trade: entrepreneurship education, funding and resources.

This is what my peers and I do as city leaders and regional executives for Bunker Labs; a national non-profit organization to support veteran entrepreneurs like me. The Bunker Labs motto is to inspire, equip, connect. I believe any company, institution, or individual interested in supporting veteran entrepreneurs can adopt the same motto. The question remains for you: “What can we do to help?”

First, we need to equip veterans with tools and resources that they can lean on. Most of the resources for transitioning military service members are geared toward traditional employment. The concept of entrepreneurship can feel like a black box. Confounding matters, what an entrepreneur needs on day one is radically different from what they need on day 60. To better support veterans along that long spectrum of growth and change, we need to find more ways to create pools of entrepreneurship resources that veterans can draw on as needed.

This will take financial resources to support. How much? Given that approximately 1 in 4 veterans is interested in starting a business, one estimate proposed is for every three dollars we spend on veteran employment programs we should spend one dollar on entrepreneurship programs. We also encourage corporations and civic organizations to actively seek out and partner with groups that train and equip veteran entrepreneurs. Bunker Labs is just one of many doing great work out there.

This leads to the second way to help. We need to connect aspiring veteran entrepreneurs to active networks of support. Fifty percent of veterans relocate to a city other than their hometown after completing their military service, which has an inevitable impact on the size and strength of their professional networks. With only one percent of Americans joining the military, the pool of possible connections between veterans is also shrinking. Because of these relocations and dwindling size of the military, the need to help military veterans build strong networks and bridge the veteran-civilian gap is even greater for this community of aspiring entrepreneurs.

If you know a veteran looking for a network of peers, tell him or her about organizations like Bunker Labs, VettoCeo in Marietta which offers veterans a free seven-week course in entrepreneurship skills, and the SBA’s Veteran’s Business Outreach Center. I encourage business and civic leaders to reach out to veterans and invite them to join in the conversations and events that shape our community. And for the support that every veteran needs in all aspects of their lives, reach out to The Warrior Alliance to find the personal support networks that so many of us need on the entrepreneur journey.

Finally, and most importantly, people need to see to believe. The majority of veterans transition from military service to traditional employment, and taking a corporate job seems like a trusted, safe choice. We need to diversify our narratives to show that entrepreneurship is accessible and rewarding as well.

Veteran’s Day is a perfect time to reach out to and support some of the local veteran businesses in your area to see the quality they deliver. Stop by, hear their story, get inspired by their dedication and pass it on to those in your network. These veteran businesses are an extremely diverse collection of amazing individuals. Here in Atlanta especially, the diversity is more than just a buzzword. Yes, veterans, as a group have significantly higher racial and gender diversity than the normal civilian population, should any corporate reader here have a need for vendor/supplier diversity. However, the Atlanta start-up culture is much more diverse in thought and industry than other markets. We do have tech companies primed for explosive growth!

Our veteran business community goes beyond “Silicon-Valley-model” tech startups, so you are much more likely to find a business that supplies what you need.

2020 promises to be a big year for America. With all of the changes globally, nationally and locally, the best stability that we can build for the future of America is the certainty that veterans with the character and skills to build the next Walmarts, Comcasts and Fedex’s of the world are growing and thriving. And that can happen with the support and motivation that you, and all those around you, have started to provide today.

Jason Smith is a veteran and Atlanta-area businessman.

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