Creating a culture that supports veterans and military spouses on the road to entrepreneurship

Skills learned in the military prepare former service members to start their own businesses

While almost two million military veterans are entrepreneurs, almost half say they don’t have easy access to the programs they need to start and grow their businesses, according to a survey from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University.

“Major strides have been made to train and support veteran entrepreneurs over the last two decades, but veteran entrepreneurs still face challenges. Some common challenges include developing and utilizing social capital, identifying successful mentors, accessing appropriate financial capital, and obtaining and utilizing business and management skills,” says IVMF.

IVMF offers veterans the programs they need to succeed. The school has nine entrepreneurship programs, everything from ideation to growth, and then sustainment as a business owner.

“We provide a community of support where service members, military spouses, and in some cases even dependents, can actually rely on these resources to help navigate the business owner experience,” explains IVMF employee relations manager Ken Mayes, who spoke with WorkingNation at the NASWA Veterans 2023 conference in August.

Mayes says military personnel have an affinity to be independent business owners. “It’s something about the life of being a service member, understanding the dynamics and the landscape of what it takes to be successful, which makes entrepreneurship a good match for this population.”

James Rodriguez, the assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Labor, Veteran Employment and Training Service, agrees. “Veterans and military spouses are natural entrepreneurs. They’re looking for ways to really establish their mark in whatever industry that they choose to pursue.”

Rodriguez explains that his department puts a “concerted effort into utilizing the whole of federal government to ensure that our military veterans, our transitioning service members, and our military spouses have access to all of the resources that the federal government has in place to support their transition from the military and they’re looking for their next career post-military service.”

And that includes helping them connect to existing resources to support their entrepreneurship goal. “That’s what we do with at the Small Business Administration. We look for ways to connect resources at the federal government to the individual when they’re looking to fund their company.”

He adds, “There is an inherent investment by the American public in developing our young men and women when they serve in the military. So, you take those skill sets and you put them in any environment post-military service and you create a culture for them to excel, they’re going to do exactly that.”

And although challenges vary by location, each local entrepreneurial ecosystem has unique features to support veteran and military connected entrepreneurs. This has lead the overwhelming majority (80%) of veterans who have started their own businesses to consider themselves successful.

A Veteran Helping Veterans Find a Career Fit

Navy veteran and military spouse Merideth Cohrs and her partner’s approach to support is through jobs, once members become civilians. She and her partner launched Buffer Springs, a consulting firm that helps companies recruit veterans.

“We know that much hasn’t changed in the space over the last multiple decades. And, we think that there is room for improvement in kind of an antiquated process right now,” Cohrs says. “A lot of companies who want to hire veterans, they have limited choices. If they don’t know where to go already, they go to job fairs a few times a year, possibly they throw open positions up on veteran job boards and sometimes hope for the best.”

Merideth Cohrs, COO, Buffer Springs (Photo: WorkingNation)

Cohrs says their focus is more holistic. It starts with a deep dive into the organization and its process for hiring veterans so they can identify roadblocks or challenges. Then they train recruiters and provide them a better understanding of veteran skill sets and how they translate to civilian world skills. They also address onboarding and developing a community that encourages veterans to stay.

“We know that there are, there are areas and industry verticals in the civilian space that are constantly looking for talent because they just can’t find it. The military has that talent,” she says.

“If you look at a Navy ship, and aircraft carriers like a city, you have people who do everything from, you know, basic maintenance up to operational tempo, business development, I mean, you name it, it’s all done. We really try to translate the conversation around military hiring and to not hire a vet because you think we’re all heroes or you’re doing it for some charity reason, but really understand the business case of hiring.”

Buffer Springs isn’t Cohrs’ first business. She worked for a large consulting firm for almost a decade when she first left active duty. Then she started an artisan chocolate company, hand-painting truffles.

“When you own your own business, whether it’s small, medium or large, you wear many, many hats,” she says. “You have lots of spinning plates up in the air and I actually really like that; that challenge and that dynamisms, is that the right word for it? That comes into play with that kind of work.”

While perhaps not as sweet, Cohrs says combining the veteran space and corporate world is just as exciting, yet familiar.

“I think those of us who have served or who are serving or connected to those who serve, really understand the nuances, the challenges, and the experiences in a way that can really further the conversation in the general population,” she says.

“Because we know that at this point, I think it’s less than 10%, certainly of the population in the United States is actually connected to somebody who served in the military. So, I think the more of us who can actually have these conversations and normalize the veteran experience, the better.”

Applying Knowledge Gained in Service to the Country

Military service runs deep in former Army captain Michael Morford‘s family: his grandfather served in World War II, his younger brother and brother-in-law served in the Army, and his father-in-law is a Vietnam veteran. Morford says he used his service-disabled status and his connections at Tinker Air Force Base to start a small manufacturing facility in 2017. It didn’t last.

Here’s how he describes that first business. “We are struggling with replacement parts to keep all these planes in the air. We can’t even keep them in the air because of how bad our supply chain is. This is pre-Covid. Two years later, it’s an abject failure,” Morford says.

“It can’t get contracts. When we try to get a contract, we can’t execute because of how messed up the whole process is. And I realize if I have all these insights and I’m doing everything you’re supposed to do and have thrown myself at this, then how can you expect any other small manufacturer that’s probably struggling to exist, just hoping to get business in the door? 90% of all manufacturers in the U.S. are under 10 employees. They’re true mom and pops,” he explains.

The business’ closing gave Morford the idea for a technology start-up called Sustaining Technology, that he envisioned would improve the chance for “mom and pops” to connect with and succeed with government contracts.

He realized the start-up model wasn’t aligning with his goals, he pivoted to Sustainment, a public benefits corporation. Sustainment looks to create technology through applied research to help small businesses engage with the U.S. Department of Defense’s industrial base, merge with policy, and address workforce development needs in manufacturing.

“It really is a three headed monster,” he says. “And then once you blend them together, what technologies, policy changes and initiatives can you put working together to really solve for this problem? It’s about not just improved national security, it is about just overall economic health and stability in the U.S.”

Morford’s goal for Sustainment is to break through bureaucracy and institutionalization, and make it easier for businesses so small that they might not even have websites or the ability to interpret government acronyms to be part of the defense industrial base and support the military.