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Military veterans who want to become entrepreneurs can find financial support, training, and other resources in the Philly area

By June 4, 2024No Comments

(This column originally appeared in The Inquirer)

The Department of Labor recently reported that 17.9 million men and women are veterans of the U.S. military, with approximately 200,000 entering the workforce each year.

Many of these individuals search for jobs. But many others want to be their own bosses and look to start businesses. According to the Small Business Administration, veterans own more than 1.9 million businesses and employ almost 5.5 million Americans.

“There’s a lot of statistical data that suggests that veterans miss the sense of mission and purpose that military service gave them,” says Hank Gillen, an Army veteran and director at the Office of Veterans Services at Saint Joseph’s University. “This is why many are drawn to business ownership.”

Military veterans who own, or are looking to start a new business, can find many local resources to help, including capital, counseling, and contracting assistance from the U.S. Small Business Administration, said John Fleming, the SBA’s regional administrator at the mid-Atlantic office.

Capital resources for veterans

The SBA has a special low interest Military Reservist Loan program to help cover a company’s operating costs when essential employees (including the owner) who are military reservists are called to active duty. Eligible veteran-owned business can also participate in the Veterans Advantage Program, which offers lower rates and fees on SBA-backed business loans, among other training, counseling, and support services.

“These loans can help to start new businesses as they have lower costs and collateral requirements, and are mostly guaranteed by the federal government,” Fleming said. “These are the types of additional benefits that we offer specifically for military veterans.”

Support and counseling services

Many veterans leave military service without any formal business training, and less than a third of all veterans hold a college degree.

For those who need help, the SBA’s network of Small Business Development Centers provides advisory and training to veteran-owned businesses. The federal government also funds a number of Veterans Business Outreach Centers, which are designed to provide entrepreneurial development services such as business training, counseling, and resource partner referrals to service members, veterans, National Guard and Reserve members, military spouses, and family members interested in starting or growing a small business.

Both the Philadelphia-based Veterans Multi-Service Center and the Greater Philadelphia Veterans Network (GPVN) also provide career and counseling services to veterans and their families along with networking sessions, regular face-to-face and online events, “Shark Tank” competitions, and educational programs specifically targeted at ex-military entrepreneurs.

“Having that network is super important if only just because you’re talking with people of a like mind and shared experiences who help each other,” said Sean Ellsworth, GPVN’s board chairman. “Because you served in the military, you are a part of a family. At our events you can rub shoulders with other veteran business owners and exchange ideas — and referrals.”

For those who want a more formalized educational business program designed specifically for veterans, Saint Joseph’s University’s Office of Veterans Services offers many resources, including a specialized program for Disabled Veterans. The school also hosts an Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans, a no-cost, three-phase program to develop the necessary skills associated with launching or growing a new business venture.

Among the requirements of the program is a seven-day “residency” that includes classroom discussions, guest lectures from successful, ex-military entrepreneurs, and opportunities for experiential learning, as well as one-on-one work with trained mentors to develop a business plan and a “pitch” competition. After the residency is completed, there’s ongoing support for 12 months.

Gillen says his students represent the diverse demographics of the military, with more than half of the program’s 3,000 alumni nationally being non-white and 29 percent being female.

“We are constantly reinforcing the fact that veterans of all backgrounds, gender, and races tend to be successful as entrepreneurs because of the skill sets that they bring from their years of service, such as resiliency and grit,” he said. “We help them to make informed decisions about their businesses.”

Getting government contracts

All of these organizations — and agencies like APEX Accelerators — also help veteran-owned businesses obtain government contracts. According to Fleming, 23% of all government contracts must be awarded to small businesses, and within that group, 5% must go to veterans and 3% to service-disabled veterans.

“Many government contractors tell us that they can’t find enough veteran-owned businesses to meet this goal, so we help make those connections,” Fleming said.

Being part of a network also leads to referrals for government contracts, which is why joining a veterans group like GPVN is so important. Many veterans feel that their most important resource in business is — unsurprisingly — their fellow veterans.

“Being a veteran is being part of a culture,” said Ellsworth. “There’s a real strong immediate connection within the veteran community and a desire to help each other.”

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