Veterans own about 9 percent of all private companies in the U.S., according to the most recent Census Bureau estimates. That’s about 2.4 million businesses, with 5.9 million employees and receipts of $1.2 trillion. Despite their impact on the economy, many former members of the military are unaware of government and private-sector programs that offer support. “There are so many resources out there, but they either don’t hear about them or they don’t take advantage of them because they’re trained to suck it up and get the job done by themselves,” says Larry Broughton, a former Green Beret and founder of boutique hotel chain Broughton Hospitality, based in Newport Beach, Calif.
Veterans like Broughton want to see entrepreneurship presented to returning service members alongside more traditional transition options, such as college or full-time employment. They also encourage more outreach to veteran entrepreneurs who are struggling in business but unaware of government and private-sector programs that can help. Former Marine Travis McVey leveraged a network of fellow veterans and a $50,000 Patriot Express loan from the Small Business Administration to launch Heroes Vodka in Nashville. The 41-year-old says he’s sometimes frustrated with public perception about veterans.
One for-profit group trying to improve economic opportunities for returning service members by helping them find jobs or entrepreneurship opportunities is National Veteran-Owned Business Assn. (NaVOBA). Last year it launched Buy Veteran, a website designed to raise awareness about veteran-owned businesses. Since the site’s launch, the organization has gone from 30,000 veteran-owned business members to 46,000 and Web traffic has increased by 300 percent, says Chris Hale, NaVOBA president and the publisher of Vetrepreneur magazine. (This story has links to other resources from other entities for veterans, from loan guarantees to business training.)
Hale, a former U.S. Navy pilot and recruiter, worked as a financial analyst and corporate manager before creating NaVOBA in 2005. His original goal was to help veterans find employment and aid supplier diversity by encouraging both government and private contractors to use veteran-owned businesses as suppliers. In 2010, Hale says, he recognized the need to move beyond procurement, since most small businesses sell to consumers and are not large enough or sophisticated enough to become suppliers. “We did a survey that showed 95 percent of Americans feel some gratitude toward veterans, and 70 percent said they would prefer to purchase from a veteran-owned business, all other things being equal,” Hale says. “We found that very, very compelling.”
He also recognized that once veterans shed their military uniforms, they are not easy to identify. The Buy Veteran site provides a place where shoppers can identify veteran-owned businesses online and where the businesses can get badges to put up in their storefronts or print on their business cards and brochures. “We’ve found that our members put this up in their windows and customers they’ve had for years say they never realized the business was veteran-owned. It’s opening up conversations, reinforcing relationships, and helping drive new business from customers who value the work ethic and sense of honor in a veteran-owned business,” Hale says.
That kind of admiration has helped Bonnie Burchell, 47, a U.S. Army and National Guard veteran, as she has sought distribution for Bonnie’s Mixes, the line of sugar-free alcoholic drink mixes she developed in her Albuquerque kitchen. “I’ve had TV exposure and put a blurb about my service in my marketing materials,” says Burchell, a single mother of four who funded her startup with income from bookkeeping. “The response has been wonderful.”