Historically, starting their own business has been a good career path for men and women after they leave the military service. That’s changed over the last two decades. Almost half of World War II veterans started their own businesses, but since 9/11, only 4.5 percent are becoming their own bosses, according to a report by nonprofit Bunker Labs.

While many veteran service organizations have employment programs to help veterans find jobs, few provide the kind of support and mentoring that fosters and facilitates start-up businesses and ownership. There are groups out there trying to change that.

Bunker Labs is a nonprofit network of veterans and military spouses who are committed to helping the military-connected community start their own business. Their mission is to see that all veterans wanting to start their own company can find the resources, tools, and mentors to make that possible. In their owns words, they “inspire, equip, connect.” Since it began, Bunker Labs has helped over 500 veterans and spouses start their own businesses.

Veterans in Residence is one of the many programs run by Bunker Labs — this one in partnership with WeWork. Veterans in Residence is a highly-selective six-month startup incubator and leadership program. It provides veterans and military family members mentoring and networking opportunities to help them make their business dreams a reality. WeWork provides them a workspace and a community space.

Mentors and communities are game changers

“One of the biggest challenges for entrepreneurs, in general, is this sense of loneliness and doing this on their own,” says Seda Goff, the director of veteran entrepreneurs for PenFed Credit Union. “They don’t have those business mentors that can help them along the way. They don’t have an understanding of different types of business decisions that need to be made or best practices that they could learn,” she adds.

A lack of financial resources is a huge hurdle. Fees and equity requirements can be cost-prohibitive for military veterans and military spouses, especially those who are still exploring whether entrepreneurship is the career path.

Last year, Goff helped establish the PenFed Foundation’s Veteran Entrepreneurship Investment Program to help fund new veteran business owners. Goff leads the program.

She says that when it comes time to seek financing, many hopeful entrepreneurs tend not to ask for enough money.

“The problem of veterans not asking for enough money is not necessarily that they think that they can do more with less. It’s more back to that lack of ecosystem, of not having the mentors and not having the business background to know, ‘Hey, this is the amount that I should be working with. This is how much I actually need to build this company. And if you think you need X, multiply that by two and that’s how much you need to start a business’,” she says.

Other money matters in which Goff says veterans need help include when to borrow (not too early) and determining how much their business, services, and time are worth. Entrepreneurs should be able to articulate the problem they can solve, how much it costs for that solution (product or service), and how much they should charge for that solution. They also need to consider the cost of marketing. This is where expanding the veteran’s network is critical.

The path to entrepreneurship

The feeling of isolation and loneliness that Goff describes is familiar to Vivian Greentree, and it ultimately led her to entrepreneurship.

Greentree is a 20-year Navy veteran who was a supply corps officer handling logistics, distribution and financial services. When she transitioned out of active duty, she used her G.I. Bill to return to school and earn her Ph.D.

While pursuing that degree, she co-founded Blue Star Families (BSF) to provide support, in various forms, to military families in transition.

“The hardest part for me during the transition was, probably, that loss of identity and knowing that I would get up every day and people were depending on me. The funny thing is people were always still depending on me. It was how I chose to perceive it. That’s something that, I think, all transitioning service members go through at their own time and their own process,” Greentree explains.

Greentree is now senior vice president and head of global corporate citizenship at Fiserv, which merged with First Data earlier this year. She started First Data Salutes, which provides the military community with “career opportunities, best-in-class education resources, and premier business solutions for veteran-owned businesses.” Among the programs they sponsor is the Entrepreneurs Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities, a partnership with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.

Translating military skills into entrepreneurship

Dependability, willingness to take risks, leadership, creativity, teamwork — all characteristics inherent in military members and veterans that also translate into successful characteristics for business owners.

“This is a group that has done well in scenarios with making decisions with limited information, limited amounts of time, ambiguity around them, mitigated risks, and now turning that towards entrepreneurship, starting businesses and going back to the communities they came from,” Greentree says. “Maybe they want to set out on their own and start a small business and hire more veterans and military spouses and help them run it.”

That ripple effect is notable. More than two million veteran business owners employ six million employees — including fellow veterans and military spouses — and generate $1.2 trillion in receipts. In addition to BSF and PenFed, more organizations are realizing the need to support this group to help them grow and prosper.

The U.S. Small Business Development Administration has veteran outreach centers across the country. Community development financial institutions (CDFIs) are exploring veterans in business to support angel investors, and venture capitalists are entering the conversation, according to Greentree.

Advice to female entrepreneurs

Whatever the financial resource, these sources may want to pay more attention to the fastest-growing population of veteran entrepreneurs: women. Right now, Goff says, there is a significant mismatch. Only two percent of financial investment has gone towards female veteran start-ups, but within the past six-to-ten years, this group has grown 95 percent compared to 45 percent for general female entrepreneurship.

“There is a big gap and it comes back to that ecosystem, that lack of mentorship that is causing the access to capital issue,” she says. “One of the things that we are very passionate about is not only addressing that there is a gap but empowering female veteran entrepreneurs to go out and talk to investors, to go out and find mentors to help them in their process and in the growth of their companies.”

“Go pitch an investor,” Goff advises, “Even if you don’t think you’re ready, preface it, and go talk to them. Because as more female entrepreneurs, specifically female veteran entrepreneurs, get in front of these investors or any other source of capital, people are going to get the skill sets needed to be able to evaluate these businesses and also potentially give them more resources along the way.”

Intrapreneurships: Learning to be small business leaders

West Point has taken notice of this movement to business ownership and transferable skills. It has launched an entrepreneurship track that Goff calls “intrapreneurship,” which teaches cadets how to think like prospective business owners, solve problems, and how that translates into their service.

“It is another way that people who think like entrepreneurs, and who have that mindset, can take that into the workplace or even into the military,” Goff says. “Intrapreneurship is solving problems and building solutions within a larger organization, whether it be a company, the government or even in another smaller enterprise. We’re even seeing that the military is noticing people who are entrepreneurial, and they want to support that level of thinking.”

Prime time for veterans and spouses

For veterans who still choose to strike out on their own, they’ll find they’re in good company. Goff estimates of the 200,000 veterans who transition out each year, 20 percent say they’re interested in becoming their own boss. She considers it a prime time for veterans, and a prime time for those who can support them, financially and otherwise.

“When you have someone who has a great idea and can get it done, they’re a veteran or military spouse and you know they’ve been time-tested and battle-hardened to get the job done, it’s an exciting place to be.”

Best cities for veteran entrepreneurs

Goff says it is important to find an ecosystem that supports new and growing businesses. This month, the PenFed Foundation released its list of best cities for veterans to get their businesses up and running.

The top five best cities are:

  1. New York–Newark–Jersey City, NY–NJ–PA Metro Area
  2. Chicago–Naperville–Elgin, IL–IN–WI Metro Area
  3. Seattle–Tacoma–Bellevue, WA Metro Area
  4. Dallas–Fort Worth–Arlington, TX Metro Area
  5. San Francisco–Oakland–Hayward, CA Metro Area

The top emerging cities for veteran entrepreneurs are:

  1. Jacksonville, FL Metro Area
  2. Denver–Aurora–Lakewood, CO Metro Area
  3. Kansas City, MO–KS Metro Area
  4. San Diego–Carlsbad, CA Metro Area
  5. Cincinnati, OH–KY–IN Metro Area

The cities were judged on “the degree to which a city provides the foundation for veterans to have the support and the tools to be successful, the ability of a city to foster new business development, the relative growth of a city across multiple economic indicators, and livability,” according to the report.

“Our hope is that this data will inform decision making and empower veteran entrepreneurs and communities to transform cities across America,” adds Goff.

Follow more of our Vets Deserve Good Jobs coverage here.

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