The Institute for Veteran and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University is in its 11th year of serving those who have served. While the foundation for the IVMF was a program, the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) and a simple mission to “advance the post service lives of veterans and their families,” it has grown into something much, much more. When EBV was developed the aim was simple: take 17 veterans through a summer bootcamp so they could gain the tools necessary to craft their own vocation. The program for veterans, started by a faculty member as a summer project, was an entrepreneurial endeavor of its own, and, at the time, was not initially intended to go much further. Eleven years later, more than 73,000 veterans have been served by a portfolio of programs and services that are supported by over 80 staff members and a number of invaluable partners.
For the last 18 months, I have had the privilege to work beside these rockstars at the IVMF within the entrepreneurship and small business portfolio. This summer we kicked off year four of Boots to Business and hosted four of our major programs within 90 days: EBV at 5 of our 10 schools (Florida State University, Syracuse University, UCLA, Texas A&M and UCONN); Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE) in Louisville, and our two newest programs – VetSource in Hampton Roads and IGNITE in D.C.
By the end of this summer, 500 veterans and military spouses joined over 65,000 IVMF entrepreneurship graduates. Additionally, the entrepreneurship and small business portfolio has deployed thousands in capital and made countless connections. With all of this, something that I have been keenly aware of is that we are so close to our work that sometimes we forget what we are really doing. While we are helping reach veterans where they are in their entrepreneurial journey with programming, resources, mentoring and support, we are entrepreneurs in our own right.
Below, I have highlighted five ways that we are like entrepreneurs:
1. Educate ourselves on our customer and the landscape – Knowing your customer, what they want, what they don’t want and most importantly how your product fulfills a true need, is the foundation of every Entrepreneurship 101 class. For the past year, the entrepreneurship and research teams at the IVMF have been working with partners like Bunker Labs on Operation Vetrepreneurship. The initial goal was to better understand the entrepreneurial motivations, challenges, barriers, successes, and resource needs of veterans and military-connected entrepreneurs. Nine cities and nearly 100 interviews with vetrepreneurs later, we are starting to pull together telling results. These findings suggest that while there are nearly 21,000 resources for entrepreneurs, we need to better connect them to mentors and create awareness of resources that are there to help along the way. We will be sharing these findings and recommendations soon so that the ecosystem can continue to evolve to better serve veteran entrepreneurs.
2. Innovate – Is there a gap in the market and does the product that you are offering deliver a solution that is different from what is already on the market? This idea inspired the IVMF to work with partners like Walmart, First Data, Lockheed Martin and many more to create VetSource, a program that demystifies the process of entering larger company’s supply chains and connects veteran-owned businesses (VOBs) to resources and opportunities within these companies. The government spends $500 billion a year and has funds set aside for VOBs. While this is a great opportunity, the private sector spend dwarfs it. The Coalition for Veteran Owned Business (CVOB) has 14 corporate partners whose collective spending on VOBs matches the entire federal government set aside for veterans. Many organizations like LaQuinta are creating programs, like 15-day payment terms, to encourage opportunities within their supply chain and they want to work with more procurement ready VOBs.
3. Network, Network, Network– It’s often not what you know, but who you know. Effectively networking is a challenge that all entrepreneurs face. Making the connection has become a mantra in the IVMF entrepreneurship office. Just a month ago during a panel at VetSource, an attendee (who is also an EBV graduate) was bold enough to make a simple request of the panelists on the stage. While he knew that his company was not ready to be a prime contractor at retail outlets nationwide, he also knew his customer. He knew that they too needed to buy corporate holiday gifts and simply asked for the opportunity to be considered. A representative from a Fortune 40 company agreed on the spot to consider him for an upcoming contract that they had and just like that a connection was made. The company and attendee are currently in communication talking about the next steps.
The IVMF relies on a huge network to deliver our programs, but more importantly, we want to work with those who understand and live our mission. From sponsors to corporate partners, the more than 100 subject matter experts who took part in our summer programs, and the 35 post-program partners (who within the next year will offer over $1 million in pro bono services), we know one thing to be true: it takes a village to make a dream a reality; thus, we need like-minded people to work with so that we can deliver on all that we promise.
4. Challenge Ourselves – Richard Branson has said that his biggest motivation is continuously challenging himself. That is true for every entrepreneur. They need to ensure that they are continuously learning in order to stay competitive in an ever-changing world. By listening to the feedback of our customers, we have created and delivered new programming (IGNITE, VetSource, VetSmallBiz Growth Challenge, and relaunched VETNET) all in order to better serve those who have served. More importantly, rather than just creating, we continue to challenge ourselves to improve our current programs so that we can help encourage the next generation of great thinkers, innovators and doers to create a better world for us to live in. Next year we will be offering another new program that will deploy over 150K in capital, recognize the fastest growing veteran owned businesses, and offer training, resources and connections to opportunities for growing veteran-owned companies. Stay tuned for updates.
And most importantly –
5. Know that teamwork makes the dream work – Every entrepreneur knows that you need to hire to augment and compliment, not duplicate yourself. If you are going to pour your heart and soul, as well as countless hours into your dream, you need to make sure that you have the right people for the job, ones who can do what you can’t and can bring different ideas and skills to the table. The IVMF team embodies this – the idea of no job being too small, and “one team one fight,” are sayings that come naturally to those I work beside. I am honored to do what I love everyday next to people who inspire me to do more.
There has been a lot that has been accomplished over the few months, and I know that we are just getting started.