Smiling man inside his leatherworking shop.
Many veteran business owners are thriving, with data showing about 85% of veteran entrepreneurs considering themselves to be successful. — Getty Images/Thomas Barwick

Military veterans choose entrepreneurship for several reasons, including the ability to be one’s own boss and to rely on personal skills and interests, along with the possibility of financial independence or additional income. That’s according to a study released in December 2021 and commissioned by the Veterans Future Lab (VFL) at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering and Barclays, founding VFL supporter.

Veteran-owned businesses currently make up about 5.9% of all businesses, with an estimated $947.7 billion in receipts and approximately 3.9 million employees, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Top industry sectors include professional, scientific, and technical services; construction; and healthcare and social services, also according to the Census Bureau.

Challenges for veteran entrepreneurs

Many veteran business owners are thriving. In fact, about 85% of veteran entrepreneurs consider themselves successful, according to the 2021 National Survey of Military-Affiliated Entrepreneurs (NSMAE), published by Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families.

At the same time, like most entrepreneurs, many veterans must tackle a range of challenges as they start and build their companies. The most significant, also according to the NSMAE, are a lack of initial capital, finding good employees and/or contract personnel, and lack of financing,.

Resources for veteran business owners

While the challenges are real, a number of programs can help veteran business owners address them. They include:

  • The VFL’s Veterans Entrepreneurship Training (VET) programs, a free 12-week series of classes designed to provide aspiring business owners with the knowledge and skills they need to launch civilian enterprises. APEX, another VFL initiative, is a nine-month incubator program that provides mentorship, support, and other resources entrepreneurs need to start and grow their companies, including office space and legal services.
  • The D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University offers multiple programs that can help veterans start and build businesses. Its EBV-Spark, a virtual program, uses videos, discussions, and other tools to help participants evaluate the feasibility of their business ideas and hone their skills in value creation and delivery, sales, finance, and other functions.
  • Chicago-based Bunker Labs offers, among other programs, its Veterans in Residence program. In partnership with WeWork, Veterans in Residence is a business incubator that provides veteran and military spouse business owners with coworking space, national business networks, and other support.
  • The Office of Veterans Business Development, a part of the Small Business Administration, encompasses multiple Veterans Business Outreach Centers. These are located across the country and provide business training, business plan workshops and preparation, and entrepreneurial training, among other services.
  • Boots to Business, also an SBA program, offers entrepreneurial education. Its Introduction to Entrepreneurship is a two-day course that covers developing business a plan and provides information on SBA resources available to help. Participants can then move on to the B2B Revenue Readiness, a six-week online course that focuses on identifying and understanding customers, developing a business model, and drafting a business plan.
  • Vet to CEO, a program of the nonprofit Warrior Rising, offers online training provided by small business owners who are also veterans. It covers marketing, logistics, financial statements and projections, networking, and sources of funding, among other subjects.

“As a business owner, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Standard said. When an unfamiliar situation strikes, VFL participants can ask others in their peer group if they experienced something similar, and learn how they handled it, she added.

How the programs can help

Many veterans who seek out and leverage these resources benefit. Since its launch in 2017, the VFL has graduated 285 early-stage or aspiring entrepreneurs, hailing from twenty states. Startups participating in Bunker Labs have generated $823 million and created more than 4,250 jobs since the organization opened in 2014. Seventeen IVMF graduates have landed on the Inc. Vet100 list.

Natasha Standard is a combat veteran and chief executive officer and founder of Norie Shoes and EQWAL Footwear. She’s also a graduate of the VFL’s Apex program, where she gained access to workspace and networking programs, as well as introductions to investors and fellow entrepreneurs. “When you join the program, you meet other CEOs and founders and build up your support system,” Standard said. The business owners in the program can help each other to, for instance, identify quality shipping vendors or social media experts.

Engaging with a network of other business owners also helps in confronting unforeseen challenges. “As a business owner, you don’t know what you don’t know,” Standard said. When an unfamiliar situation strikes, VFL participants can ask others in their peer group if they experienced something similar, and learn how they handled it, she added.

Standard’s companies not only survived the pandemic, but Norie Shoes is on track for its first $500,000 year, while EQWAL, which developed the first military combat boots designed for women, recently received its first government contract. “We’re definitely on the right track,” Standard said.

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