How to Get the Most from a Small Business Workshop

Alexandria SBDC staff and speakers do our best to provide meaningful educational programs for small business owners. We hope that you are able to take advantage of these free learning opportunities to strengthen your business. Whether you’re attending one of our workshops or any kind of educational programming, here are a few tips to get the… Read more »

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Alexandria SBDC staff and speakers do our best to provide meaningful educational programs for small business owners. We hope that you are able to take advantage of these free learning opportunities to strengthen your business. Whether you’re attending one of our workshops or any kind of educational programming, here are a few tips to get the most out of your experience:

  • Most programs require pre-registration (for our events, there is a registration link on our website). Make sure to click the register button just one time, or you may accidentally register yourself for the event multiple times. Registering before the last minute will ensure that the event sponsor has enough time to prepare adequate materials for all participants. Keep in mind that not all programs accept walk-ins, so make sure to register!
  • When you have registered, make sure to attend the event or send the an e-mail letting the host know that your plans have changed. Printed materials are expensive, and organizers want to have enough for everyone without printing unnecessary packets.
  • Arrive on time, or preferably early. This gives you time to get settled in and to network. Most  programs are timed to begin and end right on time, so they may not take the time for attendee introductions once the program has begun. If you’re interested in chatting with other participants, being early is key.
  • Be prepared! You will probably want to take notes, so make sure that you have a pen and something to write on. Not all programs provide copies of the presentation, so it’s good to come prepared with your own notebook.
  • Out of respect for the speaker and fellow attendees, make sure to turn off your phone before the events begins. If you must check on an urgent business matter, please step out of the room to make or take a call. Similarly, please refrain from checking e-mails, playing games on your phone, etc., which is distracting to the speaker and to other attendees. If you find yourself more engaged with your phone than with the workshop, you may want to evaluate the type of workshops you are registering for and how those help you achieve your goals.
  • You will get the most out of any program by paying attention to the speaker and actively participating in the conversation. Questions are generally welcome, but those that are specific to your business should be saved until after the presentation, unless the speaker specifically requests individual scenarios.
  • If there is an evaluation or survey for the class, please complete the form and hand it in. For many organizations, this information is required by funders and enables them to continue to provide programs without charge. Your feedback is also valuable as they plan for new programs and consider topics for upcoming events. Feel free to make specific requests for new or follow-up topics.
  • If the event uses plastic name badges, please return them to the organizer, along with any extra folders or program materials. These items are expensive, and many organizations operate on a limited budget.

We hope you will find these reminders helpful and will continue to gain insight from small business programs across the region.

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Monthly Veteran Entrepreneur Interview: Meet Brendan O’Toole

In honor of Alexandria’s Year of the Veteran, our newest partner program, the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC), has been conducting a “Veteran of the Month” interview series. We sat down with Brendan O’Toole, the 25-year-old Alexandria native and Marine veteran who ran across the country from 2012 to 2013 and raised over $500K for veteran service… Read more »

The post Monthly Veteran Entrepreneur Interview: Meet Brendan O’Toole appeared first on Alexandria Small Business Development Center.

Brendan O'TooleIn honor of Alexandria’s Year of the Veteran, our newest partner program, the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC), has been conducting a “Veteran of the Month” interview series. We sat down with Brendan O’Toole, the 25-year-old Alexandria native and Marine veteran who ran across the country from 2012 to 2013 and raised over $500K for veteran service nonprofits.  Brendan recently met with us to share some of his stories and plans and to reflect on his experiences with The Run for Veterans and as a veteran in Alexandria.

  • Name: Brendan O’Toole
  • Nonprofit: The Run for Veterans
  • Year Started: 2012
  • Donations Raised: $ 550,000
  • Website: www.runforveterans.org
  • Military Service: Marine Corps
  • Branch / Specialty: Radio Operator, Communications
  • Years in Alexandria: 25 (born and raised)
  • Role Model: Jack Taylor, Reynolds Young, local veteran-owned business owners
  • Favorite Alexandria Restaurant: RT’s Restaurant (3804 Mt. Vernon Ave)
  • Favorite Alexandria Event/Activity: T.C. Williams Titan Expo
  • Favorite ___ in Alexandria: My favorite place to buy cars is Jack Taylor Toyota! 

First, let’s take a look back. Why did you decide to join the military?

I remember exactly where I was on September 11, 2001. I guess that’s one of the things about being in the DC area; that really hit home. I remember being in seventh grade, and the teacher coming in and flipping on the television because they were in such shock. The second plane had just hit. I remember thinking to myself, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in life, but I’m definitely going to get involved in this and help where I can.” That’s what has led me to where I am today. I want to do my part.

Describe your proudest moment during your time in the military.

Having the opportunity to guide and mentor junior Marines was my probably proudest moment. I had guys who didn’t know how to balance a bank account and didn’t even know how to drive a car. These things seem probably ordinary to most of us. It was nice to just help people and help put them on the right path.

What has been most challenging about transitioning from military service?

When you come back from being deployed, it just takes time for a lot of things to heal and that reflection process. I think today, we are so just so caught up in technology and how quickly the world is moving that sometimes when we get back, and even after just 6 months, we are thinking to ourselves: “Why am I feeling crappy now? Why am I going downhill? I should be on-track by now.” We forget to tell people that it just takes a little time. Personally, I think I just gained that pride back in the last few months, and that’s after a whole two-and-half years out of the military. In the media today, everyone wants to know how to help PTSD and suicide prevention. No one just says, “Give the guy some time, build a support system around him; give him the opportunity to reach out or to brainstorm or to create or whatever it might be.” That’s probably all he needs to be successful.

Who has influenced you the most in your career?

I don’t think there’s one individual. I think it’s the people that said, “you couldn’t do it.” They are the driving forces that push me to not only prove them wrong but to go to the next level and prove to myself that I can do it. The principal at T.C. Williams, who was only around for two years when I was there, was very influential in my life. I remember, we sat in a board room, and he told me that I’d never amount to anything! I think I’ve proven that one wrong, hopefully. I like to turn it into a positive. When times get tough, you get burnt out, and the road gets dark, you can’t let people like that define you.

Tell us what brought you to Alexandria and why you started your nonprofit here?

Looking back on it, I didn’t have any money, so I had to sleep in my parents’ basement. I had to start somewhere. But all great ideas start in a garage or a basement these days, right? More importantly, while I didn’t have an answer to a lot the things I was looking for, I did know that I have great friends and great family, and that Alexandria is a great city. There are a lot of life lessons to be learned just dealing with people on a day-to-day basis in this city. The city has been good to me through T.C. Williams, and it had been good through the mentors I have had in Alexandria, and it just seemed right to come back. What’s great now is that we are actually sharing that message about Alexandria and the support system here and promoting it to others.

What was your vision when you founded your nonprofit?

I don’t think that there’s a single veteran who comes out of the military and has an “easy” transition. My vision for The Run for Veterans was to create an opportunity to inspire individuals, while also having hope and faith, and somehow transfer that to the greater community. At the same time, it was a way for me to keep working toward something that was bigger than me. It was something I needed at that point in my life. I was in a bad transition state, and I realized that I needed to get back on track, especially considering all of the discipline that the military had instilled in me. Even though I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, it was meant to be something that allowed anyone and everyone to get involved, and it grew from there.

Can you tell us a bit more about The Run for Veterans?

While we were out there, we were raising money and awareness for available mental, physical, and social services for veterans. Essentially, we were just a marketing tool; a marketing tool on wheels! I think it’s awesome that we provided no actual services, but our spirit, our success, and our story were more beneficial to people than providing a direct service. Promoting our message and then having the actual professionals like Team Red White and Blue, Give An Hour, and the USO provide the services is what made it a successful organization.

One thing I’d like to mention is that no one really knew at the time how bad the state of the VA was. Not to speak poorly of them, but we realized that while the VA was struggling, there was a real opportunity to support these other nonprofits, and help connect the dots.

What would you say makes your organization unique?

We were able to capitalize on getting youth involved. Our largest demographic of Facebook followers were ages 18 to 32, and I think that’s huge. Although a lot of nonprofits across the country do great work, they are usually built by older professionals who have more experience and are often more organized. That was our big thing: “Why can’t young people make a change and get involved in something they don’t agree with?” At the time, we were upset with the VA for not providing enough help and funds to veterans. So, making our cause a “cool” thing for young people to get involved in, and then keeping the momentum going, was something really special.

How was the run?

The run itself was supposed to be completed in eight months. It was done in exactly one year. I ran for eight months of that year, and I was injured for the other four. And that’s a whole different great story right there.  We talk about setting a game plan when you get out of the military – “In a year I want to be doing this or that.” Well, sometimes that doesn’t exactly work out on your time, and you have to adapt or overcome and readjust. So, it took from Veterans Day of 2012 to 2013. We left California and then 3,600 miles later, we were in Portland, Maine.

Have you always been a runner?

No, I actually hate running (laughing)! I was always an avid athlete, and we always ran in the military. But I did work with a couple running specialists, and I got the techniques and did preventative maintenance prior to taking off. You kind of train as you go. So, I got stronger the farther I went.

Can you tell us what kind of injuries you sustained?

I actually had an injury right off the bat! I had a sprained ankle because I fell down the stairs of the RV our first weekend there. Then, I had a hairline fracture in my right ankle in Texas. I was bit by a Rottweiler in East Texas. We endured a car accident in Columbia, SC, and then I got punched in the face in Wilmington, DE. I think that’s pretty much it!

Honestly, being injured was one of the highlights of the trip, because that allowed the opportunity for our team to get out in the towns and meet people. We slept at peoples’ houses and got to hear their stories. One of our biggest assets along the trip was just listening to other’s stories and then sharing those stories as we continued to go on. If you can listen, you can learn, and I believe that you can teach after that.

How did you take care of the administrative aspects of your nonprofit during that year? Did you do that by yourself or did you have assistance?

Well, I didn’t get a lot of sleep sometimes! Actually, two weeks before leaving, we had $500 in our bank account. The guys and I that started this literally sold everything we had (cars, clothes, guns)—we threw all of our money into it. We had enough money to build a website, get a couple flyers together, file the proper paperwork, and after that, we had $500 left. I was actually able file the paperwork by myself. I did some research online, and I realized that if you actually just read the paperwork, it’s not that crazy! I went to the book store and got a book on nonprofits.

At the time, everyone was shaking their head. My dad is a banker. He looked at our numbers and made sure that everything was set from a legal standpoint, and he was shaking his head saying, “You’re a fool! There’s no way you’re going to financially be able to make this project happen.” We had a fundraiser two weeks prior to leaving, and we raised $25K. That initial money was only going to be used for funding the project (gas, insurance, etc.), so everyone knew that first $25K wasn’t going to actual veterans. That was enough money to actually get us from California to Texas. It wasn’t until we got to Texas that people around the country started learning about what we were doing, and things just went up from there.

Did you ever have a moment where you thought: This might not work?

I’ve never told anybody this, but I had a panic attack about a week before. We went up to West Point to meet the founders of Team RWB, and I think it all just dawned upon me that. I was thinking, this is a pretty big project. I thought I was having a heart attack! I just remember telling myself, “Look, just one step at a time. . .” It just took off from there. As far as the running, when I actually got out there, I got to mile 13, and I thought to myself, “Well this is ridiculous, here you are actually in California running, and you’ve got a lot of miles to do!” But, you just take it one day at a time. That’s my advice – take it one day at a time.

So now that you are pursuing new endeavors, what are you goals for 5-10 years from now?

I want to come back to Alexandria eventually. I’m a big believer that a lot of personal growth comes from travel and new experiences, and you have to capitalize on those while you have the opportunity. I think the more well-rounded you can be, the better you can give back to others. I have some great ideas of that sort; I’d really like to study the world through school now. I’m sure I’ll be a business owner one day here in Alexandria, and I look forward to that. And I say that because I feel like what AVBEC’s doing is really great. We’re talking now about this model, this blueprint, all of this work… and then later to actually be able to live that and say, “ I remember before AVBEC was here.  We didn’t know there were 250 veteran business owners, we weren’t sharing ideas!’ It would be cool to come back here as a business-owner and really live that.

In your experience, what makes Alexandria a great community for veterans?

First of all, we have all the history here in Alexandria. But I don’t think I’d be able to answer this question if I hadn’t gotten involved with AVBEC. I’ve received so much from Alexandria with veteran groups like Team RWB, the VFW, the American Legion, and local business owners that are veterans. What I think is great about Alexandria now is that we are showing that there is a huge support for veterans here, especially from our businesses. We all have to make money and we have to be able to live. Why not connect the dots and our strengths? That’s what makes me excited about Alexandria right now. I think honestly it’s a blueprint that can be copied and shared across the country.

The one thing that I would change in Alexandria, from my experience, is having a more central, designated veteran memorial where you can go and reflect right in the center of the city. Every small town and city I ran through have these in their town squares. There’s usually a veteran memorial with all the military flags, the American flag, etc. that honors a generation of veterans; whether it’s WWII or Vietnam.  I would love to see a veteran park one day on the waterfront. It would list all the men and women that were born in Alexandria that served, and those that were killed in action, and also highlight firefighters and community service members. I think that’s important because that’s what the country is built on – individuals that were doing something that was essentially bigger and better than themselves, for their country.

 

The Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC) offers veterans personalized guidance through mentoring, business counseling, and access to key resources, programs, and leaders. AVBEC’s mission is to establish Alexandria, Virginia as the top community for veterans to start a business, grow a business, or explore a new career. For more information and a calendar of local veteran-related events, visit www.alexandriaveterans.org.

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An Interview with AVBEC: Why Alexandria is Crafting A Unique Program for Veterans

A few weeks ago, we spoke with Emily McMahan, the Director of the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC). This week, Emily is back to talk a little more about what makes the AVBEC unique. With so many resources for veterans right now, why does the City and region need the AVBEC? With the drawdown… Read more »

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A few weeks ago, we spoke with Emily McMahan, the Director of the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC). This week, Emily is back to talk a little more about what makes the AVBEC unique.

With so many resources for veterans right now, why does the City and region need the AVBEC?
With the drawdown across the Department of Defense, there is a surge of service members currently transitioning from our local bases. As a city, we view this situation as an opportunity to attract top talent to our local workforce. As such, we are one of the few jurisdictions taking an active, organized approach towards veterans in business. That being said, we also appreciate that there are a number of challenges unique to service members when they’re “taking the uniform off.” We understand that there’s often fear and uncertainty about the next steps of a career change. Because of this, we designed our program around the sensitivity that transitioning takes time, requires reflection, and often brings personal questions about identity, purpose, and what life looks like after the military.

Aside from the large population of transitioning service members, there is also a surge of resources aimed at helping veterans right now. For the past year, we have met with many of the top organizations assisting veterans, not only to set up partnerships, but to learn about their services and identify opportunities for AVBEC to fill any gaps. We know that, from the veteran’s perspective, it can be a bit overwhelming to be on the receiving end of all these resources if they lack coordination and appear duplicative. We designed the AVBEC with this in mind.

First, we view our organization as a platform to showcase and promote the best, most credible training and content on veteran business and career transition. These programs are already providing the best building blocks and foundations for success outside of the military, so we’re not looking to recreate this content. Instead, we’re looking to present these services in an organized way and to work with veterans and providers to ensure a coordinated approach to meeting the needs of each service member.

Second, the AVBEC’s value is truly recognized in the veteran’s “execution phase” of his or her transition. For example, what happens when a veteran entrepreneur goes through small business training, develops a business plan, and then needs to find office space? Or, the veteran and her business partner need to create a network for opportunities? While training and classes provide knowledge and exposure, we’ve learned that most veterans need high quality support once they start executing. We can often help solve the “real-world” business problems through referrals, tools, and consultants, which are often at no-cost to the veteran.
In summary, we want our agencies and fellow organizations to feel like they can “hand the baton” off to the AVBEC when the service member is ready to integrate into the community. The AVBEC is best positioned to facilitate that successful integration. While understanding the basics about business is critical, we find that cultivating strong relationships and networks is what often makes business people successful in the long term. We can make those connections and offer services that are relevant right here in our city.

What other cities have taken similar initiatives with respect to veterans?
There are a number of cities that stand out such as Jacksonville, Charlotte, and Augusta, Georgia. One of the cities that mirrors our approach most closely is Jacksonville, Florida. They have a wonderful model focused on veteran employment and reintegration after which we modeled aspects of our program. While there are many cities doing great things for veterans, we feel that our scope and focus on entrepreneurship, employment, and the current business community is unique because we work so closely with the Alexandria SBDC, Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP), Chamber of Commerce, and JobLink. We also work with many of our neighboring jurisdiction’s economic and workforce development organizations as well.

How do you define a top veteran business community?
I see a great veteran business community as one that provides services specific to veteran-owned businesses and veterans in business. It’s a place that provides a sense of community, hometown feel, and pride for those who served through events and dialogue across multiple domains and platforms. A top veteran business community is driven by a city-wide caring approach that ultimately drives the economy through small business growth, employment, and opportunities for veterans.

What advice you have for veterans looking to start a business?
Dedication and support – Starting a business is one of the most rewarding things you will do but, but you must understand that there will be many sacrifices. If you are transitioning after a particularly demanding deployment or assignment, you are very familiar with the long days and weekends that your start-up will require of you. This dedication is definitely a prerequisite. Similar to a deployment, having a solid support network is paramount to lessening the stress and even loneliness of starting a new business.

Who you surround yourself with is very important – it’s important to build a well-balanced team. This one notion is critical to ensuring you don’t overemphasize one particular area of your company. For example, many veterans are competent in a specific technical area but lack the balance and exposure of colleagues in business and/or operations. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, many veterans excel at team building and leadership but may lack the top talent they need in say, engineering or technology. You want to ensure that your operation is balanced to ensure you have a diversity of talent and people who can challenge and validate your ideas.

Get it down on paper – without a strong vision from the beginning, it is very easy to lose your way. Many veterans understand the value of planning and how crucial it is to success. In the beginning, it will feel like there is so much to do and that you can’t waste your time writing. Time will hopefully grant you the opportunities to self-correct along the way for your product or service, but it is very difficult to redirect a company’s values after your culture cements. Taking the time in the beginning to reflect on your company’s values and strategic planning will capture your vision and block out the noise of competing priorities.

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An Overview of the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC)

The Alexandria SBDC recently had the opportunity to catch up with Emily McMahan, Director of the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC).  McMahan, an Army veteran and former partner in a local small business, is passionate about Alexandria’s role in facilitating the professional success of veterans and their spouses. We recently sat down with her… Read more »

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Emily McMahan counseling an AVBEC clientThe Alexandria SBDC recently had the opportunity to catch up with Emily McMahan, Director of the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC).  McMahan, an Army veteran and former partner in a local small business, is passionate about Alexandria’s role in facilitating the professional success of veterans and their spouses. We recently sat down with her to ask a few questions about this powerful new SBDC program and hear her thoughts on how Alexandria is leading the way.

Tell us more about the AVBEC. What is your mission?  How did it begin?

The AVBEC’s mission is to make Alexandria the top veteran business community in both Virginia and the United States. It was founded in 2013 after a group of Alexandria citizens, business owners, and representatives from state and regional agencies got together to discuss how Alexandria was attracting veteran talent to join the workforce and facilitating professional success for veterans and their spouses.

What’s unique about our center is our scope. While we primarily offer services to transitioning service members and spouses who are looking to start a business or explore a new career, we are also assisting our veteran-owned businesses to grow here in Alexandria. In addition, we also work with local businesses that want to hire veterans or get involved. It’s truly a holistic effort focused the entire business community.

What services does the AVBEC provide? 

The AVBEC is a special program of the Alexandria SBDC that also focuses on veteran career services. We incorporate the SBDC’s tools and resources but focus specifically on veteran issues with respect to starting a business or a new career.

The AVBEC’s services and resources are organized around four tracks: 1) Entrepreneurial Support, 2) Career Advisory Services, 3) Business Expansion and Optimization, and 4) Networking and Developing Professional Connections.

This summer and fall, we are hosting a number of exciting programs and opportunities which include: teaching local companies how to hire veterans; working with Virginia Procurement Technical Assistance Program to explain government contracting designations; hosting a major business school’s veteran transition program; and finally, our bimonthly speaker series and quarterly networking events. This is all in addition to our regular counseling sessions and day-to-day meetings with clients, businesses, and partners.

Tell us more about what the veteran business community looks like in Alexandria:

Of our almost 140,000 Alexandria residents, more than 11,000 are veterans. At more than eight percent, our city’s veteran concentration is one of the highest in the DC area.  We are currently following about 240 Alexandria veteran-owned companies, with consulting / contracting and IT consulting / programming being the top two industries. As we get out into the community, that number continues to grow as we learn about businesses that are veteran-owned but don’t promote themselves as such. One of the AVBEC’s goals is to build and maintain our own database to better organize and showcase Alexandria’s veteran-owned businesses. Businesses can register online at AlexandriaVeterans.org under the “Join AVBEC” link.

In November 2013, Mayor Euille declared 2014 as the “Year of the Veteran” in Alexandria. In support of this proclamation, we are assisting a recently-formed organization called the Alexandria Veterans Advisory Group led by John Sims, an Army veteran and transition specialist at the Military Officers Association of America. Every month, the group meets to discuss the upcoming veteran events and initiatives and is currently organizing a weeklong series of Alexandria events in honor of Veterans Day this year. We are always looking for new members and ideas.

Why should a veteran start a company in Alexandria versus Arlington or DC?

We get asked this question a lot, and it’s important for a number of reasons. We usually discuss many factors, such as our location, infrastructure, top industries, workforce, success stories, and tax structure. Then, we talk about the intangibles, such as the tight-knit community here. Having access to a supportive business network, resources, and having an organization like the AVBEC that truly cares about a veteran business’ success is often what separates our city from our neighbors.

Tell us more about the incubator that is opening this fall:

We are very excited about having an incubator designed for veteran-owned businesses! When we first started the AVBEC, we had a vision of creating a professional, quiet and tight-knit space for veterans to meet and collaborate on projects, get advice, or seek mentorship.

Many small businesses lack the necessary space to bring clients to for a presentation, or they need a place to interview a potential employee. On a more personal level, they sometimes need a place to go to get out of the house and “stop talking to the walls!” We connected the dots on the resounding theme that veterans like working with other veterans and realized that there was a need to bring that commonality and spirit together into a physical setting.

Most importantly, the center is being co-located with the SBDC to provide the best access to counselors and resources. We will provide more information later this summer on how to access the center once construction begins.

How can I get involved?

There are a number of ways to get involved with the AVBEC between financial sponsorship, mentorship, and volunteering. Please contact me through our website for more information.

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An Introduction to the Interactive Resource Library

One of the most important features of our new website is the ability to pass information along to our clients and to give businesses easy access to resources and tools. In order to accomplish this, we developed our Interactive Resource Library. The Library is a collection of documents, ranging from checklists to sample forms to… Read more »

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One of the most important features of our new website is the ability to pass information along to our clients and to give businesses easy access to resources and tools. In order to accomplish this, we developed our Interactive Resource Library.

The Library is a collection of documents, ranging from checklists to sample forms to helpful tips. All of these documents can be filtered in a variety of ways. To begin, you can choose to see all of the resources in the library by selecting the View All button.

View All_Resource Library

You can also choose to filter documents by Stage of Business, Industry, or Area of Need. This allows each user to quickly find the documents that are specifically relevant to his or her unique business needs. To filter, use the categories located along the left side of the Interactive Resource Library.

Filtering_Resource Library

Once you select criteria, the documents related to that Stage of Business, Industry, or Area of Need will be displayed. Filtering resources for Government Contracting, for example, would yield the following results:

Government Contracting_Resource Library

You can always go back to the beginning by clicking on the “View All” button.

We hope you will find the Interactive Resource Library helpful and informative. We will continue to add relevant resources, so check back frequently to discover new information and documents.

 

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