NATIONAL VETERAN SMALL BUSINESS WEEK

This blog post was written by Patra Frame of Strategies for Human Resources. Patra has offered workshops and individual counseling on human resources and employer issues for Alexandria’s small businesses through the SBDC for many years. She was the 2017 Virginia SBDC Small Business Veteran of the Year. Are You Entrepreneurial? Want to Start Your… Read more »

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This blog post was written by Patra Frame of Strategies for Human Resources. Patra has offered workshops and individual counseling on human resources and employer issues for Alexandria’s small businesses through the SBDC for many years. She was the 2017 Virginia SBDC Small Business Veteran of the Year.

Are You Entrepreneurial? Want to Start Your Own Business? Non-Profit?

The week of November 4 – 10 recognizes veteran-owned small businesses across the USA.  You probably have heard of the many big businesses, like FedEx, that were started by veterans.  But most US businesses are small businesses.  Currently, nine percent (9%) of all small businesses are owned by veterans.

The Alexandria SBDC has helped over 220 veterans start and sustain their own businesses.  These include a wide range of types and sizes of businesses across Alexandria.  

If you have been thinking about starting your own business, we offer a range of services to help you.  Whatever you want to be — a coach, retailer, cybersecurity developer, consultant, physical fitness trainer/gym owner, home health care or theatre founder – now is your time!

Studies show that veterans who want to start a business run into trouble in four major areas:

  • the lack of a professional network
  • the lack of a local network
  • little or no business experience
  • limited capital

You can fix all those problems! Sometimes working for a company/non-profit in your field for a few years will help you address all those. Going back to school – full or part-time to hone technical skills or add business skills may be a smart move. You might also consider starting your business as a side gig while you build capital and expertise.

As a volunteer for veterans groups and at the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, I have seen too many veterans get into trouble because they did not do their homework first. This might be lack of knowledge about the specific business or about basic business practices, it often includes assumptions about some giant pot of ‘free money’ for veterans or about how easy it is to become a government contractor as a veteran. Far too many also do not seek out resources until they are already in trouble or near bankruptcy.

Doing your preparation and being able to adjust your plan as you learn more about the market is vital. For most of us vets, it is also something we learned in the military!

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOURSELF

1. What need or problem are you going to solve?

  • Why does this problem or need interest you?
  • What do you offer to solve it? (Expertise, education, new technology ideas, etc.)

2. What is your purpose in starting this new business or non-profit?

  • What is your vision?
  • What is your definition of success?

3. Do you believe what you want to do is possible for you to do?  Are you ready to dedicate yourself fully every day to building this?

4. Do you have the skills you need to be successful building a business or non-profit?

  • What do you need to learn? How will you do that?
  • Are you naturally curious?
  • Are you willing to actively market yourself all the time?
  • How good are you at seeking advice and help?
  • Are you flexible enough to change direction based on what you learn?

5. How will you use your current contacts (your network) and build new ones to support your idea?

  • Are you active in professional and business organizations that are relevant to your goal?
  • What are you doing on social media to make the right connections?
  • Which groups in the area you want to create your work are worth your time?

START RIGHT TO SUCCEED

Research and Planning:

  • Have you defined the need or problem your business/non-profit will satisfy?
  • How will you be better than others in this space?
  • What makes your vision unique?

Networking:

  • Grow and develop your networks in your chosen field, local area, and business groups. The Alexandria SBDC offers monthly roundtables of business owners and a variety of other services to help you expand your network.  Consider women’s or minority business networks, local business groups, professional and veteran groups. Check out MeetUp, EventBrite, local calendars, community groups, and your network for leads. Later some of these will be good places for you to market as well.

Minimize Risks:

  • Learn the business and regulatory requirements you face – the SBDC is a great support here. Assess where you need an attorney or CPA and find one that specializes in small businesses or non-profit ogranizations.

Finances:

  • Do you have the savings/resources to go without an income for 12-24 months?  If not, how will you build those or do you have a spouse/other who will support you during this time?
  • Grants, loans, crowd-funding, investors are all limited and time-consuming to get. None pay your living or most basic expenses at the start.

The Alexandria SBDC provides a range of services, consultants, and seminars to help you develop and grow your business.  Virginia is one of the top states for veterans and also offers programs to assist and support you through the Virginia SBDC Network.  Contact us for assistance and support, we are here to help you succeed.

Those wishing to start a business in the City of Alexandria can contact the Alexandria SBDC. Complete the short questionnaire and we will contact you to set up an appointment.

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Veterans Day and Your Business

This week’s post was written by Patra Frame of Strategies for Human Resources. Patra is a US Air Force veteran, and we thank her for her service to our country and for the work that she does for the SBDC in assisting clients with their HR needs. In this area there are many official and… Read more »

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Veterans Day and Your BusinessThis week’s post was written by Patra Frame of Strategies for Human Resources. Patra is a US Air Force veteran, and we thank her for her service to our country and for the work that she does for the SBDC in assisting clients with their HR needs.

In this area there are many official and local celebrations of Veterans Day, so it may mean more to us than just another ‘sales holiday’. But what might it mean to your business or organization?

First, Virginia is one of the top states in the US in terms of the number of veterans who live here. Alexandria has about 8% veterans in its population. Historically, Alexandria has attracted senior military officers to move here while on active duty and in retirement. This means affluent potential customers for retail businesses.  Better yet, it means specialized consultants and potential Board members for businesses, associations, and non-profit organizations.

Alexandria already has over 250 veteran-owned businesses which thrive here. There are 13 associations representing military and veterans headquartered here, too.  We also have active veteran participation in local government roles.

Capitol Post has joined the SBDC and AEDP in providing programs to attract and support veterans. The program includes workshops and 1:1 counseling for veteran entrepreneurs, co-working space, and houses the BunkerLabs DC – an incubator that features an intensive program from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Check out their speakers series for inspiration and lessons in growth for your organization.

With such a large veteran population in Alexandria and in the region, your business can thrive by hiring veterans as well as providing services or products to them.  There are many local resources to help you in attracting and hiring veterans. Veterans offer you:

  • A wide range of technical skills
  • Ability to deal with high-change environments
  • Experience in demanding environments
  • Commitment to your mission and values
  • In-depth training and experience in supervisory and interpersonal skills

Military spouses and family members also form an excellent labor pool to draw from. You can work with the Family Services offices at area military bases to attract both veterans and spouses.

In Old Town, there is a program for junior military in transition – the Veterans Curation Program – which can provide a resource as well. Plus, they value organizations which come in to discuss career fields and job search if you want to volunteer.

The US Department of Labor has an excellent guide to help you in this process – “Hiring Veterans – Step by Step Toolkit for Employers”. ‘Virginia Values Veterans’ is a training and certification program on hiring veterans available from our state government. Both these programs can be tailored to work for small and medium size organizations.

So, this year, when the anniversary of the end of World War I is celebrated on the 11th day of the 11th month, move beyond a moment’s silence. Use Veterans Day and its recognition of all veterans to think about the benefits of veterans to your organization too.

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5 Steps to Getting What you Want in Business

This week, the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center hosted its fourth speaker series event. This event invites a successful veteran in business to share his or her experiences in business and tips on success after the military. This month’s event featured Laura Law-Millet, co-founder of the GI Film Festival. After a 14-year career as an… Read more »

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Laura Law Millet - 5 Steps for Getting What you Want in BusinessThis week, the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center hosted its fourth speaker series event. This event invites a successful veteran in business to share his or her experiences in business and tips on success after the military.

This month’s event featured Laura Law-Millet, co-founder of the GI Film Festival. After a 14-year career as an Army intelligence officer, Law-Millet went to work in the corporate world, but she felt that something was missing in her life. After a discussion with her husband on the way that military personnel are portrayed in the entertainment industry, the couple decided to start the GI Film Festival, which is dedicated to sharing the military experience in and out of the arena of war.

Since its inaugural year, the festival has grown from a three-day event to a week-long festival that includes events on the west coast and a show on the Pentagon Channel. They focus on films that are entertaining, engaging and present films “from new and established international and domestic filmmakers that honor the heroic stories of the American Armed Forces and the worldwide struggle for freedom and liberty.”

In her time as an entrepreneur, Law-Millet says she has learned many lessons, but her advice focused on the five lessons she believes are most important for a successful business and for a happy business owner. She says that she learned these lessons while observing her daughter and believes that entrepreneurs can learn a lot by looking through the lens of a child.

1. Ask for what you want

Children are not afraid to ask for things, and many times, they will not take “no” for an answer. Often, business owners are afraid to ask for things, either because they don’t think they can get them or because they are afraid they will be told “no.” Law-Millet recommends that business owners act as if they don’t realize that “no” is even a possible answer. When the GI Film Festival was first starting, they asked several celebrities if they would attend the event. It never dawned on Law-Millet that they would refuse, so she kept asking. Many celebrities came to the event, and they never would have attended if Law-Millet had not asked for what she wanted.

2. Expect success, but don’t be afraid to fail

Oftentimes, kids get excited about everyday things and anticipate that everything will go well. Entrepreneurs can embrace this lesson by keeping an optimistic attitude about their potential for success. Everyone has failed at one point or another, but it’s what you learn from that failure that determines if you will succeed. Law-Millet explains that WestPoint sets up its freshmen to fail by giving them an impossible workload so that students experience failure and learn to prioritize.  Law-Millet suggests that business owners find a mentor or other people in their industry to guide them along the way. The knowledge gained from these relationships will help entrepreneurs mitigate the failures that they have along the way and allow them to bounce back more quickly.

3. Network with everyone

We’ve all seen kids that make friends immediately with everyone playing on the playground or that are always willing to share that special treat in their lunch with a friend. Similarly, entrepreneurs never know who might be able to help them. A seemingly insignificant meeting could help you get that new client or that key investor that enables your business to grow. Similarly, entrepreneurs never know when helping someone else might come back to reap rewards. This is especially true when you are part of a smaller business network, like the veteran business community. Law-Millet jokes that we have all heard of the “six degrees from Kevin Bacon” game, but in reality, businesses are often six degrees from success. Networking can make all the difference.

4. Enjoy the moment

If you have ever taken a walk with a child, you know how frustrating it can be when he or she wants to stop to look at every rock, stick, or flower. However, business owners are often so concerned with looking at the long term that they forget to enjoy the journey and take time to be grateful for their success to date. In business, the journey is often as important as the destination, because the decisions you make along the way help to shape the future of your company. Law-Millet emphasizes that it is important to mark and celebrate the milestones along the way, because these little victories add up and, before you know it, your company has taken flight. This attitude of gratitude will help you achieve happiness along with success.

5. Dream big

How many of us, when we were young, wanted to astronauts or singers or president? Kids know how to dream big, and it’s not until adults limit their perception of what is possible that they begin to question what they are capable of achieving. Your business’ future is what you make of it, and anything is possible. When entrepreneurs think of ideas as impossible, they are closing themselves off to potential avenues for success. Law-Millet says that she is so grateful that the GI Film Festival was never told that their idea was not realistic, because they may have listened and not achieved the success that they have today.

To learn more about the GI Film Festival, please visit http://gifilmfestival.com.

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Celebrating Veteran Entrepreneurs

This week, as we celebrate Alexandria Honors Veterans Week, the City publicly recognizes the value that veterans bring to our community at large. Here at the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we recognize that veteran entrepreneurs enhance our business community as well. This recognition is part of what led to the formation of the Alexandria Veterans… Read more »

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Veterans for Economic DevelopmentThis week, as we celebrate Alexandria Honors Veterans Week, the City publicly recognizes the value that veterans bring to our community at large. Here at the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we recognize that veteran entrepreneurs enhance our business community as well. This recognition is part of what led to the formation of the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC), which has co-hosted several events for veterans in business this week. Whether you are looking to start a business, grow your business, network with other veterans in business, or explore career opportunities, AVBEC is available to support and guide veterans at any stage in the process.

In addition to the activities this week, last week was National Veterans Small Business Week. In support of this, several articles and blog posts were published to highlight why veterans excel as entrepreneurs. Additionally, there were several articles written on the current trends in the veteran business world. We’ve rounded up a few of these articles to share with you below:

Emily McMahan, the director of the AVBEC, was also featured in an article this week. This article, which appeared in technical.ly DC, explains an exciting new addition to the AVBEC program. The Bunker, a Chicago-based incubator for veterans, has chosen the AVBEC as its expansion location in Washington, D.C. The Bunker also announced that it will be expanding to six other cities, including Philadelphia, Tacoma, Los Angeles, and Austin. AVBEC is anticipating welcoming its first class of veteran entrepreneurs in early 2015.

We would like to thank all of our veteran clients for their service and for the contributions they have made to our Alexandria business community. We are also thankful for the veterans who lead our economic development organizations. Many people my be surprised to know that Bill Reagan, Executive Director of the Alexandria SBDC, and Val Hawkins, President and CEO of AEDP, are both veterans. They, along with Emily McMahan, are pictured in the image that accompanies this post, and we are grateful for their leadership and the skills they bring from their time in the military.

As we wrap up the events of Alexandria Honors Veterans week, we look forward to continuing to work with our veteran business owners and to supporting the first class of veteran entrepreneurs at The Bunker.

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Community Resources for Veterans

At the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we’re always looking for new ways to support Alexandria businesses. We continually seek opportunities to partner with members of the community and to identify new initiatives. We’re very excited about our newest program: the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC). In 2013, Alexandria veterans, government agencies, non-profits, and… Read more »

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Emily McMahan, AVBECAt the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, we’re always looking for new ways to support Alexandria businesses. We continually seek opportunities to partner with members of the community and to identify new initiatives. We’re very excited about our newest program: the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC).

In 2013, Alexandria veterans, government agencies, non-profits, and local businesses joined together to discuss how the City could better support its veterans. The group recognized that the defense drawdown represented an opportunity to grow our regional economy if the City could attract top veteran talent to join our workforce and start new businesses.

The group also acknowledged that there are hundreds of private companies, nonprofits, and government programs that support veterans during their transition from the military and beyond. From the veteran’s perspective, the sheer magnitude of potential options can be quite overwhelming.

What would it take to for veterans to be successful in business, integrated into the local business community, and contributing to the City and region’s economic growth? The answer is the AVBEC.

AVBEC’s mission is to create an ideal community for veterans to open a business, build a business, or start a new career through transition support, assistance for entrepreneurs, and enduring support for professional needs. The program is a regional hub for veterans in business, connecting them to existing programs and resources, providing opportunities to engage with other veterans and businesses, and creating a space where veterans can collaborate and share information.

AVBEC has partnered with local, state, and national organizations and businesses to provide services to veterans. This includes the Virginia Department of Veterans Affairs, SCORE, Boots to Business, and other well-regarded programs. In building these partnerships, AVBEC is able to be a “one stop shop” for veterans as they seek the appropriate resources.

As a program of the Alexandria SBDC, veterans also have access to objective and highly-regarded business guidance. The center’s resources include one-to-one counseling, educational programs, and a robust online interactive resource library. AVBEC clients can take advantage of the center’s existing connections with the business community.

One of the most innovative parts of the program is the AVBEC incubator, now being constructed adjacent to the Alexandria Small Business Development Center. As one of the only veteran business incubators in the country, this center will give veterans a physical space to collaborate and share information as they start a business or launch their careers.

In addition to entrepreneurial support, AVBEC also facilitates veteran hiring. Veterans who are transitioning will be connected to resources to help them identify potential career paths and opportunities. There really is something for every veteran at the AVBEC.

AVBEC leverages all of the SBDC’s existing relationships and has established new partnerships to provide a comprehensive array of resources and services focused on veterans – whatever their priorities or concerns. I encourage all veterans to contact AVBEC now to take advantage of this fantastic resource that Alexandria is offering.

For more information, visit the AVBEC website at www.AlexandriaVeterans.org.

This column originally appeared in the Alexandria Times on August 28th, 2014.

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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 »

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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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