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Some veterans find new missions by starting their own small businesses

Darcella Craven
Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Air Force veteran Lachelle Stevenson, 40, of Belleville is researching what it would take to open an after-school tutoring center.

“It’s a personal goal to own my own business,” said Stevenson who attended a workshop last week hosted by the St. Louis officeof the Small Business Administration to learn about the nuts and bolts of business start-ups.

The local event coincided with Veterans Small Business Week, an effort by the SBA to offer training programs for veterans interested in joining the ranks of the nation’s 2.4 million small businesses that are veteran-owned.

For Stevenson, one of about 30 veterans participating in the program held Thursday at the Robert A. Young federal building, it was an opportunity to dip a toe into the entrepreneurial pool and hear advice about developing a solid business plan from counselors, local bankers and attorneys.

“There are so many programs for veterans, but you have to get out and talk to people,” Stevenson said. "Just me being here and networking with the other vets I found out about other different programs.”

Stevenson, who used to work in marketing, said she is still in the idea stage, but she realizes that this is a critical time to learn what to do and what not to do. She also believes that her military experience will go a long way toward helping her and other veterans to be successful business owners.

"We’ve been in a high-risk environment already. We’ve dealt with stress and maintained our composure,” she said. “We follow through. We’re team players. We’re loyal. We’re not going to give up at the sign of disaster. We’re going to keep going until we get it right.”

Up to the challenge

Nearly one in 10 U.S. small businesses is veteran-owned, employing nearly 6 million people and generating more than $1 trillion in receipts, according to U.S. Census figures cited by the SBA.

According to the SBA:

  • Veterans are 45 percent more likely than those with no active-duty military experience to be self-employed in the private sector.
  • The SBA supported $1.86 billion in loans for 3,094 veteran-owned small businesses in 2013. Since 2009, the dollar amount of SBA lending support to veteran-owned firms has nearly doubled.

There is a "fire hose” of information and programs available for veterans, said Darcella Craven, executive director of the Veterans Business Resource Center (VBRC), who was among the speakers at Thursday’s event. The VBRC is a small St. Louis-based nonprofit that partners with the SBA to provide business development programs and counseling services for veterans and active duty military personnel. The center serves a five-state region that includes Missouri and Southern Illinois.

Craven said her center helps direct veterans to the right resources in addition to helping them define their business plans so they can apply for veteran-assistance loan programs, such as the SBA-backed Patriot Express loan.

"It can be overwhelming,” she said. "We behave as a consultant -- as a project manager – for veterans who have no idea where to start.”

Craven said the process involves soul-searching about whether starting a small business is even the right move to make.

“If I stop you now from making a $100,000 mistake, it’s a good thing,” she said.

About 200 veterans have received individual business counseling this year from the VBRC, which also puts on workshops through the Transition Assistance Program that helps active duty personnel in the process of leaving the military.

Craven said that in addition to the challenges associated with starting a business, veterans who have just recently left the military might struggle with fitting into the civilian business world.

"I’m military, I got you on discipline and perseverance, but it was inside a structure,” said Craven, an Army veteran who draws on her own experience as a small business owner. "We help them to navigate the gauntlet of information that is out there. “

Craven's center gets about 60 percent of its funding from the government and the rest from private donations. She said the work is fulfilling because it helps veterans establish themselves; many keep in touch with her even after their businesses are up and running.

She encourages people who want to honor veterans on Nov. 11 to think about contributing to programs that last beyond one day.

"I love the fact that people do parades and say, ‘Thank you very much.’ But what’s after that?” she said.

'You always have to be at the top of your game'

Tim Smith, 35, the founder of Patriot Commercial Cleaning, can attest to the importance of seeking expertise.

Tim Smith, in Iraq
Credit Provided | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Tim Smith, in Iraq

"It takes time and focus to come up with a game plan on what you want to do,” said the Army veteran, who served in Iraq. (See a 2011 Beacon article on his startup efforts.)

The VBRC helped him put together a business plan that enabled him to get the funding to get his business up and running within a year’s time. His company now cleans 26 businesses and employs 16 people – all of whom are either veterans or the families of veterans. Helping other veterans is important to Smith.

"When I got out of the Army I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” Smith said. “It took me about six months to find employment. That was a tough time for me. I figure if a veteran could be a part of a team again they’ll have better chances for success.”

Smith said that starting a business can be a good opportunity for veterans, allowing them to find new ways to apply skills learned in the military.

"Things are always changing,” he said. "In a hostile environment you’ve got to always keep moving, and always stay alert. The same goes with business. You always have to be at the top of your game. You have to listen to your customers and what they need. Every day, you have to have your ‘A game’ on, because you have to meet their needs. No matter what’s coming down. You stay mission-focused.”

All veterans are eligible

Craven said that many veterans, particularly women, don’t take advantage of the benefits they have earned because they didn’t serve in combat. She wonders if the census figures accurately capture the number of veterans who own small businesses.

"I think if they asked, 'Did you ever serve in the military?' they'd get a different answer,'' she said. "A lot of people don't consider themselves veterans unless they were in war. If you put that uniform on and did what you were supposed to do and served honorably, you're a veteran. You signed up saying you would go."

John Zarbock and his wife Missy attended the SBA seminar because both are considering starting their own small businesses.

Missy and Capt. John Zarbock
Credit Mary Delach Leonard | St. Louis Beacon | 2013
Missy and Capt. John Zarbock

Zarbock, 29, is a captain on active duty with the Missouri Army National Guard assigned to the homeland response force at Jefferson Barracks. He would like to open a gym after he leaves the military and is researching options.

"Health and fitness and wellness have been a passion of mine,” Zarbock said. "I just now seem to be getting the courage to take that step -- and to take the actions necessary. I came here to network a little bit.”

Zarbock said it can be difficult to navigate the number of programs he would be eligible for. 

"So many organizations are trying to do the right things,'' he said. "They’re trying to do right for veterans.”

Zarbock added that he has only recently started to consider taking advantage of some of those opportunities.

“I’m a veteran, but I’m not a combat veteran. I’ve been to places like Kosovo and Kuwait so I’ve been to places the military considers an imminent danger area, but I haven’t seen combat,” he said.

At which point, Missy Zarbock pointed out that her husband has missed many important family occasions because his duties have required frequent travel.

"It’s the fact that you’re prepared to go,” she said.

For more information

The U.S. Small Business Administration partners with organizations such as the Veterans Business Resource Center and the St. Louis chapter of SCORE to assist veterans, service-disabled veterans and reservists. More information on opportunities for veterans can be found on the SBA website.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.