VA Center Helps Hundreds of Veteran Entrepreneurs
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 15, 2006 The organization that helps veterans become entrepreneurs by hooking them up with national franchises and contracts with industry and the federal government celebrated its fifth anniversary yesterday with an open house at the Department of Veterans Affairs here.
Scott F. Denniston (left), director of the Veterans Affairs Center - part of the Department of Veterans Affairs -- chats with Danny M. Cobb, who opened his new company, Meridian Solutions, in Frederick, Md., last month. The conversation took place March 15 during the center's fifth anniversary celebration at Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo by Rudi Williams
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
The Center for Veterans Enterprise has helped hundreds of veteran entrepreneurs set up their businesses or swell their company's coffers. Hundreds more have been helped to compete in the federal and private sector marketplace since the center was created five years ago.
The law that led to the center's creation - the Veterans Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development Act of 1999 -- was well intentioned, but it had a void concerning entrepreneurial programs for veterans, said Scott F. Denniston, the center's director. The law calls for 3 percent of federal contracts to be given to veteran-owned businesses.
"There was a void having to do with who was going to help veteran- and service-disabled-veteran-owned businesses break into the federal marketplace as part of the 3 percent goal," Denniston said during an interview at the open house. "We knew how to do federal contracting, because VA is one of the largest buyers of goods and services in the government. We're one of the largest buyers from the standpoint of not only dollars, but of actions and the breadth of products and services we buy."
Based on that expertise, VA decided to set up the Center for Veterans Enterprise, aimed at helping veterans break into the federal marketplace, Denniston said.
"We touch between 5,000 and 6,000 veterans a month," Denniston noted. "Most of those are people who call in or come and visit. We don't have the resources to track how many we actually help."
VA statistics show that 10 percent of the 23 million veterans in the United States are service-disabled. About 3.2 million veteran-owned businesses represent 14 percent of all businesses, according to the 2002 Census. VA officials said the 1992 Census reported that there were 4.2 to 5.5 million veteran business owners.
Denniston said Veterans Affairs is trying to lead the way in attaining the 3-percent goal.
"This year we're over 2 percent, one of the few agencies that did that," he said. "We know it's because of the efforts of the folks in the Center for Veterans Entreprise."
Denniston said the Defense Department is below 1 percent, but that all of the services are trending upward. For example, he said, last year the Navy awarded $1 billion to veteran-owned small businesses.
"So the trends are going in the right direction, and we have a very aggressive outreach program with all the services, but particularly with the Army and Air Force," he said. "We've actually gone around the country and trained their contracting officers about the program. We also teach service-disabled veterans how to do business with the military services."
Veterans, including service-disabled veterans, often go into businesses based on expertise they gained in the military, Denniston said. "As an example, we have a number of businesses that are in information technology, communications and networking, environmental remediation, and guard services for men and women who were military police," he noted. "People who were Seabees in the Navy are in construction and architectural engineering. So there isn't a business type that veterans aren't breaking into. But most of it is based on their experience in the military."
The center's staff of 15 people fans out across the country to spread the word to active duty personnel and members of the National Guard and Reserve. "Our goal is to make sure that when a veteran leaves the military, they know about the Center for Veterans Enterprise and the services we provide," Denniston said. "What's interesting is that the vast majority of veterans that come to us are people that have been out of the military between seven and 15 years. They've made the successful transition from military to civilian life, and now they want to start a small business."
Denniston said that's to be expected. "We don't get a lot of people right out the military who want to start a business," he noted. "Part of that is the majority of the military, particularly the Guard and Reserve, are married and need to provide for their families. The other thing is we don't pay our veterans a lot when they're on active duty, so most veterans don't have a nest egg. They need to build up that nest egg in the civilian world and then come to us for entrepreneurial assistance."
The center has arranged discounts for veterans who want to get into franchise businesses. "We have 150 franchisers who offer a benefit to veterans that they don't offer to non-veterans," Denniston said. "Some discount fees, some have better financing, some have financing at lower rates, some offer more management and technical assistance."
Providing something extra for veterans is a requirement for franchisers who want to work through the center's program, Denniston said. "When we established the program," he explained, "we said, 'We don't care what kind of benefits you offer veterans, but you need to offer something that you don't offer to non-veterans.' In two years, we've put more than 300 veterans in business through franchising."
Denniston said the program is geared toward franchises with start-up costs of less than $100,000, citing the issue of veterans not having a lot of money. "They're mostly service-oriented franchises, like home repair services, real estate appraisal services, rug cleaning, nursery care," he said. "Now we have some of the fast food restaurants. Our 100th franchiser was Exxon-Mobil for their gas stations and On-the-Run stores."
Danny M. Cobb, who started his business, Meridian Solutions, a month ago in Frederick, Md., attended the open house seeking ways to take advantage of the services available for disabled veterans.
"I'm in the consulting field as a subject-matter expert in the areas of container security for homeland security," said Cobb, who gained his expertise working for the U.S. Customs Service, which he left to start his own business. "I though (the CVE open house) would be a good alliance, and it would provide resources to help me get started with approaching different federal agencies for contract work."
Cobb, a former Marine corporal who joined the Corps in 1977 and was discharged in 1981, said he was looking for networking to get his name and his company's name better exposure. He was seeking assistance in marketing and the names and contact information for contracting officers from various agencies. Denniston said the center can help veterans no matter where they live. "We can assist you in finding local resources that can help you whether you need a business plan, a loan from a bank, marketing assistance," he said. "Those are the types of networks we've established around the country in all 50 states and Puerto Rico to help veterans who want to start small businesses."