Rooted in structure and solid work ethics: Local Women veterans promote change in business

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When you picture what an entrepreneur looks like, images of a young Ivy League dropout or a well-off middle-aged man may come to mind. But in the realm of start-ups, one demographic has been outpacing all other counterparts — women veterans. According to the National Women’s Business Council, the number of veteran women-owned businesses increased by 294.7 percent from 2007 to 2012. In comparison, the number of non-veteran women-owned businesses increased by only 23.4 percent over that same five-year period.
Even though veteran women-owned businesses have been gaining momentum over recent years, challenges still persist within this community. “Being a female veteran entrepreneur is like having three strikes against you before you even get through the door,” says Jill Wolfe, cofounder of GO Scavenger Hunts, a company that organizes team-building in the form of scavenger hunts. In addition to spending 14 months in Korea, Wolfe served as an enlisted soldier in communications intelligence from 1995 to 1998.

For Wolfe, these three identities of being a woman, a veteran, and an entrepreneur not only have their own stereotypes, but often work against each other. “Women aren't raised to advocate for themselves or talk about how they have solutions to real-world problems — much less sell themselves to strangers. Veterans are taught to follow orders, stick to a predetermined process that was specifically designed so that anyone can do it, and not deviate from what our commanders ask of us. All those things are the exact opposite of what you need to be as a successful entrepreneur,” says Wolfe.
Though many veterans had vital leadership roles and responsibilities when they were on active duty, such as commanding a ship or brigade, upon returning home, finding work proves to be problematic. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor reported a 3 percent increase in the overall female veteran unemployment rate, whereas the unemployment rate for male veterans did not record a significant change.

Even if veterans find work in the community, compared to their previous roles while serving, many of these jobs can be mediocre and unsatisfying. “It’s hard to transfer those military skills into civilian skills. What happens a lot of times is military people end up being underemployed and underpaid, even though they have great skills to offer,” says Des Nelson, a nine-year U.S. Navy veteran and founder of Des Nelson Consulting.
According to Nelson, veterans are one of the best demographics to become small business owners because they are rooted in structure and maintain a hard work ethic. “We have the discipline instilled in us,” says Nelson. “There is a misconception that if we’re direct, we’re not nice. But that’s not true at all. We get the job done.”
When other demographics are added on top of being a woman and a veteran, assumptions can take an even bigger toll when interacting with potential business partners and clients. Dr. Kennedy Barrington is a 10-year U.S. Navy veteran and the founder of 100 Shades of disABILITIES L3C, which aims to dismantle ableism legislatively and economically through community education and collaboration. She says that preliminary meetings are always based on visual perceptions, which in turn, forces her to advocate for herself and use her words to explain all the work she has done within the community. 
Dr. Kennedy Barrington“People make way too many assumptions about people with disabilities [and] people of color and don’t even consider the fact that I, or anyone else, have served my country. While the initial assessment is negative, in the end, it can be a more positive experience to be African American, to be a veteran, to be a woman, and to be a person with a disability because those four negatives all end up mathematically becoming a positive. It has made me a unicorn and makes people want to work together to bring awareness to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” says Barrington.
Creating a more accepting and mindful community is the first step to enacting change and providing more opportunities and resources to overlooked entrepreneurs, according to Kamethia Wilson, a U.S. Navy Petty Officer Second Class AW/SW and firefighter in Operation Enduring Freedom who served a total of eight tours in 13 years. She is now launching her own fitness training business, Knockout Health and Wellness, in the summer of 2020. 

“The problem is definitely out there, but many people will say, ‘Oh wow! We didn’t even know about this issue in the community,'” says Wilson. “The community needs to know what’s around it, and we need to push the envelope a little bit so people can understand how to handle things and make changes to provide more resources.”

Organizations, such as Michigan Veteran Entrepreneur Lab (MVE-Lab), Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW), Detroit Regional LGBT Chamber of Commerce, West Michigan Veterans Coalition, and Kent County Veteran Services provided these four women veteran entrepreneurs with resources and inclusive approaches that are helping them succeed.

“For a female veteran, a female of color, and even a person with a disability, the MVE-Lab and GROW will be more accommodating, more one-on-one, and more apt to walk you through the challenges you will face on a more personal level than some of the other new programs where you can do a pop-up shop or sell your pitches to get thousands of dollars. There’s a ton of those micro-type programs out there, but if you need more one-on-one hand holding, the MVE-Lab and GROW are definitely some of the best resources I’ve found,” says Barrington.

Those who are family and friends of a woman veteran entrepreneur also have the responsibility to be explicit in their support. “Tell them every day that you trust them to be successful, that you believe they can run a profitable business, and that they have what it takes. Because guess what? No one else is telling them that. In fact, they often hear the opposite, especially from their own heads,” says Wolfe.

Photos by Chantal Pasag of Pasagraphy.
Building Bridges is a series focused on the diverse entrepreneurial community within the West Michigan region. Throughout the year, the series will highlight the unique problem solvers and change makers who seek to positively impact the growth of the economy and local ecosystem. Building Bridges is supported by Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW).

About Megan Sarnacki: Megan Sarnacki is a freelance writer with a passion for social justice, intercultural affairs, wellness, and the arts. When she is not writing, you can find her working as a videographer, editor, and producer for WGVU Public Media.

You can contact the editor for this series, Leandra Nisbet, at [email protected]!
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