Transitioning from military service to civilian life can be difficult, especially when it comes to your career. A growing number of veterans choose to go into business for themselves after leaving the armed forces. According to data from the Small Business Administration, there are 2.4 million veteran-owned firms in America, and that number continues to grow. While starting a business has its challenges, former service members have one advantage other entrepreneurs don't: the veteran community.
"The strength and power of veteran entrepreneurs come from other veteran entrepreneurs," said Wes O'Donnell, an Army and Air Force veteran and founder of Warrior Lodge Media Group. "Unlike most highly competitive entrepreneurial environments, veteran entrepreneurs share information much more easily. I've helped … [veterans] around the country … simply because as former service members, we belong to a very small, select group of American citizens."
Veteran entrepreneur resources
If you or another veteran you know are starting a business, here are six national veteran-focused organizations that can help you launch your business.
1. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers resources and advice for post-military life, but the Veteran Entrepreneur Portal, in particular, is an excellent tool for aspiring veteran business owners. Here, you can find step-by-step guidance on starting a business, including access to financing, government contracting information and other veteran initiatives.
2. SBA's Office of Veteran Business Development
The Small Business Administration is often the first stop for any aspiring or current entrepreneur looking for information on all things small business. Like the VA's portal, the SBA's Office of Veterans Business Development houses everything you need to know about special programs and initiatives designed to help veterans. According to the website, its mission is "to maximize the availability, applicability and usability of all administration small business programs for Veterans, Service-Disabled Veterans, Reserve Component Members and their Dependents or Survivors."
StreetShares is a veteran-run financial solutions provider that caters specifically to veteran business owners and their communities. Entrepreneurs can join the organization for free and apply for term loans, lines of credit, contract financing and other programs to meet their business's financial needs. StreetShares also provides useful tips and information through its blog.
4. Hivers & Strivers
If your business needs an investor, look no further than Hivers & Strivers. This angel investment group offers early-stage support for startups founded and run by graduates of U.S. military academies. According to the website, most of the group's investors have served in the military themselves and are now successful executives. A typical Hivers & Strivers investment round is $250,000 to $1 million, although larger deals are considered.
5. American Corporate Partners
This nonprofit pairs military veterans with corporate leaders to aid the transition back to civilian life. Although it's geared more toward veterans who want to pursue a professional career (rather than those who are looking to start a business), American Corporate Partners' mentorship program can be incredibly useful to aspiring entrepreneurs. Air Force veteran Jason McClaren, an entrepreneur and co-founder of the nonprofit Go Heroes Inc., cites ACP as his "most useful resource in learning the business world and networking outside of the classroom."
V-WISE – Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship – is an entrepreneurship training program geared toward women service members and female spouses and partners of military members. Funded in part by the SBA and operated by Syracuse University, V-WISE's three-phase program consists of a 15-day online course, a three-day in-person training event, and ongoing mentorship and support for program graduates as they grow their business.
Inspiring veteran entrepreneurs
Here are eight inspiring veterans who, by taking advantage of the aforementioned resources, translated their military experience into successful entrepreneurial endeavors.
1. Matthew "Griff" Griffen, Combat Flip Flops
Matthew Griffen served in Afghanistan and Iraq as an Army Ranger for five years. While deployed, he witnessed poverty due to a lack of education and employment, but he saw entrepreneurs working to make a change in their community. Griffen wanted to help them. In a combat boot shop in Kabul, he noticed a boot sole with a flip flop thong and got the idea for Combat Flip Flops. The company's goal is to make cool products in dangerous places to help people free themselves from poverty. Every product sold puts an Afghan girl in school for a day. Combat Flip Flops was recently selected to appear on "Shark Tank."
2. Evan Hafer, Black Rifle Coffee Company
After serving 20 years in the infantry and as a Special Forces communications sergeant, Evan Hafer worked as a CIA contractor and was deployed to places like Afghanistan and Iraq. When Hafer realized he couldn't find a great cup of coffee on his deployment, he began roasting his own beans and taking them overseas. He decided to combine his two passions and opened Black Rifle Coffee Company in 2014, with the mission of providing higher-quality coffee to the veteran community.
3. Michael Burroughs, PuroClean
After serving more than four years in the army, Burroughs attended Azusa Pacific University and majored in business administration so he could eventually open his own business. At school, he started a club called "Veterans of APU" with others who worked together to serve their community. After college, he was an education consultant who helped job seekers earn certificates in IT, business, web graphic design, project management and more. However, he wanted to start his own business while channeling his passion for helping others. He researched franchises and eventually opened a PuroClean (known as "the paramedic of property damage") franchise, which allowed him to do both of those things.
4. Hannah and Tristan Ambrozewski, Anytime Fitness
Hannah and Tristan Ambrozewski, who met at basic training, were stationed together for four years at Fort Lewis and deployed together for one year in Iraq. After being discharged, the couple became aware of Anytime Fitness' Operation Heartfirst Charitable Foundation, which provides grants to Tee It Up for the Troops. They applied, won and were granted $125,000. They were also loaned an additional $125,000 to open their own Anytime Fitness, where they continue sharing their passion for fitness.
5. Ty Clifton, Patrice & Associates
After 25 years in the U.S. Army, Clifton, former senior policy advisor for the secretary of defense, decided to retire and open a Patrice & Associates business. Owning a restaurant and hospitality recruitment business was Clifton's way of helping those returning from duty, pairing veterans like himself with jobs in the restaurant and hospitality industry. He was one of just 100 small business owners to visit the White House as part of The Engine of the American Dream event, where he spoke with President Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump and other White House officials.
6. Carlina Williams, Communion Juice
Navy veteran Carlina Williams wanted to do something creative with her training, as well as become a role model to her twin boys. She started her mobile juice business, Communion Juice, formerly known as Juice Hero, which serves locally sourced, cold-pressed, fresh juice and herbal shots. VetLikeMe reported that Williams connected with veteran advocate Eddie Ramirez, owner of Mama Art Cafe, while attending a two-day Boots to Business course offered by the SBA. The two started a partnership that allows Williams to test-market her juices through Ramirez's cafe.
7. Phyllis Newhouse, Xtreme Solutions Inc.
During her time as a military intelligence sergeant for the army, Phyllis Newhouse learned a lot about leadership, resilience and cybersecurity, which later became the basis for her business, Xtreme Solutions Inc. Her IT services and solutions company helps its clients become more innovative and efficient by applying the latest information technologies to their security vulnerabilities.
8. Beth Graeme, Beth Graeme Photography LLC
After serving in the Navy, Beth Graeme quickly realized that entrepreneurship was the best way to earn a living and be there to care for her children while her husband was in Afghanistan. She left a contracting job and launched Grambo Creative, now known as Beth Graeme Photography LLC, as a solo venture in 2012. She has developed her brand from strictly real estate to portraiture and weddings.
Whatever your passion, these inspiring veterans are proof that transitioning from the military back into civilian life can lead to a successful journey as an entrepreneur. That journey can be made even easier by leveraging the many resources available to veterans and the tight-knit community they've helped to cultivate.
Nicole Fallon contributed to the reporting and writing in this article. Some source interviews were conducted for a previous version of this article.