The transition from military service to civilian life can be a difficult one, especially when it comes to your career. That's why a growing number of veterans choose to forge their own path and become entrepreneurs after leaving the Armed Forces.
While starting a business comes with numerous challenges, former service members do have one distinct advantage: the veteran community.
"The strength and power of veteran entrepreneurs comes from other veteran entrepreneurs," said entrepreneur 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."
If you or someone you know is a veteran looking to start a business, here are nine national veteran-focused organizations that can help you get off the ground.
1. U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs
The Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) offers a wide range of 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 for 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 Veteran Business Development houses everything you need to know about special programs and initiatives designed to help veterans in business. 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."
3. Bunker Labs
At Bunker Labs, military veterans and their spouses can participate in several different programs to help them gain the knowledge, resources and connections they need to start and grow a business. This nonprofit organization has local chapters across the U.S. and offers educational courses (online and in-person), meetups and fellowship programs.
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.
Through its free online course, VetToCEO helps qualified current and former military members prepare for the challenges of owning and running a business. The seven-week core entrepreneurship program helps students create a viable business model based on the military planning model framework, develop a funding strategy and collaborate with other veterans for potential mentorship and partnership opportunities.
6. Hivers & Strivers
If your business needs an investor, look no further than Hivers and Strivers. This angel investment group offers early-stage support for startup founded and run by graduates of U.S. Military Academies. According to its website, most of the group's investors have served in the military themselves and are now successful executives. A typical Hiver and Strivers investment round is $250,000 to $1M, although larger deals will be considered.
7. American Corporate Partners
This nonprofit organization 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 the co-founder of nonprofit Heroes in Action, cited ACP as his "most useful resource in learning the business world and networking outside of the classroom."
Becoming a franchisee is a popular and proven path to entrepreneurship, and VetFran wants to help former service members get on that path. A strategic initiative of the International Franchise Association, VetFran is a network of IFA members and suppliers that offer discounts to veterans on initial franchise fees and supplies. The program boasts more than 650 member companies, and offers a "Veteran Toolkit" to help interested entrepreneurs find the right franchise for them.
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 businesses.
Other resources: The importance of education and networking
McClaren and O'Donnell each credited their business success to continuing education after leaving the service. Both studied at American Military University, which offers a variety of online education programs – including advanced degrees – specifically for military veterans and their families.
While you certainly don't need a college degree to become a successful entrepreneur, having a formal education can prepare you for many of the challenges you'll face as a business owner.
"I can trace my financial success as a business owner directly back to my MBA," O'Donnell said. "You need a strong foundation of business principles before you construct the masterpiece that will eventually be your business."
"Working on your education will help you in learning all the ins and outs of the business world, budgets and productivity," added McClaren.
Our sources also stressed the importance of finding mentors – especially fellow veteran entrepreneurs – to help your business grow.
Non-veteran specific platforms and organizations like LinkedIn, SCORE and your local Chamber of Commerce can help you find and make connections with the right people. O'Donnell noted that networking with like-minded veterans and joining certain veteran LinkedIn groups that shared information and resources gave him a huge advantage during his first year in business.
"There are numerous online groups, regional clubs and non-profits to help you succeed in the corporate world and with a business," McClaren added.
And don't think you need to stop at one mentor: Having several people in your life who can serve as sounding boards and confidants about your business questions can only add to your success.
"I believe in finding multiple mentors," O'Donnell said. "We are all born into a massive maze ... [and] there are only a few paths through this maze that lead to success. Finding [people who have] been to success, and can ... lead you down the right path while helping you avoid pitfalls, is essential."