A few weeks ago, we spoke with Emily McMahan, the Director of the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC). This week, Emily is back to talk a little more about what makes the AVBEC unique.
With so many resources for veterans right now, why does the City and region need the AVBEC?
With the drawdown across the Department of Defense, there is a surge of service members currently transitioning from our local bases. As a city, we view this situation as an opportunity to attract top talent to our local workforce. As such, we are one of the few jurisdictions taking an active, organized approach towards veterans in business. That being said, we also appreciate that there are a number of challenges unique to service members when they’re “taking the uniform off.” We understand that there’s often fear and uncertainty about the next steps of a career change. Because of this, we designed our program around the sensitivity that transitioning takes time, requires reflection, and often brings personal questions about identity, purpose, and what life looks like after the military.
Aside from the large population of transitioning service members, there is also a surge of resources aimed at helping veterans right now. For the past year, we have met with many of the top organizations assisting veterans, not only to set up partnerships, but to learn about their services and identify opportunities for AVBEC to fill any gaps. We know that, from the veteran’s perspective, it can be a bit overwhelming to be on the receiving end of all these resources if they lack coordination and appear duplicative. We designed the AVBEC with this in mind.
First, we view our organization as a platform to showcase and promote the best, most credible training and content on veteran business and career transition. These programs are already providing the best building blocks and foundations for success outside of the military, so we’re not looking to recreate this content. Instead, we’re looking to present these services in an organized way and to work with veterans and providers to ensure a coordinated approach to meeting the needs of each service member.
Second, the AVBEC’s value is truly recognized in the veteran’s “execution phase” of his or her transition. For example, what happens when a veteran entrepreneur goes through small business training, develops a business plan, and then needs to find office space? Or, the veteran and her business partner need to create a network for opportunities? While training and classes provide knowledge and exposure, we’ve learned that most veterans need high quality support once they start executing. We can often help solve the “real-world” business problems through referrals, tools, and consultants, which are often at no-cost to the veteran.
In summary, we want our agencies and fellow organizations to feel like they can “hand the baton” off to the AVBEC when the service member is ready to integrate into the community. The AVBEC is best positioned to facilitate that successful integration. While understanding the basics about business is critical, we find that cultivating strong relationships and networks is what often makes business people successful in the long term. We can make those connections and offer services that are relevant right here in our city.
What other cities have taken similar initiatives with respect to veterans?
There are a number of cities that stand out such as Jacksonville, Charlotte, and Augusta, Georgia. One of the cities that mirrors our approach most closely is Jacksonville, Florida. They have a wonderful model focused on veteran employment and reintegration after which we modeled aspects of our program. While there are many cities doing great things for veterans, we feel that our scope and focus on entrepreneurship, employment, and the current business community is unique because we work so closely with the Alexandria SBDC, Alexandria Economic Development Partnership (AEDP), Chamber of Commerce, and JobLink. We also work with many of our neighboring jurisdiction’s economic and workforce development organizations as well.
How do you define a top veteran business community?
I see a great veteran business community as one that provides services specific to veteran-owned businesses and veterans in business. It’s a place that provides a sense of community, hometown feel, and pride for those who served through events and dialogue across multiple domains and platforms. A top veteran business community is driven by a city-wide caring approach that ultimately drives the economy through small business growth, employment, and opportunities for veterans.
What advice you have for veterans looking to start a business?
Dedication and support – Starting a business is one of the most rewarding things you will do but, but you must understand that there will be many sacrifices. If you are transitioning after a particularly demanding deployment or assignment, you are very familiar with the long days and weekends that your start-up will require of you. This dedication is definitely a prerequisite. Similar to a deployment, having a solid support network is paramount to lessening the stress and even loneliness of starting a new business.
Who you surround yourself with is very important – it’s important to build a well-balanced team. This one notion is critical to ensuring you don’t overemphasize one particular area of your company. For example, many veterans are competent in a specific technical area but lack the balance and exposure of colleagues in business and/or operations. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, many veterans excel at team building and leadership but may lack the top talent they need in say, engineering or technology. You want to ensure that your operation is balanced to ensure you have a diversity of talent and people who can challenge and validate your ideas.
Get it down on paper – without a strong vision from the beginning, it is very easy to lose your way. Many veterans understand the value of planning and how crucial it is to success. In the beginning, it will feel like there is so much to do and that you can’t waste your time writing. Time will hopefully grant you the opportunities to self-correct along the way for your product or service, but it is very difficult to redirect a company’s values after your culture cements. Taking the time in the beginning to reflect on your company’s values and strategic planning will capture your vision and block out the noise of competing priorities.