Helping Our Nation's Veterans

Tuesday - 11/11/2008, 11:42am EST

It's Veterans Day, and lots of people are honoring the service of our veterans and service disabled military members. I honor them also. But now would be a great time to move past the rhetoric and put some real teeth into our efforts to help veterans.

Some in Congress are fixated on mandatory hiring quotas for veterans that foster dependency and entitlement. That's the wrong way to go. We can do a lot better by helping our nation's veterans seize the full measure of the American dream by encouraging their entrepreneurial energies, to start and run their own businesses.

The military is a rather remarkable, if unknown, incubator of entrepreneurship. Veterans have founded thousands of companies that have helped to build the very foundations of our nation. Fred Smith, the founder of FEDEX, served in the Marine Corps and gained first-hand experience in large scale logistics.

Irvine Robbins, the founder of Baskin-Robbins ice cream, set up his first store after serving as a Sergeant in the Army. Earl Graves, who founded Black Enterprise magazine and also served as the first black CEO of Pepsi Cola, gained leadership skills in the Army as a Green Beret.

Want to know where the first Disney cartoons ever appeared? In France, during WWI, on a Red Cross ambulance driven by a young Walt Disney, after his application to join the Army was rejected because he was only 16.

There are thousands of other such stories, and America can boast millions of companies started and run by former military members.

One of the reasons why so many successful companies were founded by former military members may be because the military offered opportunities to gain leadership skills, practice discipline, and become results oriented. In short, our military is a natural hothouse for the skills necessary to start a business. The slogan "overcome, adapt, improvise" could be the motto of almost any entrepreneur. And if we are wise, for the good of our nation, we will encourage our servicemen and women to build upon these learned skills.

With a little effort, we could encourage more of our veterans and service members to form their own companies and fully embrace the American dream. Many already have the natural talent, determination to succeed, ability to sacrifice, and drive required. What they need now is encouragement and a helping hand to get their business ideas operational. Sure, the government can do, and is doing, some of this, but these efforts now need to be better coordinated.

All the ingredients for a successful effort already exist: SBA provides easy to obtain start-up loans targeted solely for veterans, Department of Commerce's MBDA hosts effective conferences across the nation, SCORE (the Society for Retired Executives) exists for the sole purpose of assisting fledgling entrepreneurs with the know-how to get businesses started. Thanks to some hard work, GSA has retooled and made it possible to get a GSA Schedule in 30 days, and now has a Service Disabled Veterans GWAC aimed squarely at helping veteran and service disabled entrepreneurs move their small businesses forward. And, the Veterans Administration has the largest database (VIP) of Veteran entrepreneurs at their fingertips.

What is missing is the leadership to get these puzzle-pieces together, to create a systematized, coordinated approach that would turn a veteran's dreams into reality. Currently, extensive comments has been provided to OMB in response to the proposed changes to the proposed rule (48 CFR) for the Department of Veteran Affairs. These recommendations need to be acted upon quickly.

Agencies should be required to use the VA's VIP database when first conducting market research and identifying veteran businesses capable of meeting agency requirements. The Mentor-protégé program needs to be more rigorous. Mentors should not be "excused" from the requirement to include a subcontracting plan for its large federal opportunities, just because it cites membership in the VA Mentor-Protégé program. Furthermore, mentor-protégé programs should be required to report sub-contracting dollars on a quarterly basis.

And, lastly, in the event of the untimely death of the service disabled veteran business owner, allow the surviving spouse a grace period of up to two years to exit the program. This grace period allows the spouse the opportunity to protect the business from immediate devaluation, to liquidate the business in a timely manner and to protect the business' employees until the transition is complete.

On the other hand, there also needs to be tougher enforcement of the existing rules. If any business deliberately misrepresents its ownership for the purpose of registering as a Vets business, that business should be debarred for a minimum of 5 years. Service disabled and veteran businesses also need to perform 51% of the work or face tough penalties.