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Veteran Women Start Businesses at an Unprecedented Rate. Why Aren’t They More Successful?

VR Small is connecting other female veterans with the resources they need to grow their businesses.
VR Small is connecting other female veterans with the resources they need to grow their businesses.
Lucas Manfield
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When military veterans come home, many start businesses. Those businesses, from Walmart to FedEx, are some of the largest in the world. And they’re also almost exclusively started by men.

Only 3% of businesses led by female veterans have managed to hire an employee, according to research published by the National Women’s Business Council. It's a rate not only lower than their male counterparts but also significantly less than women-led businesses in general.

And yet, the number of businesses started by former servicewomen is skyrocketing. According to the latest data available, their numbers nearly quadrupled from 2007 to 2012. It’s the fastest-growing demographic. This raises the question: Why aren’t those businesses growing?

No one seems to know the answer. Not the multiple federal agencies tasked with researching the issue. Not the National Women’s Business Council. Not Veterans Affairs.

“There's a big lack of data. Just Google ‘women veteran-owned businesses,’ you pretty much get nothing,” said Anna Crockett, an analyst at the Dallas Fed.

Now, she’s partnering with VR Small to figure it out. Small is the founder, executive director and sole staff member of the new Veteran Women's Enterprise Center, which opened last year in East Oak Cliff. Its focus is on helping veteran women scale their businesses. Small is designing the survey while Crockett will summarize the results in a report to be released early next year.

It’s a multipurpose initiative. For Crockett and the Dallas Fed, it's an opportunity to shine a light on an underserved business community.

“I think it's easy to forget that they are our neighbors. They're our clients or customers. They work for us. They are our bosses. We want to put a face to those businesses,” Crockett said.

And for Small, the results will be used to tailor the center’s programs to the community’s needs. If clients need financing, she will connect them to bankers. If they need help with contracts, she’ll bring in lawyers.

Right now, the center holds events, offers a mentorship program and is helping a cohort get certification as veteran-owned businesses. Nearly 1,000 women have so far participated in one of the center’s programs. But Small has bigger plans. She’s opening up a co-working space, complete with ergonomic desks and free coffee and snacks, later this year.

Eventually, she wants to expand the model to centers across the nation.

But first, she needs to hook up the internet. Because of the center's location — the building used to be an armory before it was renovated by the VA — getting wireless through the walls has been a challenge. And then there’s the issue of funding.

So far, Small hasn’t been paid a dime. “I do it out of heart,” she said. Still, her savings are dwindling, and she’s been writing grant proposals to hire staff and eventually pay herself a salary.

Small's experiences echo those of her clients. She grew up a military brat. Her father was stationed in Colorado, Alaska and then Dallas, where she spent her formative years. When Small was 17, she joined the Navy with dreams of becoming an officer or a journalist.

Instead, a recruiter talked her into going to hospital corpsman school. She graduated with honors, served for five years and eventually made it to New York to work in finance and consulting. When she was laid off in 2015, she sold her condo, moved back to Dallas and put everything she had into starting the Enterprise Center in an effort to share the lessons she learned with other veterans.

So far, she’s collected a roster of high-profile allies. Jessica Flynn, CEO of a PR agency and a member of the National Women’s Business Council, came to the center in October for an event. She sang Small’s praises.

“The VWEC is focused on the right things, and they have an enthusiastic and visionary leader who doesn't take no for an answer,” Flynn said. 

Flynn's organization has long lobbied policymakers to support the work of centers like Small’s. There’s a lot of resources out there — “this whole mix of acronyms,” she said — but most people simply aren’t aware that they exist. “We need on-the-ground centers like the VWEC to help connect the dots for people.”

Anna Baker, manager of the Texas Veteran Commission's Entrepreneur Program said Small’s facility is the first of its kind in the Dallas area, and one of only a few in Texas that cater to this demographic. She said it’s badly needed, and explained some of the challenges facing these women as they go out to raise capital to grow their businesses.

Baker told the story of an investor speed-dating event attended by her business partner, a woman. As she went table to table, she kept hearing, “Honey, you need a rich uncle. You need to quit your job and live in your car.”

“She was a single mom with two kids in college,” Baker said.

Baker is helping to distribute Small’s survey across DFW, and she hopes the data will provide incentive for investors to step forward and help.

“Anybody sitting at the head of the conference table deciding who’s going to get money and who's not is going to make their decisions based on numbers and data,” she said.

For Small, it's about more than just helping other veterans succeed.

“We're not just building businesses. This is literally nation building.”

She explained: “When these community businesses are growing, what are we doing? We're building thriving communities — because they're going to give back to their school, to their churches, to their nonprofits.”

She lets out a sigh before going on.

“How do we miss that?”

If you are a woman veteran running a business or know someone who is, the online survey is available here.

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