Accountability. Discipline. Perseverance. By all accounts, these are the qualities that are essential for survival in the military. For women, who make up just 15 percent of active-duty soldiers, these qualities are indispensable if they want to thrive in a male-driven environment. And as female troops return from duty and settle into civilian life, they’re discovering that these skills are particularly transferable to one area: entrepreneurship.
According to a recent survey of female veteran business owners, 55 percent credit their entrepreneurial skills and leadership ability to their military experience. Yet, the transition from battlefield to business owner isn’t always easy, which is why last fall, Nell Merlino — founder of Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence (and also, for those who are keeping score, of Take Your Daughter To Work Day) — launched the Women Veteran Entrepreneur Corps (WVEC).
“They’re coming out of a situation where they’re 15 percent of a male force. They’ve been trying to fit in, not draw attention to themselves, and the exact opposite has to be true to be a business owner,” Merlino said of what WVEC helps teach the entrepreneurs. “Permission to stand out.”
WVEC, which launched in October 2012, is a business growth initiative that is a part of Merlino’s Count Me In organization. It consists of semi-annual conferences and Pitch Parties (which help business owners perfect their business’ elevator pitch) for female veterans and/or spouses of veterans who own a business. At each conference is a Pitch Competition, and winners of the competition receive entry into Count Me In’s Business Accelerator Program (a nine-month coaching program that helps entrepreneurs take their business to the next level). While any vet can attend the conferences and use WVEC’s online resources, the competitions are only open to businesses that have been open for at least one year and have a revenue of at least $50,000.
“We see how much they have to offer the business community in terms of their focus and discipline,” Merlino said, noting that the unemployment rate is often higher for female vets than male vets, which is one of the reasons she was particularly moved to help this demographic.
For their part, the vets are grateful for the help.
“There’s something very powerful about someone else believing in your business and that’s why WVEC is so important,” said Angela Cody, a former major in the Air Force and founder of Major Mom, a professional organizing service. With Merlino’s encouragement, Cody was able to have her best-selling month in eight years of business. She says the “no excuses” attitude of the Business Accelerator Program is similar to that of the military itself.
“In the military…you have a mission, you have a deadline, and you get it done,” Cody said. “The Business Accelerator Program, there’s no doubt in my mind that they will hold me accountable to [my] goals. Excuses are not going to be tolerated. That’s great. That’s how you get your business to the next level.”
Ruth Christopherson, a retired Navy Captain and the founder of a strategic consulting service called StratLynx, sees a different benefit to participating in WVEC.
“In military as a female, there’s a reluctance to ask for help. If women ask for help, [they think] they might be perceived as not being good enough… so you don’t ask for help when maybe you should,” Christopherson said. “With WVEC, I absolutely feel like if I need help, they’re expecting me to ask for help because they genuinely want me to be successful.”
Cody and Christopherson both emphasized their gratitude and admiration for Merlino and the other civilian entrepreneur mentors of WVEC, yet the admiration is entirely mutual.
“I read these things as a civilian and I think, ‘oh my god how did they do this stuff?’ They’ve done extraordinary things,” Merlino said. “They’ve had experiences that a lot of women don’t. They’ve done things that, if they can apply it to their own business, I have no doubt in my mind that they can be very successful.”