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Celebrating National Veterans Small Business Week

Marine veteran Joe Padlo wanted to help other veterans find jobs and promote a veteran-focused workforce. The hot, dry climate of the Middle East motivated Army veteran Sherman Williams to try and find a better way to hydrate. Joe and Sherman, both registered warriors with Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP), turned their military knowledge and experience into successful entrepreneurial endeavors.

Businesses like Joe’s and Sherman’s are being celebrated Nov. 1-5, during National Veterans Small Business Week (NVSBW), which aims to increase support for veteran-owned businesses and make veteran entrepreneurs aware of resources available to them.

The Small Business Administration kicked off the National Veterans Small Business Week initiative eight years ago to connect and empower active-duty service members and veterans and military spouses, who own, or would like to own, a business.

“There’s a two-fold purpose,” Larry Stubblefield, associate administrator for the Office of Veterans Business Development at the U.S. Small Business Administration, said about NVSBW. “First of all, we want to honor and celebrate our close to two million veteran-owned small businesses. In addition to honoring and celebrating them, we want to introduce them to SBA resources, and some of our partners who can help them in their entrepreneurial journey.”

Stubblefield said veteran-owned businesses produce close to $1 trillion in sales annually and employ close to four million people. 

“It’s important to highlight veteran business owners and the important role they play in the economy and in local communities in terms of building wealth and serving the community,” Stubblefield said. 

Helping Vets Find Jobs

Joe was sitting in a bar one evening mulling over ways he could help his fellow veterans. He worked in staffing for a human resources department and would often get calls from fellow veterans asking for help in their job search, but that wasn’t part of his job. He couldn’t understand why these people who served and sacrificed for their country couldn’t find work. He felt bad about not being able to help them.

For six months, he tried to come up with an idea. What products could he offer? What services could he provide? That’s when it dawned on him. Everyone in the military knows how to clean. There’s no way around it. That was the beginning of what would become Veterans Elite Services, a commercial and residential cleaning and maintenance company. 

Joe began building his brand, and his veteran-focused business got a big boost in 2016 from a Jacksonville-based competition event. The “Small Business Breakthrough,” modeled after ABC’s “Shark Tank,” allows Northeast Florida-based entrepreneurs to present their business plan in front of executives from the Jacksonville Jaguars and Web.com, with the winner receiving a sponsorship with the Jaguars and a digital makeover from Web.com. Joe won the competition. 

“All six of the finalists were phenomenal businesses,” Padlo said. “Truly, the only reason I won, I think, is because I needed the most help.”

With that assistance, Joe grew the business, and, since the beginning, made veterans the cornerstone of his business model. He accessed his connections at WWP and other veterans service organizations to assist with staffing. He says it’s important to him that the veterans and military spouses who work for his company are paid a living wage, and he encourages upward mobility, even if it’s not with his company.

“The reason why the company started is to give these people opportunities, give these guys a path to success,” Joe said.

Joe is planning to franchise his business and help give more veterans the opportunity to become business owners. Not only does he hire veterans and military spouses for his business, but Joe also tries to contract with other veteran-based businesses whenever possible. 

“It would be easier for me, as my company grows, to just go with one of those big-name brands and not have to think about it, but then I'm taking away from my mission of not just employing veterans, but empowering veterans,” Joe said. “So, when I look at it, even externally, the people that I work with, I want them to either be military veterans or have a military veteran hiring strategy that is similar to my own. And I actually put a significant amount of effort into that.”

Beverage with a Purpose

Sherman relied on his perseverance and diligence, as well as his passion for his product, to get his business going. His Body Aqua business found its roots during his time in the service, as his 15-month deployment to Iraq, gave him the motivation to improve hydration. He knew the importance of staying hydrated in those conditions and believed there was a better way to do it. Sherman got to work doing research, learning about key vitamins and nutrients, and finding a company to develop his formula for what he calls a “beverage with a purpose.” 

After more than five years of research and development, Sherman began building his business and marketing it. Through his diligence and dedication, Body Aqua is now in 45 Walmart stores in Florida and Sherman has a deal to be in 101 Winn-Dixie locations soon. Finding that success wasn’t an easy process, and Sherman said his military background helped prepare him for the long road ahead.

“Being in transition, especially after serving, failure's not an option,” Sherman said. “I mean, there's no obstacle that we haven't faced and figured out a way to surpass it.” 

Sherman’s business acuity has also landed him a spot as a top-three finalist in the national StreetShares Foundation Military Entrepreneur Challenge. He will pitch his business at the Humble Alpha Veteran Empowerment Business Accelerator event on Nov. 7, in Houston, for the chance to win $50,000 in cash and prizes. Sherman encourages other veterans interested in opening a business to employ the “never give up” mindset they relied on in the military. 

“For those who have a dream, don't let anybody steal your joy or steal your dream,” he said. “You don’t want to say, when you get older, ‘I wish I had just tried.’ What’s the harm of trying?”

Resources for Veteran Entrepreneurs

Throughout National Veterans Small Business Week – and beyond – the SBA hosts virtual workshops and events to assist veteran entrepreneurs. The SBA also boasts 22 Veterans Business Outreach Centers around the country, serving as a “one-stop shop” for all the SBA's resources and programs.  

“A big ask from the veteran community is access to capital. Capital is king,” Stubblefield said. “We have a variety of counseling, training and mentoring programs as well.”

Stubblefield said the SBA is focused on getting service members and veterans “lender-ready,” and preparing them for presenting a business plan to banks and finding financial institutions that can best serve their needs. 

“Entrepreneurship is not a solo mission,” Stubblefield said. “There are resources to help you every step of the way in your entrepreneurial journey.”

One of those resources is the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF), a Syracuse University foundation focused on advancing the post-service lives of veterans and their families. 

IVMF, a community partner of WWP, provides innovative programs in career, vocations, and entrepreneurship education and training to veterans, active-duty service members and military families. 

“We have 11 in-demand entrepreneurship programs that meet veterans, or military-connected entrepreneurs, where they’re at on their entrepreneurial journey,” said Misty Fox, IVMF’s director of Small Business and Entrepreneurship. “That could mean whether they’re in ideation, startup or growth.”

IVMF was created by an Air Force veteran in 2007 and the foundation kicked off its efforts with an entrepreneurship bootcamp for veterans. Seventeen people attended. To date, the program has served 160,000 individuals. 

“The programming is extremely important, extremely thought out, but it's really the relationship,” Fox said about IVMF’s role with the veterans it serves. 

IVMF also invests in NVSBW by challenging people to “Shop Veteran” or support veteran-owned businesses by promoting it on social media. It also boasts veteran businesses with a continually growing online shopping guide, that allows veterans to add their business. 

Fox said the best advice she can give military-connected entrepreneurs is to take advantage of the numerous resources available to them.

“Leverage every resource you can,” she said. “Too often I hear veterans say they’re ‘resource-scared’ because they don’t want to take it from someone else. It’s built for you.”

Aside from numerous resources available, veteran entrepreneurs have other, perhaps more tangible, assets when it comes to starting a business. Thought processes and work ethics like Joe’s and Sherman’s can make veterans prime candidates to become successful business owners. 

“When we talk about a veteran, we're talking about somebody who is mission-focused, problem-solvers,” said Stubblefield, who retired from the Army in 2005. “Veterans are flexible, resilient, and team managers. You know veterans know how to take risks, and how to manage risks.”

Contact: — Paris Moulden, Public Relations, pmoulden@woundedwarriorproject.org, 904.570.7910

About Wounded Warrior Project

Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.