The First Task After War Should Be Fostering Veteran Innovators And Entrepreneurs

Sgt. Melissa Wenger

“What our service men and women want, more than anything else, is the assurance of satisfactory employment upon their return to civil life. … The goal after the war should be the maximum utilization of our human and material resources.”

Even though these words were spoken by President Franklin Roosevelt to Congress back in 1943, they continue to resonate these many decades later. After more than 13 years of continuous conflict, our country is again in the process of bringing home a generation of men and women who have served our nation in uniform. And, just as in the aftermath of World War II, our nation must again join forces to receive and welcome home this most recent cohort of veterans.

Motivations to serve are often diverse and unique to each individual service member and his or her own family. Just as it is often a personal and life-changing decision to choose to serve, it is more often than not a personal and life-changing decision to leave the military. So too should this be personal for the rest of us, because as citizens in a democracy, we all have a role to play: the government, the private sector, and the nonprofit sector. We are all --- you and me and everyone at your kitchen table or in your boardroom --- responsible for the successful transition of our service members.  Anything less than a wholehearted commitment to the creation of an infrastructure of opportunity for our veterans --- from all segments of our society --- is unworthy of our all-volunteer force.

I am currently the head of First Data’s military and veterans affairs initiative called First Data Salutes, an innovative, company-wide effort to make First Data an employer-of-choice for veterans and military spouses, as well as a leading provider of comprehensive business solutions for veteran-owned businesses. Though, I do think most civilians might consider my journey to my current position as a non-traditional career progression. When I left the military, I had one of those “best-case scenarios” that is talked about in transition assistance program classes. Married to a service member and armed with G.I. Bill benefits, I was able to transition with relative ease, earning my Ph.D. and co-founding the national nonprofit military family organization, Blue Star Families. That’s the storybook version, of course.

The less-polished version would reveal an abundance of two steps forward, one step back maneuvers and challenges that presented themselves as insurmountable barriers at the time. The truth is I pursued higher education because I couldn’t find a job that appreciated my family’s penchant for constantly changing duty stations, or the deployment’s demands upon my schedule. Moreover, I helped to start a nonprofit because I couldn’t find local resources to assist my military family and felt so alone that I turned to the online community for help.

What I learned the hard way and what I like to share about my transition experience is that it illustrates there is no single path to post-military success. Higher education and post-graduate educations are important, especially given the extraordinary opportunity provided by the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, but they aren’t the only avenues. The majority of our transitioning service members will be looking for employment, either on Main Street, or in a Fortune 500 company like First Data, a global leader in payment technology and service solutions. And for those in the private sector, more must be done to ensure that leaders and managers and recruiters have vision enough to appreciate and leverage the exodus of human capital from our military ranks.

And yet, other veterans will choose an even different path. For many, the pull of entrepreneurship will drive them to strike out on their own. In fact, one in four transitioning service members expresses an interest in starting a small business as a second career. With the right support, these men and women will disrupt conventional thinking, innovate, and help create solutions for the economy and the future of our country.

We know that opportunity favors the bold. The skillsets and dynamic thoughtfulness developed through military training and mission execution can now be leveraged in businesses, large and small, along main streets, in corporate supply chains, and in board rooms, all across America. And, First Data is committed to providing veteran business owners with every opportunity to grow their businesses and to become an integral part of the society in which they live and served.

Through public-private collaboration, we are excited to play an active role in building an infrastructure of opportunity for a generation of veterans who are now becoming our country’s next great innovators and entrepreneurs. On Feb. 17, we announced a partnership with the Institute of Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, a seven-year, $7 million commitment to fund education, research, training, and opportunities for transitioning service members, veterans, and their families entering the business community.

The business case is in the numbers; about 13% of all small businesses in the U.S. are owned by veterans, even though veterans of all generations represent only 6% of the U.S. population. These veteran-owned businesses generate annual sales of more than $1.2 trillion annually. The companies who invest resources to help them start their businesses, grow their businesses, and unlock a lifetime of achievement aren’t just doing the “right thing,” they are doing the “smart thing” for their own businesses, and it will pay dividends. In close partnership with IVMF, we will collectively educate, train, and prepare the next generation of veteran entrepreneurs to serve our country as business and community leaders by creating the first of its kind Center of Excellence for Veteran Owned Businesses. The center will be a world-class, virtual community connecting veteran and military family business owners from across the country with the necessary resources for business growth.

As Roosevelt said over 70 years ago, the care of our servicemen and women and their families should become our nation’s first task. And, just like after World War II, we all have a role to play. I am excited about First Data’s role in supporting the growth of vital markets of our economy and positively impacting communities across the country. Our commitment to hiring veterans and helping veterans grow their businesses isn’t just the right thing to do --- it’s good business.

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