At a small gathering, I recently asserted to an audience of both veterans and civilians that veterans make exceptional business entrepreneurs. The fellow vets in the room nodded in agreement — I was only stating what they already knew — and most of the civilians gave very polite responses of encouragement. Later that evening though, a gentleman pulled me aside and inquired in a soft tone, “My understanding is that soldiers just take orders. How can you be an entrepreneur if you need someone to tell you what to do?”
As a former Army armor officer, I initially trained my men in the muddy fields of Fort Knox, Kentucky, to fight a tank war against T-72s. But the world changed dramatically after Sept. 11, and instead of classic tanks, we found ourselves facing an insurgency along the streets of Iraq. As service members tend to do, we banded together and quickly adapted to the new environment. We improvised amid the daily challenges. Despite the constant uncertainty of an unpredictable battlefield, my soldiers and I were determined to embrace the ambiguity and search for innovative ways to save lives and complete missions.
Looking back on it, some of the greatest examples of entrepreneurship I have ever known came from the scores of junior officers, noncommissioned officers, and enlisted service members who made daily independent, real-world decisions — both tactical and strategic — in the fluid environments of Iraq and Afghanistan, among other places.
And now, after more than a dozen years of commitment to the mission, these men and women are leaving the military and looking for new opportunities. They are arriving on our college campuses and Fortune 500 companies looking for new ways to lead and innovate, to leverage their experiences and skills in a different way. Even more, based on research from the U.S. Small Business Administration, we know that nearly one-third of these veterans will take the leap and start their own business.
But, as I know personally, veterans also thrive in teams. “Vets need to be part of a team,” Walter Bridgers of the Harlem Vet Center said to me recently. “They can’t survive when they are just on their own.” Despite the grit, determination, adaptability, and vision a veteran possesses independently, he or she also needs the infrastructure, a team if you will, to make it all possible. They need good partners and collaborators to help them launch their idea into business; they need high-quality education and a supportive community to grow and scale. And yet, most small businesses begin with a lone entrepreneur, and that level of isolation can impact a veteran’s chance for success.
At MOVE Systems, a veteran-led business and provider of clean energy solutions for the mobile food industry, we have tried to create a small infrastructure to ensure that our entrepreneurs are supported by a broader network as they launch their mobile restaurant business. We are committed to making the “food cart of the future” environmentally friendly, safe, clean, and beautiful so that food vendors can focus on their core business — serving up a unique menu of delicious cuisine — rather than managing their vehicle platform.
Through a series of auxiliary revenue opportunities, we were able to provide our first 100 carts to disabled veterans in New York City at no cost to the entrepreneur. Our group of vets includes everyone from a young Marine recently returned from Afghanistan paying his way through New York University to a 92-year-old World War II veteran who stormed the beaches of Normandy.
Through an equity and technology partnership with First Data, MOVE Systems aims to the shepherd the mobile food cart industry into the 21st century. Our vendors can now take their operations to the next level by using data analytics to enhance their business and drive additional revenue. Even still, we realize that even a free food cart is not enough to ensure that these small business owners thrive on the streets of New York City. With the Institute for Veteran and Military Families, we have arranged for an entrepreneurial boot camp in which professors from Syracuse University and Cornell University will provide business training that covers both best practices in business and industry-specific advice on how to successfully operate a food vending business.
We have made every effort to create a community atmosphere for our food vendors. Just like in the military, we want each independent vendor to be able turn to other members of the MOVE Systems community for advice, to combine resources, and to come together as a single voice to speak to various community leaders and government officials. In addition, these vendors will have the full support of the Coalition for Veteran Owned Business, a first of its kind, national initiative led by some of nation’s premier companies, government agencies, and nonprofits.
Anytime my soldiers and I patrolled the streets of Iraq, we did it as a cohesive unit. And when things became difficult, we banded even closer together and looked for innovative ways to overcome what seemed like insurmountable odds.
As nearly one million service members are set to transition out of the military and into our communities over the next five years, these men and woman will look for new opportunities to continue to lead, innovate, and launch successful businesses. And now, with partners like First Data, IVMF, and the coalition, I am confident that these future veteran entrepreneurs won’t ever have to do it alone.