Why Women Veterans Have Become So Entrepreneurial

The number of companies owned by female veterans has nearly quadrupled in the past five years.

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From Inc. (source)

We already know that women business owners are driving the growth in small business, and that within that group, it’s women of color who are making the most progress.

But slice the data slightly differently, and you’ll find an unexpected trend: The group of business owners who are really putting stakes in the ground are women veterans. That’s right–women who have served in the armed forces and are now returning to civilian life to build businesses and jobs.

Between 2007 and 2012, according to preliminary data from the Survey of Business Owners, the number of businesses owned by women veterans increased by an astonishing 296 percent, to reach a total of 384,548 businesses, up from about 130,000. “The growth of veteran women entrepreneurship has been higher than any other segment of the entrepreneurship economy,” says Carla Harris, chair of the National Women’s Business Council.

During that same time period, by comparison, the number of businesses owned by male veterans actually decreased by 7 percent. And the total number of businesses, nationwide, grew by about 2 percent.

Part of the rise is no doubt due to the fact that the number of female veterans has increased dramatically in the past few years: In 2013, there were an estimated 2.2 million female veterans, compared with 1.5 million in 2009. Male and female veterans have also faced different challenges in finding civilian work. Changes in government contracting guidelines, and an awareness of those changes, has made it more attractive for women to own businesses; and there has been an increasing number of resources available to women and veterans who want to become entrepreneurs.

There’s also a caveat: Although the number of women veteran-owned businesses has obviously boomed, the total revenue garnered by those businesses is up just 26 percent during that same time frame. Yes, many of these businesses are young, but the relatively small increase in total receipts suggests that only a fraction of these companies are being built to grow. “We have to shift the focus to scaling these businesses,” says Amanda Brown, executive director of the NWBC. “Even if you are in a lifestyle business, there are ways to grow and scale that.”

Entrepreneurship by necessity

Perhaps the biggest factor encouraging women veterans to start their own companies has been their unusually high unemployment rates. While unemployment rates among veterans have generally been lower than those of the general population, this has not been the case among young women returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. According to data from Syracuse University, the overall female veteran unemployment rate from 2008 to 2012 was 11.1 percent, compared with 7.1 percent for other women. Among young female veterans, the numbers were way worse: In 2011, female veterans who were 20 to 24 years old had an unemployment rate of 35.4 percent.

Female veterans are more likely to have children to take care of than male veterans, says James Schmeling, co-founder of Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families, making it harder for them to find and hold down a job. Brown says female veterans may find it harder to translate their military experience to the civilian world.

Beth Graeme, the owner of Mechanicsville, Maryland-based Grambo Creative, didn’t initially have to worry too much about translating her military experience to the private sector: She found a job with a contractor, supporting the same type of ships she’d supported in the Navy. At the time, her husband was still in Afghanistan, also working as a contractor. But being an employee, and a de facto single parent, was tough on Graeme: “With a full household of kids, it was hard to be the only person here and manage everything and have a full-time job,” she says. “Being a female in an all-male shop, I kind of got these eyes on me when I had to take time off for child care purposes.”

Graeme didn’t think a part-time job would be much of an improvement, since she could hardly predict when her kids would need her. In 2012, she launched Grambo Creative, offering web design and photography services. Now, she says, “Whenever I need to make money, I make it.” The company has been a one-woman show until recently, when Graeme hired two people part time. She wants the business to grow–when her family is good and ready. Entrepreneurship has already provided an important benefit, says Graeme: “I needed to get out of a place where I felt like being a girl wasn’t accepted.”

The advantages of being women-owned

While the number of women-owned veteran businesses has jumped, there’s one category of businesses that has taken a dive: Those that are veteran-owned equally by men and women. In 2007, there were about 1.2 million veteran businesses that were equally owned, but by 2012 there were only about half that: 600,000, according to Schmeling. Where did the other 600,000 businesses go? Schmeling thinks that many of them changed their ownership structures, so that they became women-owned rather than equally owned. “One of the things we know about 50-50 owned firms is that 80 percent of them are husband-and-wife,” says Schmeling. “I think what we’re seeing is that as there are some advantages in contracting, and a rise in awareness of women-owned certifications from WBENC [Women’s Business Enterprise National Council] and a couple of others, some firms are changing from 50-50 to women-owned.”

Tabatha Turman, the owner and founder of government contractor IFAS, started her business by herself, and it remains 100 percent woman-owned. She has a wait-and-see attitude toward becoming certified as a woman-owned business, though, because she’s not sure what the advantages would be. Her veteran-owned status, she says, is quite helpful as a government contractor. So she encourages other women veterans to consider government contracting, and to build their firms for growth. When she first became an entrepreneur, she was serving accounting clients from her kitchen table, working part time. Then she attended a workshop on doing business with the government, and the person who sat next to her gave Turman her first subcontract as a consultant. That was in 2007; Turman’s IFAS, which provides accounting and financial services to the government, now has about 100 employees and about $10 million in revenue.

Turman says she often meets other women veterans who want to start businesses. When she asks them what they did in the military, she says, “They had these huge jobs.” But she finds that the businesses they often want to start are less ambitious, which infuriates Turman. If it’s not ambitious, or if it’s just for fun, she says, it’s a hobby. The alternative is quite different: “You are on the cusp of something brilliant if you just go that extra mile,” Turman says.

There’s also been a surge in initiatives designed to encourage both women and veterans to become entrepreneurs. Syracuse University’s boot camp for veteran entrepreneurs with disabilities is expanding to other campuses, and Bunker Labs, an incubator for veteran-owned businesses, now has seven locations. Techstars runs a program for veterans. WEBNC has an annual conference specific to women veterans; Count Me In runs the Women Veteran Entrepreneur Corps; there’s also Women as Veteran Entrepreneurs. Programs such as the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Patriot Express helped veterans fund their businesses, and also raised awareness about entrepreneurship among veterans who didn’t necessarily seek funding.

Kristina Guerrero says it was just one of those programs, Syracuse University’s V-WISE (Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship), that provided crucial funding for her company TurboPup, which makes high-energy meal replacement bars for dogs. She won a $25,000 grant from V-WISE, and then went on to win a $100,000 investment from Daymond John in a January episode of Shark Tank. She says being on Shark Tank changed her life, and not just because of the money: “The producers are demonstrating how veterans have something unique to bring to the entrepreneurial table, and I love that they’re highlighting that.” She says TurboPup will launch in a major retailer, with 700 outlets, early in 2016.

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