After World War II, 20 percent of veterans created businesses after they left the service. Now, only four percent of veterans do so.
And that’s a shame, especially when so many qualified veterans have so much more to offer, especially as entrepreneurs.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
I spent over a decade as a recruiter for the Army, trying to help young men and women sign up for military service and realize their full potential. It was exactly what my recruiter did for me when I was a young man growing up in Flint, Michigan. But now that I’m out of the Army, I’ve made it my mission to help veterans understand their potential as entrepreneurs.
I understood at a young age the fear of leaving the comforts of my life to start something new. It’s a feeling that almost every person I grew up with in my hometown experienced. When I was young, you could name five or six auto plants in Flint. That’s where everyone worked; that’s where we were going to work. So when all the plants closed down — jobs moved overseas and across borders — there wasn’t much for us in the way of work. Where would we go? What would we do?
Because my town was crumbling, I started seeing lots of individuals joining the military. It’s an easy way out, I’ll admit. And I won’t lie in saying it’s not, for many, a decision based purely on finances. So when I was approached at the mall by an Army recruiter, I knew what was happening.
Most everyone who joins the military has contact with a recruiter at some point. Their job is to convince you to join. That’s it.
But the recruiter I met that day wasn’t like others. He told me what I could do with my life, and told me about my opportunities. It’s easy to pinpoint when you’re being sold something in a heavy-handed manner, like with a timeshare. He didn’t do that. He was honest, forthcoming and just laid out the facts.
I kept in contact with him, and when I was old enough to join the Army, I did exactly that.
Sure, my decision to join was driven by economic reasons, but it was also a chance to get out and provide myself with a fresh opportunity.
I didn’t recognize at the time that the military would change my life so much. The Army gave me insight into what would become my life’s mission: helping my fellow man. And I was finally in a position to help others. And though I didn’t have money to, say, donate to causes, I did have my own story of growing up in Flint and not knowing what to do after high school.
After five years in the Army, I was selected to become a recruiter. From then on, I could use my own story to help others who were just like me, back when I was a lost 15-year-old.
I went back home to Flint, the place I tried to escape. I went back to my high school, the place where people saw me as a knucklehead, and I met my old teachers — the ones who thought I wouldn’t amount to much — and I showed them how the Army had changed my life.
I saw myself in all those students there, and I was plain, simple and honest with them — just like my recruiter was with me.
But I didn’t stop at Flint. I also went to Washington D.C., Baltimore, San Antonio and Houston. I met with the poorest of the poor in the grimiest of neighborhoods, where drugs and violence were everywhere. I went to the western outskirts of Detroit, where there are almost no opportunities for kids, with the intent of helping people make a positive change in their environment. And they respected me for it.
At the same time, I had a litany of side hustles. I was a digital consultant, website creator and blogger. Wherever I found a way to make extra money, I did it. I had established enough of a side business where I wasn’t afraid of what would happen to me when I retired.
But before I retired, I began to realize that it wasn’t just young people who needed my help in recognizing their potential. My fellow soldiers were leaving the service at 30, 40 years of age, and had no clue what they wanted to do after they left.
Just like those young men and women who were fearful about what to do after high school, there were people I was serving with who had the same anxiety about what they could do after a lifetime in service.
I saw another opportunity to help. So I started the Military Influencer Conference, which brings together veterans, spouses and business leaders for opportunities to build their own businesses post-service.
My process hasn’t changed much. But instead of talking to 17-year-old kids about their opportunities, I’m now meeting with middle-aged men and women and helping them understand their potential.
I derive satisfaction from knowing that I might be helping people have a second chance in a new career, and to access opportunities they never knew they had.
Hopefully this is just the beginning. And, eventually, we can bring more veterans into building businesses. Just like me, they are not done serving yet.