Doing Better at Doing Good

Programs to integrate military veterans into NC economy proliferate

CorrespondentsNovember 23, 2013 

Hakeem Moore, a retired combat veteran, recently launched i-Suntari, a veterans service organization that trains and equips wounded warriors with the educational skills and capital resources to lead social enterprises focused on agribusiness.

COURTESY OF HAKEEM MOORE

North Carolina is about to inherit a resource that every state in the country covets – an influx of young, eager, well-trained workers.

As home to five military bases, a military ocean terminal and a U.S. Coast Guard base, our state already has the nation’s ninth-largest population of military veterans, with 770,000. About 160,000 of them call Charlotte home, and 145,000 live in the Triangle. Their numbers will soon surge with two wars wrapping up overseas and the military realigning its forces.

A new report from the N.C. Department of Commerce found that this year, about 11,500 service members with North Carolina mailing addresses will leave the military. Over the next three years, that number will climb to more than 20,000 annually. Of these veterans, 80 percent will be no older than 30, and 90 percent will be 40 or younger.

“By training, these veterans are logisticians and planners and supply chain managers. Those are the skills that make a successful business manager,” says Robert Rehder, director of the Veterans Business Outreach Center, a U.S. Small Business Administration initiative based at Fayetteville State University. “We’ve got a lot to work with.”

But to what extent will this potential be integrated into the state’s economy? In recent years, Rehder says, improved U.S. Department of Defense programs have helped military personnel better consider their career options before they leave the service – and becoming a small-business owner is as popular as ever.

Lack of funding, planning

Rehder testified two weeks ago before the U.S. Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship, making the case for greater investment in programs that help veterans launch businesses. Data stretching back to World War II, Rehder says, show that 40 percent of newly minted veterans will start their own companies. About 60 percent of those ventures – like all new businesses – will fail, often because of insufficient planning and funding.

Rehder, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran who later served as CEO of a small maritime shipping company, understands why.

“These are people who come from a situation where they are used to taking action all the time. They don’t have a lot of patience for sitting around,” Rehder says. “We have to slow them down and help them understand the elements of the business process.”

Then they can get to work.

Hakeem Moore, for example, is a retired combat veteran living with post-traumatic stress disorder. He brings more than 13 years of military service in supply chain management, operations management, executive training and leadership development for staff managers. Building on his experiences, he recently launched i-Suntari, a veterans service organization that trains and equips wounded warriors with the educational skills and capital resources to lead social enterprises focused on agribusiness. He has recently become a Forward Fellow with Bull City Forward (which Christopher co-founded) and is tapping into a broad network of support in the Triangle to help him build his enterprise and expand his impact.

Momentum building

Charlotte Bridge Home, meanwhile, specializes in finding jobs for veterans who would rather work for someone else. Launched just two years ago, the nonprofit has assembled a coalition of Charlotte area employers, from Fortune 500s to small businesses, that have expressed special interest in hiring veterans.

Charlotte Bridge Home’s services include assisting veterans with resumes and networking, and setting up interviews with hiring managers. The nonprofit advocates for policy changes, including higher education accessibility and affordability, recognizing that the three main paths veterans follow immediately after leaving the service are starting a business, entering the workforce or going to college.

Throughout the state, momentum is building for veterans. In Harnett County this month, a Veterans Treatment Court opened. Designed to help keep veterans who are struggling with substance abuse problems or post-traumatic stress disorder out of prison, the court is the first of its kind in the state. On the employment front, a new state law has simplified the process for qualified veterans to obtain commercial trucker licenses. Similar laws applying to other professions are under review.

It’s still early to measure the impact of much of this work. But with tens of thousands of veterans streaming into the state over the next few years, we won’t have to wait too long to find out what’s going well – and what needs to be done to unleash their talent fully.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin, a director at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership, blogs at www.messyquest.com. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

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