Battle Tested, Not Broken: Why veterans excel as entrepreneurs

“The media narrative around PTSD and addiction among veterans has fostered the assumption that we’re broken — that we can’t be successful.”

Melissa Boatwright is, among many things, a veteran. After nearly two decades in Public Affairs for the Air Force and Air Force Reserves in Germany, South Korea, Iraq, and other places, she’s now a Chief of Staff for Technology at Thomson Reuters. She’s what you might call, well, a successful veteran. And it turns out she’s not alone.

Telling the untold story of veteran success

A recent study showed that veterans turn to entrepreneurship at a greater rate than the rest of the population — and they’re successful at it, too. Nine percent of all businesses in the U.S. are veteran-owned, overseeing 5.8 million employees and offering $210 billion in annual payroll. Seventy-eight percent of them register annual sales of over $100K, and 38% of them have annual sales over $500K.

It’s no coincidence that veterans are finding success in post-service life either, says Boatwright. “From a very early stage, we’re really taught that there are no excuses. Your ability to succeed and accomplish your mission is on you. This is really what the entrepreneurial spirit is all about,” she says. “When you’re an entrepreneur, you have to be all in to owning the outcome.”

And this, Boatwright believes, is an equally important part of the narrative.

“It’s important to talk about the big scary issues. But it’s also a dangerously one-sided story to tell. It paints a bleak picture for those who are living with, working with, and hiring veterans,” says Boatwright. “And it doesn’t instill a lot of hope in modern-day service members who are coming out of their military journeys and seeing what’s possible for them. For the vast majority of us, life after the military is pretty darn good.”

After years of “obsessing” about the predominant media narrative around veterans, Boatwright decided it was time to act — to tell the untold stories and challenge the way the public tends to see veterans.

The result is Battle Tested, a speaker series that breaks down stereotypes by showcasing the diversity of veterans and sharing their stories of transition, triumph, and entrepreneurial spirit. The inaugural event brings together veterans with a surprising range of experiences, including entrepreneurs, filmmakers, teachers, consultants, advocates, and parents.

Challenging what it means to be a veteran and an entrepreneur

The most common stereotypes that the Battle Tested speakers have encountered are that all veterans must have served in combat; that they’re rigid and uncreative; that they’re all damaged from PTSD and can’t go on to have productive lives post-service; and that the only veterans worth hiring are officers — and event then, only in the defense or government sectors.

Needless to say, these assumptions are damaging. They prevent extremely capable and qualified veterans from accessing job opportunities, while robbing organizations of a highly skilled and mission-driven workforce. And of course, they prevent us from seeing veterans who may not fit into traditional work models — yet piece together extremely entrepreneurial careers — as true entrepreneurs.

Zephrine Hanson — a mother, autism advocate, and veteran military photographer who’s part of Battle Tested — knows the reality of this all too well.

Integrating back into the civilian workforce wasn’t easy for her, as is often the case for long-serving veterans. She tried going back to school and giving her photography career another go. But somehow, it wasn’t the same. It was another world.

So Hanson took time off to care for herself (she was recovering from PTSD) and eventually, for her three children with autism. During that time, she found that her skills from the military resurfaced in the most surprising and useful ways.

“It turns out I understand red tape… I understand paperwork and legal forms,” says Hanson. “I knew exactly how to apply for state programs to get my kids the benefits they needed when they needed them. And I realized I could help less fortunate families do the same.”

These days Hanson is busy as an autism advocate who helps families navigate the complex system of state programs and benefits for kids with autism. She’s also an aspiring entrepreneur who’s working on launching a line of organic wellness products.

Similarly, Chris Eder — a veteran Combat Correspondent who served for 23 years and a registered yoga instructor — found retiring from the military exceedingly difficult at first. This was compounded by his own health issues and his son’s special needs.

So Eder turned to a combination of entrepreneurship, meditation, and good old-fashioned studying to build a new career for himself (he’s studying to become a full stack web developer).

In particular, Eder realized that his passion for yoga and meditation weren’t just a way for him to stay healthy — they offered a way for him to build a business and help his fellow veterans along the way. “I’m a firm believer that if it weren’t for my meditation and yoga practice, I would be a statistic today,” says Eder.

Today, Eder runs his social business Mala for Vets, which sells meditation beads to raise money for non-profits like Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans and the Give Back Yoga Foundation.

“I have zero training in business,” says Eder. “But what I lack in business savvy, I make up tenfold in my ability to complete a mission and in my overall curiosity.”

At the end of the day, these veterans embody the entrepreneurial spirit, even if they challenge traditional definitions. They’ve overcome obstacles, persevered through long periods of adversity, used creative problem-solving to build lives and businesses, and come out wiser and stronger on the other side.

“They’re just resilient and resourceful people who are committed to what they’re doing,” says Boatwright.

Battle Tested at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center

Join us on November 11th 2015, Veterans Day, at 3pm at 505 Howard St. in San Francisco for Battle Tested Veterans @theCenter. This event, sponsored by The Honor Foundation, Thomson Reuters, and the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, will showcase extraordinary tales of transition and triumph from veterans who found a new calling after leaving the armed forces. Come challenge your own notions of what it means to be a veteran and entrepreneur. We look forward to seeing you @theCenter.

The Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center is a San Francisco-based non-profit that educates, innovates, and connects current and aspiring entrepreneurs. We provide access to quality resources, including mentors, training, and networking.

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