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Witness Testimony of Mr. Walter G. Blackwell, National Veterans Business Development Corporation, President/Chief Executive Officer, The Veterans Corporation

Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, and distinguished members of the Subcommittee, good afternoon and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to testify before you today.  My name is Walter G. Blackwell; I am the President and CEO of The Veterans Corporation and a Navy Veteran.

Today you have asked us to present our views on Veterans Entrepreneurship and Self Employment.  As the only federally chartered 501 (c) (3) whose mission is to help Veterans start or grow their own business, we would like to share with you today what we view as the biggest obstacles that Veteran entrepreneurs face and what programs we have created to enable Veterans, Service-Disabled Veterans, members of the Guard and Reserve as well as their family members to start, stay and succeed in business. 

The Veterans Corporation is positioned to assist all of our nation’s Veterans.  The business needs of Veterans returning from the current conflict are really no different from the needs of Veteran entrepreneurs from past conflicts; however, it is clear that this generation of Veterans is more technologically savvy than even those who returned from Desert Storm in 1991.  They have the opportunity to decide how they want to spend the rest of their lives, and roughly 15 percent of these Veterans—maybe more—will decide they want to become Entrepreneurs.  These Veterans have seen the world.  They know about hard work and grueling hours.  They are returning home to be with their families and start their own businesses to support themselves and their communities.

Since 2001, more than 1.4 million American service members have served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Approximately 410,000 of these troops were National Guardsmen and Reservists.  As of April 5, 2007, about 26,000 troops were serving in Afghanistan and 154,000 troops were serving in Iraq.  The force currently in Iraq or deploying in the next few months represents half of the Army’s combat brigades. 

At least 420,000 troops have deployed more than once, including 170,000 Army soldiers, 169,000 Marines, and 84,000 National Guardsmen and Reservists.  As many as nine National Guard combat brigades will be sent on their second combat tour this year. More than 600,000 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans have left the military and are now eligible for VA care. 

These Veterans, like Veteran entrepreneurs from all generations, have three critical business needs:

  • Access to Capital
  • Bonding
  • Education through coursework, mentoring and counseling

In response, TVC has developed comprehensive programs; face-to-face, by telephone or online, to directly address and fulfill those needs in Veteran entrepreneurs nationwide. Many of these programs are the result of valuable partnerships with private sector organizations.  Madam Chairwoman, TVC’s status as a 501(c) (3) organization has allowed us to form important public/private partnership relationships, which provide significant assistance to our Veterans.

These overarching programs coupled with traditional face-to-face mentoring and counseling delivered directly through TVC’s staff and three Hub locations in St. Louis, Missouri, Flint, Michigan and Boston, Massachusetts form a strong base in supporting our Veterans whether they are in rural or urban environments and even if they are a current business owner and are serving overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Access to Capital 

From start-up businesses to established businesses looking to expand, The Veterans Corporation understands that financing is an essential need for any business owner.  In fact, it is the number one question we receive from our members.  To address the issue, TVC and the National Economic Opportunity Fund (NEOF) have created a public/private partnership that provides access to capital for Veterans and Service Disabled Veterans beyond the funding capability of the Small Business Administration. 

The core of TVC’s Access to Capital program is building and maintaining a set of relationships with lenders such as ACCION USA and other lending institutions.  The spirit of the program is borrowed from the military:  NEOF has pledged to “leave no Veteran entrepreneur behind.”  The theory is simple, when someone asks for help, you help them, whether its reviewing their business plan, talking to a bank for them, or just giving them friendly advice, guidance and encouragement.  The most important thing, though, is not to give up on anyone. 

Let me give you a couple of examples of two Service-Disabled Veterans currently taking advantage of the Access to Capital Program:

David Barker is an Army Reservist currently in San Diego, CA, where he is recovering from injuries sustained while fighting in Iraq on June 11, 2005.  His goal, when he leaves the military, is to return to his hometown and run a custom paint operation.  David’s hometown of El Paso, Illinois, located more than two hours from Chicago, is the quintessential American small town and the place where David plans to run his own business.  After a few conversations between TVC and David, it was clear he needed capital in order to make his business dreams come true, so Jim Mingey headed out to El Paso to help. Rather than provide the impersonal service that has become too common in business nowadays, Jim wanted to meet Mr. Barker first hand in order to provide the best service possible.  Jim met with David and his family to discuss his business plan and financial needs.  David estimated that he needs approximately $40,000 for the building and $225,000 for two years of salaries and expenses.  Jim walked the family through the steps to securing a loan, and David expects to be back in El Paso early this summer to achieve his goal and start his own business.  TVC and NEOF will continue to assist David and his family over the next few years as his business needs evolve. 

Dawn Halfaker is a 2001 West Point graduate and an all-American basketball player and soldier. In Iraq, on June 19, 2004, a rocket-propelled grenade was shot into the armored Humvee carrying Dawn, leaving her badly wounded and causing her to lose her right arm.  Following recovery from her wounds, Dawn set up Halfaker and Associates, LLC.  Her company focuses on mission support for the War on Terrorism in the areas of Homeland Security, Emergency Management, Physical Security, Force Protection/Anti-Terrorism, Intelligence and Border Security.  Dawn’s strong background has been a tremendous asset to her business, but she needed financial assistance and strategic financial advice.  Through TVC, Dawn began working with Jim Mingey, who is providing her with the financial insight and counseling she needs.  TVC will continue to support and mentor this Veteran and her business.

 Access to Bonding

 If you are a Veteran contractor or subcontractor seeking to do business with the state or federal government, the ability to obtain a surety bond is essential.

 In partnership with the Surety and Fidelity Association of America (SFAA), TVC has a fifty state program where Veterans can participate in a bonding education curriculum and a three step fully mentored process to secure the bonding they need on government contracts. Bonding is especially critical to those Service-Disabled Veteran Entrepreneurs who wish to contract with the federal government, and, if the 3% goal mandated by the President’s Executive Order is to be achieved, this program must support as many eligible Veterans as possible.

 John McGreevy, the President and Owner of Freeport Technologies in Herndon, Virginia, is one example of a Service-Disabled Veteran owned company that TVC is working with to obtain the bonding critical to ensuring his business flourishes. 

Freeport Technologies specializes in audio/visual installation in conference and situation rooms located throughout different government agency buildings.  Recently, Freeport Technologies secured a number of government contracts and are looking to be pre-approved for $2 million in surety bonding to do the work.  Through TVC’s partnership with SFAA, John McGreevy is working with local surety bond producer John Hughes of Construction Bonds Inc. in Dunn Loring, Virginia and is now beginning to understand the bonding process and what it takes to be bonded for $2 million.  We’re happy to report that John Hughes has successfully prepared Freeport Technologies to be eligible for a smaller bond worth $800,000 needed for a GSA contract.   

TVC’s Hubs – St. Louis, Flint and Boston

For Veterans who prefer a face-to-face learning experience, TVC staff and its sites in Boston, Massachusetts, St. Louis, Missouri and Flint, Michigan offer, counseling, seminars, workshops and multi-week programs to assist in starting or growing your small business. 

An example of the work our hubs do is found below in a story of Harrison, Michigan residents Billy and Terry Brown:

When VetBizCentral (our Flint, Michigan CBO) called Terry, she fought back tears when she answered the phone.  The normally upbeat resident of Harrison, Michigan feels as if the world sits on her shoulders as she tries to keep her family business, Timberlane Cleaners, operating.  Her son, Billy, deployed to Iraq last July with the 144th M.P. unit from Owosso, Michigan. Billy was the key employee at the family-owned business, and his absence has left a huge void.  To make things worse, Terry’s husband, Russell, suffered a stroke, and there have been multiple equipment failures at the family-owned Laundromat and dry cleaner. “Billy was vital to the business,” Terry said to Ed Ronders, the director of TVC’s CBO. “He’s due to come home on leave this summer, but I don’t know if we can make it,” she said, fighting back the tears. “I’ve contacted Senator Levin’s office and Senator Debbie Stabenow’s office. We need help.”  TVC is working hard to provide the help that Terry and Billy need to keep their business up and running.  Terry has just started working with VetBizCentral and is researching the possibility of an SBA Military Reservist Economic Injury Disaster Loan along with other bridge loan possibilities.

TVC is happy to announce that in addition to the annual operational financial support we provide to each of our three Hubs in the form of non-competitive grants and the 200 scholarships to Boots2Business for their local use, TVC will be providing a special grant of $10,000 to the St. Louis Hub to support the administrative costs associated with their new program “Boot Strap”.  The first session will be conducted in June of this year and will educate 20 Veterans interested in starting a business.  Each Veteran will be required to participate in the Kauffman entrepreneurial education program and prepare a business case.  At the completion of the Boot Strap program, 15 company programs will each receive $5,000 in business start-up funding.  Funding for these start-up grants is through St. Louis’ Board of Directors.  Boot Strap is a yet another great way for Veterans to experience a mentored entrepreneurial educational and have the ability to obtain start-up funding.

Small Business Development Centers

TVC has signed an MOU with the Association of Small Business Development Centers (ASBDC) to create a national TVC/ASBDC strategic alliance with the goal of working cooperatively to enhance outreach and services to Veterans through both organizations.  Veterans will be able to visit nearly 1000 local SBDC service Centers for free, face-to-face business consulting and low cost training.  

Owner-Operator Class – Becoming an independent owner operator

Today there are excellent opportunities for Veterans in over-the-road transportation.  TVC, Metropolitan Community College-Blue River, and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) have formed a partnership to provide Veterans and Service-Disabled Veterans with entrepreneurial training through a three-day seminar designed to assist Veterans seeking to become owner-operators. The seminar provides information about the process of becoming an owner-operator, helps potential owner-operators overcome challenges they face, and helps Veterans form reasonable expectations about being an owner-operator.  The seminar is taught by experts in each field through OOIDA’s experienced staff.  Earlier this year we conducted the first seminar.  With the success of this event, a second seminar is planned for the fall of 2007.

In addition to the programs I have already described, TVC is currently providing Veterans with a wide range of tools and resources to match their specific business needs and goals directly through TVC’s web portal.  These programs are designed to quickly address Veteran business questions and issues in an environment where Veterans and their family members, particularly those returning from the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are increasingly becoming more technologically savvy.  The home page is formatted with direct links to both TVC offerings and important partner links with agency ex-officio members, including VA’s Center for Veteran Enterprise, the SBA, DoD and other key providers of service.

Business Matchmaking

Through a partnership with SMA Global, a Veteran owned and operated business, TVC is now a co-sponsor of their series of Business Matchmaking conducted in concert with SCORE.  There are four events conducted during each calendar year with an additional two events delivered to OSDBU and the Department of Energy.  The first two events for 2007 have been held in Atlanta and Maryland.  The event draws more than 1,000 companies seeking contracts with the 160 plus contracting sources in attendance.  In Atlanta 2,200 interview sessions were conducted.  Of the 1,000 companies 200 were owned by Veterans and Service-Disabled Veterans.  Our partnership with SMA Global will bring TVC closer to Veteran and Service Disabled Veteran companies that have participated over the past three years and allow TVC to offer services quickly and directly to companies ready to activate their business plans.

Boots 2 Business – Transitional Skills for Success

Boots2Business www.boots2business.com is a comprehensive on-line resource, providing education and workplace training that is uniquely tailored to meet the needs of America’s military personnel including those in theater in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Veterans, members of the National Guard and Reserve, Service-Disabled Veterans, and their families. Boots2Business combines elements from successful programs used independently in thousands of vocational schools, job-training centers, community colleges, detention and correctional facilities, Job Corps centers and adult education programs nationally.  TVC has integrated these elements into a cohesive and interactive online program that provides support to the basic, transitional, workforce, family and entrepreneurial needs of Guard and Reserve Veterans, Service-Disabled Veterans, and their families.

This program has five key areas:

  • Basic Skills, Catching up/Stepping up
  • Transition Skills, Job and Career Preparation
  • Workforce Success Skills, Getting a job and keeping it
  • Entrepreneurial Skills, Start and Grow a small business
  • Family Resource Center, Life and family support

Within these five sections are 31 clusters with 1,000 course lessons and many tutorials to guide the student through their specific needs.  Access to this site is in the form of a scholarship to the Veteran and their family.  Each scholarship is for one year and is provided by granting organizations or by TVC directly.  The cost for each scholarship is $100.  Were a Veteran to purchase access to all the elements of Boots2Business without TVC, the cost would exceed $132,000 per year. 

TVC currently has 300 scholarships for Veterans and Service-Disabled Veterans in New Jersey that are provided by the Henry H. Kessler Foundation.  As I have already pointed out, TVC is directly sponsoring a block of 600 scholarships divided equally between its three hubs.  Each hub will coordinate a state-wide outreach giving Boots2Business a four-state network.  An additional 200 scholarships have been made possible through a grant from NEC Foundation of America for national outreach.  TVC is currently working with a number of corporations and foundations to extend this valuable scholarship program to all Veterans and their families.

d-VETS (Disabled Veterans Entrepreneurial Training Solutions)

Through a grant from the Henry H. Kessler Foundation, TVC is providing New Jersey’s Service-Disabled Veteran entrepreneurs with comprehensive support in starting or growing small businesses.  The mission of the program is to foster and promote opportunities for Service-Disabled Veterans to gain self-sufficiency through entrepreneurship by providing participants with education, mentoring, access to capital, and access to surety bonding.  This program is designed as a state model that can be replicated nationwide to serve America’s Service-Disabled Veterans.  As mentioned earlier, the Kessler grant provides 300 Boots2Business scholarships to New Jersey Veterans.

Deploy Proof Your Business

TVC has launched a comprehensive new program, Deploy Proof Your Business, designed to assist members of the National Guard and Reserve in protecting their businesses when they are deployed.  “Deploy Proof Your Business” includes sections on suspending and sustaining your business as well as a comprehensive section comparing the two options side-by-side. 

With helpful tools, links, checklists and other online resources, this site is developed as a complete program to answer the questions and frustrations many National Guardsmen and Reservists have when they leave their businesses.  Based on the premise that the earliest preparation is the best preparation, this program will assist both new and established business owners in modifying their business plans, creating training plans, and managing inventory prior to leaving their business for an extended and often indefinite period of time.  This program in no way replaces instruments from SBA or other organizations.  It does, however, place in one location access to all the current programs available. 

Jim Clair, of Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania is a business owner and member of the National Guard who realizes that he must prepare his business for deployment.  Jim, a former United States Marine, 1983-1987, is the owner of Ultimate Defensive Driving School.  Jim joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard last year at age 40 specifically to fight the War on Terror. He and his company are looking at Deploy Proof Your Business as we speak to prepare for his possible deployment to Iraq and or Afghanistan. As Jim says, “While I have yet to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, I realize that deployment is a very real possibility and something I must prepare for as a business owner.  After all, my family and business count on it.”

ConnectVets Business Forum

ConnectVets Business Forum is a mentored on-line meeting place for Veteran entrepreneurs to interact with each other through a peer network. The Forum is a place where Veterans can post business questions, offer advice, and share business experiences.  The program launched the second week of March, and reports show that 68,000 unique hits resulted in its first two weeks alone.

Virtual Business Incubator

The Veterans Virtual Business Incubator (VBI) created for TVC by Knowledge Industries is a complete one-stop resource for Veteran entrepreneurs starting or growing a small business. The VBI guides Veterans through business ownership with customized support tools and the ability to search by state for local business resources.  In FY 2006 this on-line tool saw 8,000 direct business connections through its 300,000 unique hits.

Virtual Business Resource Center

TVC, in partnership with SCORE, created a Veteran front-end portal to assist Veteran entrepreneurs in getting the one-on-one support they need to become successful in their business ventures.   Through this direct link on TVC’s website, Veterans are able to access SCORE’s network of experienced and qualified mentors who can answer business questions, provide advice, and offer guidance. TVC is seeing between 350 – 600 links daily through this portal partnership.

Transition Assistance Program (TAP)

TVC was asked by the Department of Defense (DoD) last August to write a new section of the TAP Manual for Active Duty and Members of the Guard and Reserve. Information about entrepreneurship and the assistance available from TVC and SBA is now included in the “Active Duty Preseparation Guide,” as well as the “Transition Guide for the Guard and Reserve”.  As a result, all separating military members will have the opportunity to learn about the programs and services TVC provides and actually start planning their business venture prior to their separation from the service.  Active military can already access this information on the DoD’s TurboTAP web site www.TurboTap.org, while members of the Guard and Reserve can begin accessing this information on May 31, 2007.  We understand that DoD plans a formal rollout of these programs on June 9th.

 “Veteran’s Business Video Library”

This is a first for TVC: an online, streaming, six-video segment containing key coverage (4¾ hours) of “Veterans Doing Business with the Department of Defense”.  Taped last December in Dallas, Texas, this compendium is now available for all to recap the event or, for those unable to attend, to participate and gain the important information that was provided to attendees.  It is our hope that future events conducted by TVC or any agency or Veteran organization will also be available through this vehicle.

TVC FY 2006 Annual Report to the President and Congress

In TVC’s Strategic Plan for FY 2006, staff members were directed to reach 10,000 Veterans directly and through TVC’s partner network.  TVC is pleased to report that the goal was met and exceeded.  Through TVC’s headquarter staff and partners, TVC attained 140% of the goal by supplying face-to-face services to 14,026 Veterans.  In addition to this direct interaction, it should be noted that during the final five months of FY 2006, TVC has achieved more than 1 million hits to its new web presence at www.veteranscorp.org including17,586 downloads of TVC materials from 224,284 page views.  That equates to 100,000 unique visits, each lasting more than five minutes, an eternity in web time, yielding significant electronic outreach and support to Veterans online.  Combined, it can be said that the investment made by Congress toward TVC’s FY 2006 funding has reached 119,431 individuals, oralmost 12 times the FY 2006 goal of 10,000. 

The appropriation of $1.5 million to TVC for FY 2006 provided significant benefit to Veterans through TVC’s outreach, education and mentoring, in addition to the Access to Capital and Access to Bonding programs outlined above. Analysis of FY 2006 expenditures indicates that 21.83% on spent on G&A, 10.15% on fundraising and 68.02% were spent on program services.

I would like to submit a complete copy of our 2006 Annual Report to the President and Congress for the record.

Authorization Legislation in 110th Congress

Legislation is currently being drafted by Representative Susan Davis of San Diego that would provide for a five year authorization of The Veterans Corporation that would include direct program services while acting as an entrepreneurial catalyst/ clearinghouse/ facilitator/ broker for Veterans, Service-Disabled Veterans, and members of the Armed Forces transitioning from military service in Iraq and Afghanistan into the business community.  In addition, members of Congress and their staff would like TVC to provide the Reservists, National Guard members, and their families with pre/post-deployment assistance to preserve family-owned businesses, like our Boots2Business and Deploy Proof Your Business programs.  TVC would like to establish a grant-making program to assist organizations at the national, state and local levels in these important efforts.

Conclusion

Madam Chairwoman, 2007 finds Veteran entrepreneurship alive and well; however, the programs defined under PL 106-50 are not able to step up to the increasing demand.  We have seen thousands of servicemen and servicewomen return from the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters and will see these numbers grow in the coming months and years.  These new Veterans and Service-Disabled Veterans along with a large number of Guard and Reservists will return to the country that they fought to defend.  TVC is ready, willing and able to assist them whether they have to spend some time in a hospital to recover from their wounds or choose to settle in the streets of an urban environment or the countryside of a rural local. 

TVC’s strength is in its ability to bring together the best in public and private entities to leverage scarce federal dollars in effectively and efficiently assisting Veterans, Service-Disabled Veterans, and members of the National Guard and Reserves, who want to start or grow small businesses.  By benefiting from the strong resources already available from national business networks, and by eliminating duplication of efforts through strategic partnerships, TVC has the programming and the capacity to serve the needs of Veterans in all fifty states.

Thank you Madam Chairwoman.  I will be happy to answer any questions you or the Committee might have.


[LETTERS OF SUPPORT]

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America
New York, NY  10003
May 10, 2007

Honorable Susan Davis
1526 Longworth House Office Building
Washington, DC 20515

Congresswoman Susan Davis:

Soldiers and Marines are natural innovators.  They are required to overcome every obstacle and complete the mission no matter what. When soldiers are not hard-charging to their objectives, they spend almost all their time doing one thing: thinking about, dreaming about, and talking about what they will do when they get home. The countless hours spent sitting in a Humvee has become has a fertile playground for ideas and innovations. I will never forget the months of planning my driver and team leader, SPC Langley and SGT Fabacher, spent laying out every detail of their future lawn mowing business.

The Veteran’s Corporation (TVC) is a federally-chartered nonprofit organization charged with creating and enhancing entrepreneurial business opportunities for Veterans, including service-disabled Veterans. By providing access to capital, business services, entrepreneurial education, surety bonding, insurance, prescription coverage and by creating a veterans business directory, TVC has strived to help soldiers like SPC Langley and SGT Fabacher achieve their dreams.

TVC has overcome some tough obstacles and become an invaluable resource to veteran entrepreneurs. TVC has greatly expanded its online resource center and programs like “Deploy Proof Your Business” are powerful tools for deploying servicemembers.  The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) strongly supports any efforts to bolster the TVC and give it the opportunity to help turn those Humvee daydreams into a reality.

We applaud the work of Congresswoman Susan Davis and her work to expand the scope and mission of the TVC.

Sincerely,

Patrick Campbell
Legislative Director
 


Disabled American Veterans
Washington, DC  20024
April 20, 2007

Dear Representative Davis:

On behalf of the 1.3 million members of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), I encourage you to support the authorization and fiscal year 2008 appropriations funding for the National Veterans’ Business Development Corporation (the Veterans’ Corporation) programs and services to expand entrepreneurial opportunities for disabled veterans.

The 1.3 million members of our organization are veterans who became disabled by injuries or illness during wartime military service to our nation. Disabled veterans seeking a viable livelihood face far greater challenges and a higher unemployment rate than nearly any other category of citizens in the United States.

Despite federally mandated provisions to assist disabled veterans in overcoming barriers to gainful employment, many employers remain unable to accommodate some of the most severely disabled for a variety of reasons.  For example, some veterans require frequent medical treatments that prohibit them from maintaining regular working hours.  These veterans often choose to operate their own businesses where they need not conform to the demands of a set schedule.  Many other disabled veterans choose entrepreneurship as a form of livelihood as a matter of preference.

It is our duty as a grateful nation to ensure that those who have sacrificed so dearly in the name of freedom have the opportunity and support needed for self-sufficiency. In addition to improving the lives of disabled veterans and their families, we are fortifying our Gross Domestic Product and economic vitality. Small businesses create millions of new jobs and generate billions of dollars annually.

We believe the Veterans’ Corporation, created by P.L. 106-50, is uniquely positioned to provide disabled veterans with superior entrepreneurial training and business resources that allows them to start or grow a business; and in turn contribute to the economic well being of your district and state. The Veteran’s Corporation’s numerous programs and services have resulted in the following accomplishments:

  • Veterans served--8,055 to date, or on average a 1,000 Veterans a month
  • Courses/class hours completed--Over 8,000 trainings hours provided and 96,388 student hours
  • Business Start Ups since initial contact with client--552 Veteran owned businesses started (average cost to TVC $1,000.)
  • Business growth as a result of interface with client--469 jobs retained, 667 jobs created
  • Funding as a result of work and/or facilitation with client--OVER $86 million
  • Teaming/Mentorship of clients with other companies --68 Veteran owned businesses now partnering

In addition, TVC is now offering new services related to –

  • Surety Bonding for Veteran owned businesses looking to do work with the government through a partnership with the Surety Association of America
  • Access to Capital through a financial services desk for micro loans and larger capital needs too
  • Veterans’ Virtual Business Incubator in partnership with Score to provide Veterans anywhere in the country, tools and resources to start their businesses

I am sure you will agree with me that the Veterans’ Corporation offers an impressive array of services to disabled veterans and that it should be continued as thousands of wounded service-members return from the War on Terror.

            Thank you for supporting our nation’s disabled veterans and their families.

Sincerely,

Brian E. Lawrence
Assistant National Legislative Director