Mr. Eric A. Hilleman
MR. CHAIRMAN AND MEMBERS OF THIS COMMITTEE:
On behalf of the 2.4 million members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the U.S. (VFW) and our Auxiliaries, I would like to thank you for your invitation to testify at today’s important hearing on veterans’ entrepreneurship and self-employment.
Capitalism is one of the defining pillars of our culture and our democracy. The efficiency and ingenuity inspired by competition has driven the growth of our economy and the diversity in our marketplace. Small businesses make up the bulk of the American business landscape serving as a testament to the American dream. One person with an idea and the right mix of innovation, creativity, and dedication can rise from humble beginnings to build the Wal-Marts and Microsofts of tomorrow.
Starting, owning, and operating a business can be a daunting task. Service members need a set of transition tools to aid in moving from active duty military to civilian entrepreneur. Veteran entrepreneurs return home to take on a role in the family business, purchase a franchise, or strike out on their own to build their business one brick at a time. Regardless of how they embark upon the road of entrepreneurship or at what stage of their lives, our nation benefits from their efforts. The challenges this community of entrepreneurs face are particular and unique.
As the bulk of service members separate from the military, they benefit from: Transition Assistance Programs, employment center help, and veterans’ hiring preferences. Veteran entrepreneurs, being a smaller sector of this population, lack such assistance. Many veteran entrepreneurs are able to benefit from government efforts to assist small businesses in general, but there is not a centralized source of information to aid the veteran entrepreneur population. Many of the sources of information are peppered throughout these sites: www.vetviz.gov,www.sba.gov, www.business.gov, www.dol.gov, www.acq.osd.mil, and www.veteranscorp.org. The VFW believes a comprehensive web site containing the depth and breadth of information on veterans small business ownership would be ideal.
Along similar lines, we must also examine the assistance available to -- and the specific needs of -- Guard and Reserve members. By activating, they leave their businesses behind in order to do the work of their government. Currently the Small Business Administration (SBA) provides debt relief on SBA-direct or guaranteed loans, but education and outreach could provide assistance before a loan goes into default. We must carefully consider how and what we provide for this distinct group of service members. The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Act (USERA) protects the jobs of deployed service members; so too, we need measures to prevent Guard and Reserve entrepreneurs from losing their livelihoods.
In the past, Congress has ordered Government Accountability Office studies of veterans’ small business. However, these studies have often focused more on the efficacy of the National Veterans Business Development Corporation than on business owners. We believe that the best interests of the country are served in launching a comprehensive review of the make-up of veteran-owned small business, the available programs, and the needs of this community.
The VFW feels it is prudent to consider legislative changes that will aid small businesses; and these changes must be developed and disseminated in a manner that is user friendly. Comprehensive changes to government contract standards, outreach programs, loans, service centers, web-based tools, education benefits, and mentorship programs are best considered once the veteran-owned small business community is better understood.
Understanding the veteran-owned small business community is essential to moving forward with both fundamental and substantive changes. We encourage Congress to examine the challenges and barriers that veteran entrepreneurs encounter. The study should address the existing programs that answer these questions, as well as how the government may deliver the benefits and services addressed in these questions:
- Where can one find information on starting a business?
- How to develop a sound business plan?
- Where/how to obtain financing for my business?
- How to grow a business and launch a marketing plan?
- What about client/customer development?
- What education benefits are available for building a business?
- How does one obtain contracts with the federal government?
- Where/when is bonding and/or insurance necessary for government contracting?
The Guard and Reserve members who own and operate small businesses face intense challenges in the lead-up to frequent deployments. A different set of concerns are addressed with the repeated, unexpected, and extended activations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and/or providing disaster relief:
- Who will run the business when the service member is deployed?
- How does one care for a family with the loss in income from activation?
- The business is failing; what assistance is available?
- The current industry standards and information has changed during the deployment; what training is available to bring the service member up to speed?
- Will the government provide training for a spouse to run a business?
- How does one rekindle a business? Are there loans or grants available to get back to work?
In studying the types of Guard and Reserve member businesses, we can better provide remedial industry training, access to capital, and bridge assistance to the families of deployed members.
This hearing is an excellent step in the right direction. In order for Congress to act to on behalf of veterans and a grateful nation, we must clearly understand who these veterans/ small business owners are. We must further understand the types of business that are affected by assistance programs and which types are excluded. Any barriers to assistance and/or challenges exclusive to the veterans’ small business development must be addressed. The VFW urges careful consideration of these issues, keeping always at its heart, the best interests of America’s veterans.