Illinois veterans are finding new paths through entrepreneurship
Richard Gengler used to spend his days flying combat missions in Iraq.
Today he’s an entrepreneur who helps veterans battle behavioral health problems through his Chicago-based health care technology company, Prevail Health Solutions.
In the wake of the end of the Iraq war and wind down of the war in Afghanistan, local organizations and government entities have been launching initiatives and stepping up efforts to engage more veterans looking to emulate Gengler’s entrepreneurial maneuvers.
“What we’re finding is a lot of the vets coming out are people who were in regular jobs that got called to active duty,” says Dottie Overal, acting district director for the U.S. Small Business Administration in Chicago. “They were in the National Guard or the Reserves. They’re coming back and thinking, ‘Maybe I don’t want to return to that job. I want to do something else.’
“I’ve talked to a number of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, and they said in the evening [while serving] they would be on their computers and exploring ideas and cybercounseling with [SBA volunteer] counselors somewhere in the U.S. They would be emailing back and forth about this dream” of starting their own businesses.
Illinois is home to an estimated 764,000 veterans, the seventh-largest veteran population in the U.S., including 53,171 post-Sept. 11 veterans. The state has estimated that 35,000 new veterans will be coming or returning to Illinois by 2017.
To assist would-be entrepreneurs, the SBA last summer launched a Boots to Business pilot program in four cities and will bring that program to Chicago later this year, says Overal. Through the program, the SBA is helping connect veterans with a resource network that can provide free expertise and training, including Small Business Development Centers, SBA volunteers, Veterans Business Opportunity Centers, Women’s Business Centers and Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families.
The partners coordinate training and services at military bases, provide a face-to-face introductory entrepreneurship course and more intensive online business planning training course provided by Syracuse University. The program is in addition to counseling and lending programs the SBA already offered.
Another initiative here is the Women’s Business Development Center’s Vetrepreneurship Program, which launched in January, making it the second such program of its kind that targets woman veterans.
“What we’re doing is providing an alternative option for woman veterans” besides seeking employment, says Hedy Ratner, co-president of the center. “The women veterans’ unemployment rate is exceedingly high, and the homeless rate is exceedingly high.”
The center discovered women veterans come with other issues, including sexual trauma suffered while in the military and “the fact that a high percentage have never gotten their benefits,” says Georgia Marsh, chief development officer at the WBDC.
To address that, WBDC has partnered with the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs, which also offers other programs to connect veteran business owners to resources.
“We provide all the business development training, including opportunities for direct lending, child care, mentoring,” Marsh says of the WBDC program. “And [the Illinois VA] organized an affinity group to provide opportunities for networking and speakers that talk about benefits and social services that are available.”
The SBA and WBDC are partnering with Syracuse University on a women veterans business conference that starts here Friday.
U.S. Army veteran Crystal Bergfield is among those who will participate in the conference and is an enrollee in the WBDC Vetrepreneurship program. The 30-year-old Lisle resident wants to launch a customer service company that contracts with large employers and would enable her to provide home-based jobs for military wives.
At the conference, she said will be looking for help with her business plan.
“I just want to make sure that it’s moving in a great direction,” she said.
Navy veteran Gengler says its important for veterans to tap into the resources available. He launched his 5-year-old company, which provides online mental health support and resilience training for veterans and service members, with the help of a $120,000 loan from the SBA’s Patriot Express loan program. The loan guarantee program makes up to $500,000 in loans available for veterans.
Prevail Health employs a full-time staff of nine and is on track to have $1.5 million in revenue this year, he says.
Photo by Al Podgorski