By Marie Szaniszlo
Two hundred women veterans and military spouses from across the country have gathered in Boston this weekend for a three-day crash course in starting and growing their own businesses.
The Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship, or V-WISE, conference at The Westin Copley Place kicked off Friday with a keynote address from Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, who shared lessons from her 30 years of senior national security experience and from her prior work in the private sector, including her role as president of Science Applications International Corporation’s Technical and Engineering Sector, where she was responsible for 8,700 employees and more than $2 billion in revenue.
“We in the Air Force love it when people stay with us as a career, but not everyone does, so we want to make sure we’re helping veterans make that transition,” she said in an interview with the Herald.
James said she wants women veterans and spouses, who either have started their own business or are contemplating starting one, to expect curve balls; to be prepared to “zigzag” and be unafraid to fail; to understand the importance of mentoring and building a network; to be upbeat, persistent leaders; to never compromise on ethics; and to remember to have fun.
“As women’s roles in the military expand, so should the opportunities and services available to them when they come back home,” said Giselle Sterling, Boston’s first female commissioner of veterans services. “At the end of the day, it comes down to equal opportunity. We’re committed to providing them with the opportunity to become successful entrepreneurs.”
That may never be more crucial than today, when the unemployment rate for post-9/11 women veterans is 11.4 percent, more than twice the rate of their male counterparts, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Many women are navigating the balance between setting conditions for a professional career and reconnecting to family roles, which, during their service, may have been difficult,” said Mike Haynie, a former Air Force major who now serves as vice chancellor of Syracuse University and director of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families. “The power of business ownership is it offers you the opportunity to craft a vocation for yourself in a way that can accommodate both of those objectives.”
New ventures are most likely to succeed, he said, when entrepreneurs build a product or service focused on solving a problem they feel passionate about.
Air Force Reserve Lt. Col. Kelly Robinson of East Longmeadow may be the perfect example.
After being on active duty for six years, Robinson found herself in a constant battle of wills with her 3-year-old daughter, Rachel. So she went online, printed out “cute” pictures of everyday children’s activities like eating, brushing teeth and taking a nap.
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Then she put Velcro on the back of them and attached them to a vertical strip on the wall to make a pictorial schedule of Rachel’s day.
“The very first time (Rachel) saw them, it was like I had a different child,” said Robinson, 39. “Suddenly we were on the same page for what felt like the first time. She happily went from step 1 to step 2 to step 3, and it was clear to her now what she had to do to get there.”
Robinson realized there could be a market, designed a schedule made of magnets and in 2010 launched SchKIDules.com.
Since then, her schedules have sold in 13 countries. But with no formal business training, she came to the V-WISE conference, hoping to find a mentor, learn about marketing and grow a network of connections.
“It’s time,” she said, “to up the ante.”