Being an active member of the military teaches you a lot: how to work with a team, how to think differently, how to persevere in the face of adversity. Those are all crucial skills to serve and protect—but also excellent traits for people who want to start their own businesses. And that’s exactly how women are channeling their military prowess once they re-enter civilian life.
Take Lindsey Church, a member at Seattle’s WeWork 500 Yale Ave. N. and former Navy linguist. She founded Minority Veterans of America, which serves underrepresented veterans across the country. “As a female veteran, I almost never saw female veterans,” she says. “As a gender-nonconforming veteran, I felt like the only one in the room. And I realized, within the veteran community, I saw no people of color, no religious minorities. But I got so sick of complaining about it; I just wanted to do something about it.”
At WeWork, nearly 30 percent of the national Veterans in Residence program—a partnership with Bunker Labs, a nonprofit that helps veterans start their own businesses—are female entrepreneurs, almost double the number of women recruits in the military (women represent about 16 percent of the armed forces).
And while veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than non-veterans regardless of gender, according to the U.S. Small Business Association, business is especially booming for women: Between 2007 and 2012, according to preliminary data from the Survey of Business Owners, the number of businesses owned by female veterans more than tripled, to 384,574 businesses from 130,000—more than any other population segment.
Redefining what it means to be a veteran
Church’s organization has grown to 600 members and 4,000-plus Facebook followers in a year, with representatives in Seattle (Church’s home base); Portland, Ore.; Los Angeles; Chicago; Colorado Springs; Washington, D.C.; and elsewhere. They’re working to give all minority veterans a voice, create an inclusive community, and eliminate the stereotype of what a veteran looks like. That transition, thanks to entrepreneurs like Church, is already starting to happen.
“For a long time, the narrative has been that veterans are straight, white, Christian men,” she says. “But as more women join the military—and more become vets—there’s more recognition happening for female veterans. We’ve been here all along but we’re starting to be welcomed to the table, which is changing what we’re capable of doing.”
And they’re certainly capable. Thirty-three percent of veteran entrepreneurs report having gained skills from active-duty service that are relevant to business ownership, including leadership, teamwork, project management, and focus, according to data from the Veterans in Residence program.
“As a military veteran, I’m highly capable in so many ways—but I’ve had multiple corporate experiences and management jobs where I was often underutilized in order to fit the job description,” says Shelly Rood, a former Army all-source tactical-intelligence officer. A member at Detroit’s WeWork Campus Martius in Detroit, she created Missilia, a community for “women who kick butt.” She’s not alone—only 37 percent of female respondents to a survey by veteran nonprofit The Mission Continues said they feel “recognized, respected, and valued as veterans in civilian life.”
Rood’s organization is all about recognizing the value of strong women. Her professional speaking engagements attracted female veterans, firefighters, police, and business owners. “They were looking for a community of like-minded women, so that’s what I decided to create,” she says. Missilia celebrates the stories of extraordinary women in part with a $30 monthly subscription box that contains natural beauty products, healthy snacks, and a “tactical piece” like pepper spray, a pocket knife, or a pen that doubles as a self-defense tool. “The box was created to help reinforce what it means to be a strong woman and take care of yourself month after month,” says Rood.
Breaking new ground in the civilian world
There’s another reason female veterans are turning to entrepreneurship: There aren’t jobs available—or, rather, there aren’t jobs that they want. The overall female-veteran-unemployment rate increased to 3 percent in October 2018 from 2.1 percent from October 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, while the unemployment rate for male veterans did not change significantly.
Moreover, the Veterans in Residence program found that only 33 percent of members had a clear sense of what they wanted to do professionally after their military careers. For Dajon Ferrell, a member at Minneapolis’s WeWork Capella Tower who previously worked in the Army’s division of public affairs and marketing, it was about creating a job that ignited the same kind of passion as her military service.
“I thought the military was going to be a career for me,” she says. “When I got out and looked at what people my age were doing—that 9-to-5 life—I thought, ‘OK, so I’m going to make X amount, not really feel like I have much control over my time, and not really feel like I have a purpose? No, thanks, I’ll do it on my own.’”
Ferrell branded herself as the Mindful Veteran, an empowerment coach working with veterans or civilians who have PTSD, anxiety, depression, or who have experienced sexual trauma. On her Mindful Warriors podcast, she aims to bridge the gap between civilians and the military by featuring resources, organizations, and opportunities. “When you get out of the military, it’s hard to just go into a daily-grind mode,” she says. “You really seek that challenge and a way to still be of service.”
The armed forces as business school 101
Veterans are uniquely positioned to share their expertise in service because the military provides an intense environment for learning skills they don’t teach you in business school, from compassion and tenacity to resilience and problem-solving under life-or-death conditions. And it’s that dedication and perseverance that makes female vets successful entrepreneurs.
“I almost died in the military, and I fought tooth and nail to come out of that place,” says Church. “You want to tell me no? Bring it on. I’ve dealt with worse.”
The high-stakes nature of military jobs also makes entrepreneurial risks less scary than they might be for civilians. “In the military, you’re entrusted with high-risk, high-stakes situations and told, ‘Figure it out,’” says Rood. “And they won’t accept excuses. You have to think outside the box.”
And that’s what Ferrell wanted to do after leaving the military as well. “You come to the civilian world and you just naturally have the ability to go out and make shit happen,” she says. That’s what sets female-veteran entrepreneurs apart. “The female veterans that I’ve met all have this common understanding that nobody else is going to do it, and we’re all ready to step up,” Church says. “Women are ready to rise to the challenge.”