Veterans in Johnson County said there’s a disconnect between military service and civilian life, especially in terms of securing loans to start businesses or take the next step for career or education.
Several local organizations are working to close that gap and connect veterans to necessary resources. Representative Sharice Davids led a roundtable panel Friday afternoon at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 7397 in Lenexa to discuss the challenges for veterans starting businesses. It ultimately led to a conversation about how veterans can access local resources and programs for taking the next steps in their business ventures.
“Clearly, veterans play a very important role in our country,” Davids said. “They have, I would say, a very special skill set that makes it so that when they’re going from being a service member to a civilian, if they want to get involved in entrepreneurship, there already exists a lot of leadership skills and problem-solving skills there.”
Davids said she’s been “a big proponent” on the small business committee in Congress to ensure veterans have access to capital and services available, such as through the Small Business Administration or through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“One of the things in that work that I’ve been doing that I’ve noticed is that a lot of times folks don’t actually know what services are available,” Davids said, citing her push to gain bipartisan support on legislation that would make sure veterans know about those programs.
Here is a list of guest speakers at Friday afternoon’s panel:
- Jessica McCune, a military spouse who has recently started Lionheart Beauty, a small business in Shawnee for cruelty-free beauty care and cosmetic products. Her husband, Mike McCune, served in the U.S. Army
- Walter Justice, a U.S. Air Force veteran who started Tendou Martial Arts Academy in Kansas City, Kansas
- Davin Gordon, business development and program coordinator with AltCap, a community development financial institution based in Kansas City, Missouri. AltCap helps connect business to capital and resources. Both Gordon’s father and grandfather have served in the U.S. military
Justice said he and his wife had trouble securing a loan to purchase a building for their martial arts academy. They had started out renting a space but rent prices kept climbing.
“Oh my goodness. I had no idea that it was going to be that difficult to get a loan,” Justice said.
The couple eventually secured a site but were cheated out of construction contract work by about $37,000.
“Being a veteran, if there was an organization or something I could have went to and asked well is there a better way to get a better loan at a lower interest rate, is there some office that I could go to and talk to where they have contractors listed that work with veterans and would do the job at a reasonable price that veterans could afford in order to get their business started, there was nothing,” Justice said. “Everything that we learned, we learned by trial and error.”
Justice’s main hope would be for someone to establish a program that provides help for veterans trying to start their own business.
A difficult transition between military service and civilian life
Much of the roundtable discussion centered around similar feedback from veterans in the audience who have had their own concerns about starting businesses or accessing a home loan from Veterans Affairs. Other veterans said they had too short of a transition from military service to civilian life, without access to assistance, skills training or other opportunities to start a new career or business venture.
For example, one veteran said he wished the federal government would loan funds to veterans to start their businesses, similar to an arrangement with the Veterans Affairs to obtain a mortgage on a home.
Davids said Michael Williams, a Wounded Warrior participants in her office, is working to help connect veterans to resources. She hopes veterans will call her office to get help.
Davids asked Gordon how veterans can secure financing and other resources for starting a business. Gordon recommended reaching out to KCSourceLink, an organization that operates out of the University of Missouri – Kansas City’s small business development center. KCSourceLink can point veterans in the right direction, he added.
Gordon recommended veterans reach out to cities and associations to learn about certified contractors in the area to provide services. He noted that AltCap tries to help veterans secure financing, but veterans who already have assets will be directed to secure a loan at a bank.
AltCap offers microloans of $50,000 or less, and is piloting a new program for entrepreneurs to secure a loan up to $25,000 without providing collateral. AltCap is also working to help veterans secure loans, Gordon added.
McCune added that she got help for getting her business started when she got involved at 1 Million Cups, a weekly event organized by the Kauffman Foundation for entrepreneurs to present their business ideas.
Davids said her office will pool together a list of resources to help veterans to get started. Here’s a small list of some resources mentioned: