‘Programs exist to lift the load’; Why The Venture Center is investing in veterans in 2024
By Viktoria Capek
When longtime friends Daniel Schutte and Rick Daniels are together, they’re a cornucopia of ideas.
Brainstorming sessions turn into hours-long conversations, transforming ideas into action items for the two pioneering minds. A discussion of theirs from earlier this year—later named the genesis of The Venture Center’s Veteran-Owned Small Business Accelerator (VOSBA) program, an initiative aimed at providing support to veteran entrepreneurs—was no exception.
“We were talking about how we could bring the impact that we’ve had with our programs, which often are global in scope, to the state,” Schutte, the Vice President of Strategic Partnerships, Accelerator Programs, and Special Opportunities for The Venture Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, said. “How can we make an impact with the companies that are already here?”
Navigating uncharted waters
For the past decade, The Venture Center has been globally recognized as an Entrepreneurial Support Organization specializing in growing financial technology ventures in their renowned FIS and ICBA Fintech Accelerator programs.
Schutte, who has worked with The Venture Center for 7 years, was interested in applying the model for the non-profit’s fintech accelerator to other business ventures.
“I was talking to Rick, who is a veteran,” Schutte said. “When he left the service, he would say, ‘There’s a whole lot of [resources for veterans] out there, but it’s unclear what is actually valuable to me.’”
As a civilian, Daniels recalled feeling unsure of what he’d do in the future. His gumption led him to starting a business, and later volunteering as an advisor for the Arkansas Employment Career Center. But not all service members find employment so easily, let alone success starting their own business.
Stats and stories: The veteran employment landscape
According to a 2016 study by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, 53% of veterans faced unemployment for four months or more following their departure from the military. In 2022, the unemployment rate for veterans in Arkansas stood at 3%, according to Statista, which is 0.2% higher than the national unemployment rate for veterans in the same year.
“As it turns out, their skill set is not necessarily applicable to civilian life,” Schutte said. “If you did cybersecurity [in the military], that’s one thing. But if you’re flying jets, that’s another.”
Research shows that veteran small businesses employ 5.8 million Americans, generating an annual revenue of $1.14 trillion. Recognizing the growing need for a veteran-centered program, Schutte sought partnerships to launch the initiative, including one with the Small Business Administration (SBA), which took over responsibility for all VOSB certifications in January, 2023.
Joining forces: The nation’s recent emphasis on veterans
The nationwide initiative to support veteran-owned businesses, including efforts by the SBA and the Venture Center, aligns with the current administration’s emphasis on small businesses.
To reinforce this commitment, four bipartisan bills were passed in November 2021 to assist veterans and military families. In December 2021, Executive Order 13985 directed federal agencies to improve access to contracting opportunities, prioritizing support for underserved businesses such as small disadvantaged businesses, women-owned small businesses, service-disabled veteran-owned small businesses, and small businesses in HUBZones.
“There has never been a better time in history that supported veterans,” Jerry Talbert, Deputy District Director of the Arkansas District Office for the SBA and 25-year U.S. Army veteran, said. “But I am astonished by the sheer volume of veterans who still, despite the national message, simply do not know about these programs.”
Embarking on success: VOSBA objectives
Talbert’s decision, on behalf of the Arkansas SBA, to partner with The Venture Center on the VOSBA initiative was a no-brainer. Together, the organizations outlined three goals to support veterans enrolled in the 12-week accelerator program:
Help veterans by giving them the essential tools and guidance to shape their businesses. This includes planning for the future, setting goals for the next five years, and creating practical steps to reach those goals.
Connect veterans to opportunities by navigating the world of contracts. This involves tapping into government and corporate support for disadvantaged entrepreneurs and helping veterans position their businesses for success in these areas.
Provide veterans a clear understanding of resources available to them. This covers general business tools and specific organizations, such as the VA and the SBA, ensuring veterans are aware of and can access a variety of support services.
Crafting change for businesses and veterans
With these goals for the VOSBA program in mind, Schutte’s question, “How can The Venture Center and the SBA make an impact with the companies that are already in Arkansas,” becomes a call to transform not only business metrics in the state but also the landscape where veteran-owned businesses thrive.
Among the 230 thousand registered businesses in the state, nearly 25 thousand, or 10.4%, are veteran-owned. That’s five times the amount of tech businesses in Arkansas, the usual subjects of The Venture Center’s accelerator programs.
Perhaps the better question might be: How can The Venture Center and the SBA make an impact with the more than 220 thousand veterans in Arkansas?
Schutte points back to the hundreds of tech jobs he’s helped grow in past accelerator programs, stating that the VOSBA will likely help multiply veteran-owned businesses in Arkansas tenfold. “But more importantly, I think they’re going to hire veterans coming out of the service.”
This, Schutte says, is a step toward smoothing the transition to civilian life for future service members, providing a clearer path compared to the challenges veterans have historically faced for decades.
Mission impossible: Lightening the load
Just as difficult as making resources, such as a specialized accelerator program, readily available to veterans, however, will be getting service members to use them.
“What I found when talking to veterans is it’s about the guys next to you,” Schutte said, recalling his interviews with the nine veteran business-owners set to participate in the inaugural VOSBA cohort. “Even in the conversation about business acceleration, they were already steering it towards helping other people.”
Talbert echoed this sentiment. He believes getting veterans to accept help from The Venture Center and the SBA will be the greatest challenge of the program.
“My message to fellow veterans is, whether we’re talking about veteran health or entrepreneurship, programs exist to lift the load.” Talbert said. “We no longer must make the sacrifice.”