Home / Business Spotlight / ‘A game-changer’ for veterans: Vet Biz connects former military members with entrepreneur mentors and networks

‘A game-changer’ for veterans: Vet Biz connects former military members with entrepreneur mentors and networks

Darcella Craven

Darcella Craven spent eight years in combat communications on bases in the United States and Germany. (Photos courtesy of Darcella Craven)

When Darcella Craven worked in the early 1990s for Fox Photo, a now-defunct chain of photo stores, she was aware that random moments could make her and other U.S. Army veterans snap like the flash on a Canon camera.

For Craven, who spent eight years in combat communications on bases in the United States and Germany, it happened during a marketing meeting while her colleagues were having a lighthearted conversation about the color of an ink pen.

“I got angry at everybody in the room and started screaming about [how] a few years ago I was making an impact in the world; I wasn’t sitting here arguing about stupid things,” said Craven, who joined the military right after high school.

She started packing her bags, assuming she would be fired. Instead, her boss, who served in the U.S. Air Force, stopped her. He told her he didn’t want her to leave, but he believed she should go to a Veterans Affairs center to get mental health help and assistance with the difficult transition to civilian life.

After leaving the military, people experience many changes in daily life — not having someone tell you when to get up, not having someone tell you what to wear — and “you don’t know which one of those things is going to be your trigger that you need help with,” said Craven.

After finding assistance at the VA and success in a number of jobs, Craven has spent the past decade in St. Louis as president of the local Veterans Business Resource Center, a federal program that aims to help other veterans in various stages of entrepreneurship. The nonprofit program serves veterans and their families in Missouri, southern Illinois, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska.

“With military members and their families, there is a whole new world to learn: a new structure, a new language,” said Craven.

The U.S. Small Business Administration launched her program, also known as Vet Biz, in 2004. It is now one of 22 across the country. It has an annual budget of about $500,000 and consults with around 1,500 people — not just veterans but also military spouses — each year, Craven said.

In addition to suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, veterans also can experience difficulty managing credit and finding employment, according to numerous studies. A 2012 study conducted by Prudential Financial in partnership with Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found that three in five veterans “worry about how to translate their military skills to a business environment.”

Vet Biz guides clients through a free, five-phase counseling process in which staff members provide feedback as to whether an idea could become a viable business, help to develop a marketing and financial plan, conduct skills training, help to secure business loans or other capital, and provide ongoing mentorship.

In September, the organization hired three new employees to assist with outreach and counseling to military veterans and their family members:

  • Mitchell Fitzpatrick, a former U.S. Army sergeant who as an outreach coordinator and boots-to-business instructor trains and counsels entrepreneurs
  • Evyn Johnson, who as digital marketing director and a boots-to-business instructor manages the VBRC’s website and digital marketing initiatives
  • Danielle Lowery, an executive assistant who manages the VBRC’s office and helps to coordinate its fundraising campaign celebrating its 15 years in operation.

Craven said a big challenge for her clients often involves developing communication skills.

“Military people almost all talk fast, so even just slowing down your speech” is critical, Craven said. “Or when a sergeant or commander is talking to you, you stand there and pay attention and listen to what he or she has to say, and then you go execute. In a civilian space, that’s not always the case. Sometimes when they are done talking . . . they are actually looking for engagement and dialogue, so there is a transition there that still needs to happen.”

Craven and other staff at Vet Biz have a target audience that is often eager to start a small business. Veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than non-veterans, according to a Small Business Administration study.

“In a very healthy way, there is a can-do attitude” among veteran entrepreneurs, said Charlie Felker, a St. Louis native who graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 2006 and then served five years as an infantry officer, during which he deployed four times to Afghanistan.

“I think originally veterans are going to want to get out there and run through a wall and probably stub their toe unnecessarily when there are networks out there that have answers for you,” he said.

After leaving the military, Felker earned an MBA at Washington University in St. Louis and launched a company, Promise Home Works. It was “essentially a construction company that modified people’s homes — and we did a lot of work for veterans — so that people can stay at home and age in place” rather than move to a nursing home, said Felker.

He started getting help from Vet Biz after meeting Craven at a charity golf tournament. The organization’s senior business consultant, Damon Chaffin, advised him on questions around staffing, budgeting, marketing and defining a target market, among other issues. Chaffin connected Felker with a business broker who talked with him about how to approach buying or selling a business, which Felker did with Promise Home Works last year.

“That really got me thinking that this is doable and something I want to entertain, and I wouldn’t have known how to accept some sort of outreach for me to sell my business without” that conversation with the broker, said Felker. Since then, he has launched another company, Free2Grow, that helps small business owners manage back-office tasks.

The mentorship from Vet Biz staff also has been crucial for Chris Daming, who served as a legal specialist in the Army from 2003 to 2007 and deployed to Afghanistan. He later earned a law degree at Washington University in St. Louis, and in 2015 he launched Legal GPS, a digital platform to help entrepreneurs navigate legal issues. In March, when the pandemic upended daily life, Daming’s target market “lost their entire budget,” he said.

Daming realized he need to pivot his business. He produced a “30-page white paper” in which he collected his thoughts and sent it to Chaffin for feedback.

“[Chaffin] took a whole bunch of notes and sent it to me, and then we did a call and it helped me get a lot of clarity on all the important parts of what your business is going to be: Who is your target audience? What are you going to charge for this? What are other revenue model options?” Daming recalled.

He decided that his product should be “white-labeled,” meaning that other companies could create the content but then use his platform for their purposes, rather than Daming just using the platform for his company to provide legal advice.

Essentially, while Daming had been debating whether to charge $30 or $35 per month for a subscription service, Vet Biz helped him to realize that he may not have even had the right audience in mind — that he hadn’t seen the forest for the trees.

The type of mentorship and networking assistance that he has received from Vet Biz is “night and day” when compared with other mentoring programs in which he has participated, he said — perhaps because its staffers are eager to help veterans.

“The quality is just a game-changer,” he said.

The VBRC’s counseling and classes are open to any current or former military members and their immediate family members. To learn more, visit vetbiz.com or call 314-531-VETS (8387).  

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