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Business & Technology

Many veterans opt to start their own businesses

March 30th, 2007 8:21 pm by ROBERT RODRIGUEZ

FRESNO, Calif. - Joe Luna left the Army in 2004 with high hopes of using his skills as a network communications specialist to snare a good-paying job.

But Luna, who served in Iraq and Germany, discovered that his military training and war experience didn't fit well in a changing job market. The military's proprietary equipment was like nothing used in today's workplace.

"Even to get my foot in the door for a network administration job, I would have to be trained," said Luna, 28. "And I didn't have a college degree.

"But I knew what it took to get the job done."

So Luna followed his instincts, eventually becoming a partner in a company called Activkidz, which sells active-play toys for children.

"This is something that I can really get into," he said. "It has really been a grass-roots effort getting this off the ground, and it feels right."

Experts say military veterans, including reservists and guardsmen, increasingly are joining the ranks of the self-employed.

The trend occurs, they say, in part because veterans' military skill sets may not apply in the job market, the jobs they left no longer exist or they have undergone life-changing experiences.

The number of veteran-owned businesses in the United States is estimated at 4 million, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Census Bureau.

Service-disabled veterans own 235,000 of those.

In all, 22 percent of veterans in the United States purchased or started a new business in 2004, census figures show.

"Some people come back changed," said Sue Capozzi, vice president of membership for the Washington, D.C.-based Veterans Corp., an agency created to help veteran-owned businesses. "People don't always want to go back to the jobs they had. This might be a moment in their lives where they have reached a crossroads."

For those who strike out on their own, many organizations, including Capozzi's, provide services such as writing a business plan, securing financing and business management.

In California, disabled veteran-owned businesses are also given certain advantages in competing for state contracts and purchases.

Luna got help from the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), a division of the Small Business Administration that also oversees the Veterans Business Development office.

SCORE counselor Earl McQuinn, a banker with 37 years' experience, has helped several veterans. "Sometimes they come back to a job that is not what what they thought it was cracked up to be, so they want to try something different. I think the [military] experience has built up some people's confidence, and in some ways it has torn it down a little.

"But if they have faced adversity and come through it, they feel they can do a lot of things."

Linda Hernandez, who served in the Army for 20 years, the last three on active duty, is among those trying to find her way.

She was stationed in Panama, Honduras and several bases in the United States, working in combat-support hospitals.

When Hernandez returned to Fresno last year, she didn't have a job. The position as a personal assistant she had with a local construction company didn't exist anymore. She looked for satisfying and steady work, finding neither.

Like Luna, Hernandez sought the advice of SCORE, where she is learning the basics of running a business, including business-plan writing. She also is taking adult school classes to improve her computer literacy.

With her financial picture somewhat improved, Hernandez's goal is to open a cleaning-service company.

But Hernandez also faces other challenges. She suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and has several line-of-duty injuries, including one to her back.

"I am going to school and learning," she said. "And I am helping myself get through this journey."

Along with SCORE, other groups helping veterans include the Veterans Business Outreach Center, the California Department of Veterans Affairs and the International Franchise Association.

As part of that franchise association's "VetFran" program, participating companies offer financial incentives to veterans to become franchisees.

Last year, it enabled 612 veterans to acquire a small-business franchise, up from 385 a year ago.

Terry Hill, spokesman for the franchise association in Washington, D.C., said companies find a receptive audience among veterans, who appear to adapt well to the structured format of franchises.

"These are people who have been trained in one of the biggest systems in the world, the U.S. military," Hill said. "Companies are also realizing veterans have a strong work ethic and they are very mission-oriented. These are all things that mirror franchise ownership."

Hill said he sees momentum building for veterans interested in starting their own businesses. He said the Internet has made information about entrepreneurship accessible, and many organizations, including his, have created programs tailor-made for veterans. "It is very empowering for a lot of veterans," Hill said.

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