Written by Marylyn R. Harris
For over ten years, I never told my story. I rarely mentioned the fact that I was in the military or that I was a combat veteran. Like many women Veterans, I kept this information tightly guarded and believed that the memories of my military service were safely in the past, locked away in my mental vault.
Almost two years ago, I was asked to share my story for a National VA Campaign called “Make the Connection.” I was told that my story of resilience, healing, and transformation could serve to inspire other Veterans healing from military-related traumas such as post-traumatic stress disorder, military sexual trauma and physical illnesses. I was asked to share some of the resources I utilized to heal. I highlighted the role of the Vet Center in my healing and the role of Entrepreneurship in my personal transformation.
In 2009, I had a burning desire to help Veterans and Military Families. I did not want another Veteran denied optimal quality of life because they had “hidden wounds of war.” I sought out to locate other like-minded individuals and organizations that understood that some Veterans have challenges working in traditional employment settings after being exposed to war. I joined numerous Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs) and actively worked within them to raise the level of awareness about disturbing trends I identified in women veterans like me. This population has many unmet needs, such as high unemployment, growing homelessness, unprecedented suicide rates, high divorce rates, child custody issues, dishonorable military discharges and chronic hopelessness. The Center for Women Veterans reported in 2010 that there are over 1.8 million Women Veterans in the United States. California, Texas, and Florida have the largest populations of Women Veterans and consequently, some of the biggest unmet needs.
Since I live in Houston, a city with over 30,000 women veterans, I decided to pick one variable that I could impact positively and work hard to fix it. I formed a team and began to host free networking events for veterans, military family members, and Veteran Service Providers. I inquired about the immediate needs of this population. It was very obvious to me that male veterans are able to socialize with each other and get their needs met. Male Veterans continue the camaraderie they get used to in the military. However, only a small percentage of women veterans are involved in veterans’ organizations, few women veterans continue to communicate with other women veterans after discharge, and women veterans rarely self-identify as a Veteran. Even fewer pursue business ventures.
I decided to be a “change agent” and committed to educating and empowering Women Veterans to start and grow businesses. After doing a year of “market research,” it was glaringly obvious to me that a huge unmet need existed in Houston and throughout the country to mobilize this “economic sleeping giant” of Women Veterans.
Next, I sought out programs that educate and support Veterans to start businesses. These were scarce at the time. In 2010, I located and attended the Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) at Florida State University (FSU). EBV changed my life! EBV is a collaboration between the U.S. Small Business Administration and Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families. In my EBV Class, there were twenty-one Veteran Entrepreneurs in the Program. Twenty male veterans and me.
After graduating from EBV, I had a “community of support” and a “supplier network” in the other EBV graduates, faculty, and supporters from around the country. After so many years, I finally felt supported! I was again connected with the Military Community, a source of strength. Five months after graduating from EBV, with my children committed to help, we self-funded and launched the country’s first Women Veterans Business Center in a two-day Grand Opening Event. Day One focused on building alliances with Community Partners (SBA, SBDC, SCORE, local politicians, Veteran, State and Federal and private entities). On Day Two, we hosted our first Women Veterans Business Bootcamp at Houston City Hall in the Mayors Boardroom.
The Inaugural Event was a huge success and we currently host quarterly Women Veterans Business Bootcamps focusing on Financing Your Business and Business Resources and Opportunities. In 2011, we held our first Anniversary Celebration where we hosted an Entrepreneurial Challenge for Military Youth, and awarded a Woman Veteran Business of the Year Award and a Military Friendly Company of the Year Award. The response to our Programs has been huge.
As a result of my personal Entrepreneurial transformation and Community Partnerships, I now travel nationally with the Institute for Veterans and Military Families’ program Veteran-Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship Conference (V-WISE) as the National V-WISE Ambassador! I exhibit and give presentations at local and regional events, and also was able to present at the National Veterans Small Business Conference. I have written a Resource Guide Series for Texas Veterans called, 25 FREE Resources Every Texas Veteran Needs to Know. I also received a National Appointment and serve on the federally chartered Advisory Committee on Veterans Business Affairs (Public Law 106-50). I believe I am “passionately purposed” to do this work.
Last year, the Women Veterans Business Center partnered with the Kaufman Foundation and trained and launched 26 new Houston Veteran Owned Businesses utilizing the Kauffman “FastTrac New Venture” Program. In late March, the Women Veterans Business Center will achieve another milestone. Houston is a city without a military base. No source exists to communicate information to the thriving Houston Military Community. The Center will begin hosting free monthly Veteran Owned Business Information Sessions on the last Tuesday morning of every month. Now active Service Members, Veterans, and Military Families in Houston will have a central place to get accurate information and referrals on starting a Veteran Owned Business.
I am honored to continue my “Service to America” by educating and empowering Women Veteran Owned Businesses to start, grow, heal, and improve the quality of their lives and communities across the US…that’s what I do.
Thank you to the White House for this honor.
Marylyn Harris founded the nation’s first and only Women Veterans Business Center (WVBC) in Houston, Texas.
This post originally appeared on the White House Champions of Change blog. Harris is a 2010 EBV-FSU and V-WISE San Antonio graduate.