IVMF’s Onward to Opportunity Program Coordinator Joanna Sansoterra was recently elected as a board member for SD Pride!
When asked what this means for her, Joanna responded, “Part of why I am a proud member of San Diego’s Pride board is to give back to my community. As a closeted lesbian during most of my military career, I was assisted and guided by amazing LGBTQ+ elders and my charge now is to give back and serving is one avenue for me to do this. I wholeheartedly believe in the mission of SD Pride to foster pride, equality, and respect for all lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender communities, locally, nationally and globally. Pride month commemorates the Stonewall riots, which occurred in June of 1969 and we celebrate the progress and accomplishments of the LGBTQ+ community. My hope is those reading this will head out during Pride month and give it a go!”
Like many military-connected entrepreneurs, J.J.’s business was developed from his experiences in the military. “We are in aviation but we differentiate ourselves by helping government programs to become exceptional program management and technical solutions,” J.J. said in a recent interview.
Two years prior to starting his business, J.J. heard about the IVMF from someone who had recently attended EBV. When J.J. launched Objective Area Solutions, he remembered IVMF and looked it up online. “IVMF is a victim of its own success – it does seem too good to be true,” said J.J. “But there’s no catch. Well-funded, well-managed, well-designed.”
J.J. Stakem walked into Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans (EBV) in the summer of 2016 with a business plan in hand, having started his company Objective Area Solutions mere months before. At the end of the three-phase program, J.J. was awarded EBV’s Most Outstanding Venture.
J.J. returned to the IVMF to attend the Veteran EDGE Conference in 2018 as an opportunity to reconnect. “Starting and running a small business is a journey,” said J.J. “There are inflection points along the way. There’s a constant need for engagement and that’s what drew me back to the IVMF. The IVMF is increasingly providing opportunities to reconnect with education, resources, and people.”
This year, Objective Area Solutions has been named to Inc. 5000’s annual list of the fastest-growing businesses in the country, ranking #3 in the D.C. Metro Region. In addition, the company is ranked #36 on the Vet100 list, honoring the fastest-growing veteran-owned and -operated privately-held companies.
Jonathan Sym is a Commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve and continues his service after more than 22 years. His most recent deployment was in 2018 where he served as the Chief of Staff for the U.S. Special Operations Command operating in North and West Africa with its headquarters in Baumholder, Germany.
“It was an amazing tour, the best tour I have ever had,” said Sym. “Though I’ve served in many joint operations, this [deployment] was the first time I’ve had the privilege of working with the special operations community.”
During his tour, he served with Army Green Berets, Marine Raiders and Navy Seals. His first deployment was in support of Kosovo Operations in 2013, which involved service members from other branches including military forces from 19 NATO countries.
“To this day, many of us are still very close. We see each other once in a while and stay in touch through social media,” said Sym about the bonds and mutual respect people gain through serving together. “When you go through difficult situations with people in the military, particularly in hazard duty zones, they become lifelong friends.”
Sym’s camaraderie with members of other military branches, in part, led him to the Veterans Program for Politics and Civic Engagement (VPPCE). Sym’s neighbor and former Army Officer and West Point graduate Raymond Wong recently participated in this collaboration between Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families and Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Wong told him about VPPCE’s overview and actionable strategies for running for political office. Wong told Sym he should apply if he ever decided to run for office.
Hartnel Lambert, military veteran, EBV Graduate and Veteran EDGE participant.
Hartnel Lambert was born in Kingston, Jamaica, and immigrated to the United States of America when he was 9 years old. Moving to the U.S. was one of the most challenging and – no doubt – the most rewarding experiences of his life. He was nervous at first, but his father who migrated to the U.S. decades before he did, helped by paving the way for him because he knew the benefits and wanted him to have a better life in general; and, more specifically, a better education. While growing up in Jamaica, Lambert always dreamt of living in the U.S. – a country of endless opportunities where anyone can be and/or achieve whatever they wanted to be/achieve by working for it. Thus, he considers himself extremely fortunate to be a U.S. citizen. Among other things, he vigorously pursued and achieved his educational aspirations because he knew how difficult it would have been to achieve in Jamaica. After completing high school, Lambert joined the United States Navy and traveled the world – gaining invaluable experience and life skills. In addition to the skills he ascertained, the Navy provided him with the opportunity to pursue and obtain his college degrees.
Brooke Dickhart, founder/president of The Joel Fund – NCServes Provider
For Brooke Dickhart, growing up in a military town meant jet noise at all hours of the day and insane traffic at 3:30 in the afternoon. She remembers during Desert Storm how the traffic lessened, and yellow ribbons appeared on trees and light posts all across the area. Brooke, the daughter of a Navy SEAL, was born and raised in Virginia Beach, VA.
Coming from a military family (Brooke’s uncle was an A-6 pilot and also stationed in Virginia Beach) and living in a military town, Brooke has always understood the sacrifices made by the military and their families. But this took on a whole different meaning when she lost her dad in 2014 after a long battle with PTSD, substance abuse, and depression. It is because of this experience that Brooke started a non-profit in her dad’s honor – The Joel Fund. The Joel Fund’s mission is to reconnect veterans to life at home. They use the power of community to engage, educate, and encourage veterans and their families. With a resource connection and a community arts program, The Joel Fund strives to provide a high level of service to the men, women, and families they help.
“I truly love getting to work with the men and women who served our country – and I get to do it in honor of my dad.” Brooke’s dedication to the military community is driven by her understanding of the sacrifices military families make every day. To learn more about The Joel Fund and their services (in-person and virtual), please visit www.thejoelfund.org.
Monica Alvarado, military veteran, V-WISE graduate, Veteran EDGE and EBV accelerate participant.
Air Force Veteran Monica Alvarado left the military and entered the corporate world after serving for six years as an intelligence analyst. She enlisted out of high school. Alvarado credits the military with instilling the work ethic, the ability to focus, and the ability to collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds. “A lot of military folks come out with this innate ability to really focus on issues and be able to just charge forward and resolve them without getting bogged down in the details,” she says.
Toward the end of her enlistment, she was assigned to Fort Meade in Maryland and decided it was a great place to raise a family. After getting out in 1997, she worked as a government contractor and eventually moved into corporate IT.
Though the role she was in was instantly aligned with the skills she learned in the Air Force, she still had dreams of starting her own business. She found IVMF and attended their free training program V-WISE – Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship — where she learned the basics of running a business in a program that caters solely to women veterans and military spouses. At V-WISE she realized she could branch into any other industry in which she was interested, the restaurant industry. She later attended EBV Accelerate, an advanced training program for established businesses, and she loved how focused that intensive program was on her individual business idea. Just before the onset of the global health crisis, she attended Veteran EDGE, a four-day conference bringing business owners together with companies and resources that want to work with them. There she was paired in networking sessions with other people also interested in the restaurant industry.
Her business, Bread and Butter Kitchen, opened in 2016. Despite the global pandemic, her business has endured. She helped develop an idea with one of her customers: pay struggling restaurants to make food for families struggling with food scarcity in the pandemic. The program, Feed Anne Arundel, supports struggling businesses, feeds hungry people, and keeps restaurant employees working. She credits the skills she learned in IVMF programs that allowed her pivot while serving her community. “All these different training programs emphasize getting to know your community building relationships, because you never know when they’re going to come in handy.”
Alvarado recently spoke to CBS Radio’s Eye on Veterans and described how “Feed Anne Arundel” is feeding those in need while saving restaurants in Annapolis, MD. And her experience transitioning from the corporate world with support from IVMF.
Eve Baum, military spouse, V-WISE graduate, Veteran EDGE participant
Eve Baum started sewing and creating at the age of 5, eventually turning a passion she shared with her grandmother into an illustrious career. The renowned, award-winning French fashion designer moved to the U.S. to pursue the “American Dream” and eventually crossed paths with a U.S. Army officer who asked her to convert old military uniforms into new accessories as a gift to his mother and sister.
Eve utilized the fabric, patches, and buttons of the outdated uniform to create beautiful handbags and change purses. The response was incredible, and word quickly spread of Eve’s beautiful handiwork. And that is when Military Apparel Company was born.
What started as a kind gesture grew into an exciting passion project for Eve. The Military Apparel Company website describes their products as “creations that serve as a personal, constant reminder of loved ones that have just returned, are presently serving, or have sacrificed their lives defending our country.”
But not someone to miss out on a keeping the American Dream alive, Eve attended IVMF’s V-WISE program to provide her with the education and resources to help her business grow and thrive. As her business progressed, Eve met Sgt. Jeremy Baum, helping to complete her definition of the American Dream.
Eve attended Veteran EDGE in 2020 to support her growing needs as a thriving business owner. At EDGE, Eve met her now-business partner Thomas Theriault, Navy veteran and founder of marketing firm TangoSquared. “We revamped my brand just in time to work together in tandem during the early stages of the pandemic and became one of the first companies to offer Made in USA masks,” Eve told the IVMF team. “Thomas and his team worked behind the scenes while my team conquered the home front. Being at the perfect place at the perfect time while working very hard and long hours, made it possible for us to say, we lived the American Dream!”
For Jerome Young, the prospect of transitioning out of the military after 26 years was “nerve-wracking.” He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, and he wasn’t sure how his qualifications would be received in the civilian sector.
Further complicating matters, he had not spent much time in Colorado Springs before he transferred to Fort Carson so he and his wife could settle in the area.
A coordinator at the USO Pathfinder project referred him to Onward to Opportunity, and it eased his transition nerves in a variety of ways.
Networking events in the community with O2O partners, such as the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, helped him meet people and opened his eyes to new local opportunities. Abroad mix of O2O classes also prepared him to take advantage of the opportunities. An etiquette class gave him tips on everything from handling business cards to navigating
networking lunches, and a tutorial from a representative of Jos. A Bank provided guidance on how to dress for interviews.
“O2O gave us the background to attend job fairs and network with confidence,” he said. “The networking events and other training were really helpful. When all you know is the military, they help give you a stronger, better sense of how to engage confidently in the civilian world.”
Jerome earned a Project Management Professional certification through O2O and he is convinced it helped him land his current job as a military outreach coordinator at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, where he now helps other transitioning veterans land on their feet after leaving the military – sometimes through referrals to O2O.
Brian Krusz didn’t have big dreams of becoming an entrepreneur. After serving in the Marine Corps for eight years, he became an executive banking recruiter and was laid off during the 2008 economic crisis. On the drive home from his last day at that job, he told himself that, moving forward, he would control his own destiny. He has been an entrepreneur ever since.
In 2013, Krusz founded Sgt. Clean Car Wash, an express exterior car wash chain in Northeast Ohio. For the past three years, the company has been listed on the Vet100, a product of an IVMF partnership with Inc. recognizing the 100 fastest-growing veteran-owned and -operated businesses in the country.
He has attended multiple Veteran EDGE conferences and has big plans for 2021 – growing his number of Sgt. Clean’s Car Wash locations by 50%!
Learn more about Brian’s entrepreneurial journey here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCuE6r90htU
“I’d given 19 years directly focused on the military. I wanted to make sure during the transition that I took some of that focus and put it on myself.”
When Zakenyia Simmons joined the Army at 17, her plan was to serve four years and move on. But she loved the teamwork, the camaraderie and the travel of the military. She also developed a passion for her field of imagery intelligence, and happily deployed eight times to locations ranging from South America to Qatar to Afghanistan.
But after the birth of her daughter in 2014, “I knew I needed to slow down,” Zakenyia said. So, she began making plans to prepare for life in the civilian sector after two decades in the Army. Fortunately, Zakenyia’s skills – which involve analyzing complex imagery captured by satellites or sensors on airplanes – are in high demand outside of the military, so Zakenyia was confident she’d have success finding work.
Still, she had no professional certifications and had never conducted a job search, so she decided to participate in the Onward to Opportunity program at Fort Bragg to pursue a certificate in SAS computer programming.
She said the initial two-day in-person training from O2O was “phenomenal,” particularly the in-depth overview she received about working in the IT industry. She also valued the advice she received on marketing herself, from updating her resume to appeal to civilian IT employers, to establishing and setting up a LinkedIn profile.
Today Zakenyia is employed by BAE Systems as a geospatial intelligence instructor at the National Geospatial-Intelligence College.
“Anyone I know who has transitioned or is getting ready to transition, I’m a big advocate for Onward to Opportunity,” she said. “It’s been great for me, and I’ve seen it work not just for me – I’ve seen the people to the left of me and to the right of me in my cohort getting jobs.”
Retired Maj. Alejandro Ramirez — a graduate of IVMF’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans at Purdue University, Boots to Business, and Veteran EDGE – is working hard to connect veteran business owners and transitioning service members in his state and in their communities. In order to do so, he founded Kentucky Veteran Business Alliance. According to The News-Enterprise, Ramirez can reach out to 34,000 veterans throughout the state with this alliance.
Ramirez, who also owns Universal Spartan, LLC, reflected on what helped him become successful. One of those reasons was IVMF’s Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans (EBV).
“EBV taught me how to use my military skills in the entrepreneur environment and empowered me to grow into a successful business owner and entrepreneur. EBV gave me resources that I did not know about that helped me function my business. EBV introduced me to mentors, who are now great friends and investors in my company. This program created a network of veteran businesses and non-veteran businesses that I could reach out for lessons learned and ways of thinking like an experienced business owner. EBV launched my business in so many ways that I would have never expected and gave me the opportunity to understand my day-to-day operations of my business. Lastly, it made me think strategically– instead of the day-to-day operation — to continue to grow my business in the future.”
In 2018, Ramirez was awarded Kentucky Veteran Owned Small Business of the Year. You can visit his business website at www.universalspartan.com or follow him on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Universal-Spartan-LLC-165898293569437/
Written by Stephanie Glover, Boots to Business Instructor
As a military veteran and new franchise owner of a Bun-D restaurant, my journey to this point has been surreal.
I enlisted in the United States Air Force in 2000 as a Human Resources Specialist. My first duty station was Ramstein, AFB, Germany, which is where I met my husband, and my multi-faceted career began. Following our tour there, we were then stationed at Osan Air Base, South Korea, Yokota Air Base, Japan, and finally my last base at Maxwell AFB in Alabama. I separated honorably due to pregnancy with my second son, as my husband and I decided that it would be better for our growing family if both of us were not subject to deployments and extended time away from our children as active-duty parents. Initially, I planned to retire from the military after serving 20+ years, though the decision for me to separate proved to be the best as well as a blessing in disguise.
My second son was diagnosed with Sickle Cell Disease and needed me full time. With two small children, one of which being a sick child, there were not many options for me to obtain work. After applying for multiple jobs that would not offer me the type of flexibility I needed, I decided to go into business for myself. My first endeavor began with starting a childcare center, which would offer me the ability to care for my children as well as other children. After completing all the necessary paperwork to establish the center and gaining approval to open for business, I ultimately decided not to go through with it. It was a tough decision; however, I tell people all the time that leaving the military was the toughest decision for me. Everything that followed came easy!
After carefully considering my options, I decided to become a realtor. It became a joint endeavor for both my husband and I, and we started flipping houses and beautiful homes for low-income families. Since my husband was still a full-time active-duty officer, flexibility was key as we would PCS every 2 to 3 years. I became a licensed real estate broker, mortgage broker, title abstractor, credit repairer and anything else to be successful in the Real Estate business to ensure we were creating the best opportunities for our family and our future. Even though real estate was my passion, I made the best of every situation by not placing myself into one specialty. I have owned and operated two brick and mortar businesses and originated a multi-level marketing candle business, with over 1,000 consultants (mostly military spouses) as well as a range of consultation services.
I was recruited for my first job since getting out the military at the same time my husband received new orders, moving us to Shaw AFB, South Carolina. I started teaching Boots to Business (B2B) at the Small Business Development Center, introducing retiring and separating military members to the skills, knowledge, and resources needed to launch businesses, as well as developing business plans. This program gave me newfound meaning and purpose! I absolutely love everything about the program and will continue to be part of it as long as it is around. With all my past successes and failures as a business owner, there were so many things I could have avoided and made my journey easier had I been introduced to this information prior to my transition out of the military. This program empowers me to give back to other military members who are faced with one of the greatest decisions of their lives: what to do after the military and how to get there.
My educational background includes an Associate’s and Bachelors’ degree in Human Resources. I also obtained my MBA graduate degree in Human Resources with a concentration in Finance. All the education I have acquired continues to ensure that I am successful with every path taken as an entrepreneur and I hope to inspire my children and anyone that has future aspirations to do the same for themselves. I am the epitome of creating opportunities and consistently looking for avenues to serve the military community.
I continued working with the IVMF while my husband was planning his retirement. My husband’s last duty assignment is where we both started, Ramstein Air Base, Germany after serving honorably for 25 years. This is the beginning to a perfect ending of our chapter as a military family. My husband and I have enjoyed our military journey and made the most out of every place we have lived.
For my latest adventure, my family was introduced to Bun-D, a healthy food restaurant chain that is currently at most bases overseas and we were offered the opportunity to bring the chain’s concept to the United States. I am proud to announce that I will be the first franchisee for Bun-D in the U.S. and am already scheduled to open three locations, with the first at Shaw AFB, South Carolina on January 22, 2021. The other two locations are scheduled to open within the next six months (more details to come!) and we are thrilled and honored.
This is our way to serve those brave men and women in uniform who sacrifice so much to keep our country safe. We understand the military lifestyle and the desires for healthy food on military installations. We are thankful and excited to have been granted this opportunity, and even more grateful for our military careers to have been a stepping-stone for our success!
I chose to participate in this program as way to begin my transition to the civilian workforce. There are not many programs that offer you the opportunity to obtain a professional certificate in one of the numerous career fields. What I enjoyed the most about this class was the computer-based learning and ability to learn at my own pace.
The advice I would give to incoming students would be to take this class seriously and use all the opportunities presented in this class to your advantage. You will be presented with numerous opportunities to network, use them. I would recommend that new students prepare and study hard while you are in this class. The ability to use Hire Heroes USA is another opportunity presented to you that I recommend you use, especially with resume writing.
I benefitted from this course by taking the advice and mentorship provided by the Fort Drum Onward to Opportunity team, to improve my interviewing skills since I had never interviewed for a job before. I was also able to take detailed notes on the coursework and use those to help study. The most important part of the training was the ability to take my time on the coursework especially since I was unfamiliar with some of the areas. I would also say that the networking that I did during this course was exceptional.
I have been recommending this program to everyone I know that is currently in the transition process. The ability to obtain a professional certificate from an accredited institution is very important to potential employers and you are able to get this certificate for free, without using any of your education benefits. I highly recommend this program.
Learn more about Brian Collins by checking out his Veterans Day story on Spectrum News.
Tracey Richburg, Army veteran and CEO of Savannah Sauce Company, recently shared her recipe for success with CBS’ Eye on Veterans and was featured on Fox News last Veterans Day. She was able to successfully shift from serving as a medical technician in the Army to becoming a CEO of a food and beverage company with the help of valuable training, resources, and mentorship she received from the EBV program.
“I am still taking advantage of that information – the training, the mentorship – that I was connected with” at EBV. “It’s just an awesome program.”
The Savannah Sauce Company is currently found in Whole Foods across seven states in the southeast and are working on expanding into different parts of the country.
Danielle Bootes spent over six and a half years in the Army, mostly in HR. When she first heard about O2O and its numerous course offerings and certifications, she was eager to find something that would complement her experience in the Army as well as her education. She decided to enroll in the SPHR Program to advance her HR knowledge.
To Danielle, her favorite part of the program was the diversity within the classes. She got to interact with veterans who had already been out, retirees, and military spouses. This was critical in helping her transition to civilian life.
The best piece of advice I can provide to active and transitioning service members is to take full advantage of the many resources available to pursue advance certifications and training. While transitioning out of the military can be a daunting task, anything is possible with good time management, self-discipline, and initiative. I was once told by my former Special Forces Team Sergeant to “never let it rest until your good is better and your better is best.”
I was born in the Philippines and emigrated to the U.S. when I was 16 where I had to learn a new language, make new friends, and adapt to a new culture. I learned at an early age the words resiliency and determination. I also learned early on to set goals for myself. I managed to accomplish many of my goals to include a successful military career as an Army Special Forces soldier.
My business partner Joe Smarro and I founded SolutionPoint+, a mental health justice reform consulting and training firm. Our company has trained hundreds of law enforcement officers, teaching them how to de-escalate and communicate with people suffering from mental illness. Moreover, the organization has helped many officers and veterans learn about mental wellness and resiliency. September is Suicide Prevention Month. The subject of suicide is at the heart and purpose of my life’s work. Suicide awareness and prevention are among our nation’s largest social issues, especially in veteran and first-responder populations.
Making the transition from the United States Army to the civilian sector was one of the more uncertain times I have experienced in my adult life. The military wasn’t my first job, but it was my first profession after college graduation. It was an honor to serve with my fellow soldiers and carry on the family tradition, even if I didn’t plan to stay until retirement.
Not knowing when the right time is to focus on your transition instead of your military obligations is one of the many struggles for many transitioning service members. One of the requirements of the Onward to Opportunity program is a document that requires battalion-level leadership approval. I believe this document creates an understanding for the service members and their units.
Natasha Norie Standard took a leap of faith in 2017, going from paratrooper to fashion phenom. She started the NORIE Shoe Company, a luxury footwear brand that combines comfort and style for women who want to have it all. After spending 20 years in the military and dedicating her life to protect and serve, many would think launching an apparel line would be a piece of cake. However, being an entrepreneur comes with its own set of challenges. Read her story.
Making the transition from the United States Army to the private sector was one of the more stressful times I have experienced in my adult life, especially at the beginning of a pandemic. Serving my country as a first-generation America was one of the best decisions and is the most rewarding job I ever had the privilege of doing.
In 2019, I made the difficult decision to separate and apply for roles in the supply-chain industry. As I knew that I wanted to hang up the uniform, I devoted as much time as I could to fine-tuning up my LinkedIn account and resume while trying to find programs that could give me an edge in my search for a new vocation. I heard of IVMF’s Onward to Opportunity (O2O) program from a former colleague of mine. He recommended the O2O program to give me the tools to study for the PMP and Agile certifications that will help me standout when applying for a new career.
After I passed the PMP exam, the goal for springtime was to continue to network with O2O and hopefully secure something part-time heading into Summer/Fall that could be potentially portable when we PCS next Summer.
The friends at Hire Our Heroes offered to set me up with a mentoring conversation – another PMP certified project manager – who could speak with me about how she explored opportunities and was eventually hired. We spoke RIGHT before the sky fell and the lockdown began. This ACP mentor connected me with her friend who works as a full-time remote project manager out of Argentina where he resides with his girlfriend who’s in school. He hired me!
I am still astonished this month – even amidst the pandemic and lockdown – even with the children home and homeschooling – that I had the self-confidence to push for professional goals. I decided NO I wasn’t going to let fear stop me, and YES, I was capable and qualified, and that YES we are living in the golden age of remote work and “WHY NOT ME?”
After serving nearly 25 years in the U.S. Army, Sherman Williams continues to serve. But this time, his mission is to forge lasting wellness, bettering people’s lives through his natural beverage product – Body Aqua™. The idea to create Body Aqua™ was sparked when Williams, founder of the company and IVMF graduate, experienced extreme dehydration during military service, working in unforgiving, arid desert environments. Since launching the product in 2015, Williams has seen his product reach grow exponentially. Recently, he secured a partnership with NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Colin Garrett and the Sam Hunt Racing No. 26 Toyota team. Read more about this incredible opportunity.
Anything But Beer, a craft brewery in downtown Syracuse, was incorporated in June 2017. “We make grain-free, gluten-free, craft alcoholic beverages that are essentially beer alternatives,” says owner Logan Bonney.
For eight years, Bonney served at Hancock Field, working as a sensor operator and mobilizing during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Freedom Sentinel.
“Serving in the Guard was such a unique opportunity,” says Bonney. “I was on active duty, but in Syracuse. So while I never left the base, I was controlling planes in the Middle East—actively a part of the nation’s fight supporting troops on the ground.”