This Veterans Day, Let's Focus on Helping Ex-Military Become Entrepreneurs

Honoring veterans each Veterans Day is important, but helping our veterans succeed following their service to our country is even more so.

learn more about James Schenck

By James Schenck

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Every year, 250,000 military members leave the service and enter the civilian workforce. Making the transition to civilian life is one of the greatest challenges they face in their careers. While remembering, honoring and thanking veterans is important each Veterans Day --- and every day for that matter -- helping our veterans succeed following their service to our country is equally vital.

Related: 5 Veterans Share Their Tips for Successfully Transitioning From Service to Entrepreneurship

Through their military training, tested leadership and professional skill sets, veterans are often uniquely suited to work in industries outside the military. Many organizations actively recruit veterans for this very reason. Companies like PenFed, UPS, Coca Cola and Home Depot have robust veteran hiring programs that harness these skills for the civilian sector.

Still, finding employment can be difficult, especially for young veterans. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs predicts that our nation will have almost two million veterans under age 34 by 2020. And despite studies showing that hiring veterans is one of the best moves a business can make, many employers don't recognize that the skills veterans gain both on and off the battlefield are perfectly suited for many business environments.

Veterans have a history of entrepreneurship.

Traditionally, many Veterans started their own businesses after leaving the service. Half of all American World War II Veterans and 40 percent of Korean War Veterans became entrepreneurs. Today, of the 5.5 million businesses in the United States, 7 percent are veteran-owned.

But that number is declining. Only 4.5 percent of the 3.6 million people who have served in the U.S. military since September 11, 2001, have launched a company. Why the decline? Pressure to settle for a financially secure position, and a lack of networking opportunities, are part of the problem.

Perhaps most importantly, many veterans today simply cannot get financing without a business history -- which most veterans don't have. Over half of businesses today require up to $25,000 to start. That's a lot of money for the average service member just coming out of the military.

This is one reason why the PenFed Foundation I lead launched the Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program (VEIP) this year. VEIP helps veteran-owned businesses succeed by providing seed money to get started and a support network of over 1,700 business partners. Since we announced the program in April, we've raised more than $1.4 million from businesses that support veteran entrepreneurs.

Related: The Service Industry: Why Veterans Are Flocking to the Franchise World

True Made Foods, our first investment, was founded by Navy helicopter pilot Abe Kamarck, in 2015. A father of four, Abe was concerned about the unhealthiness of some of the foods his kids were eating. He decided to rethink how ketchup and other popular sauces are made. True Made Foods adds real vegetables to the recipes, turning empty calories from sugar into nutrient-rich flavors. This company is already seeing remarkable success, selling its products in over 1,400 stores across the country, including major grocery chains like Safeway, Wegmans and ShopRite.

Veterans like Abe already possess a critical skill for successful entrepreneurship: grit. They persevere when others give up. This is because their military training has uniquely taught them how to perform at a high level under the most stressful conditions. Today, veteran-owned businesses earn $1.14 trillion in annual revenue and create jobs, with a payroll of $195 billion. Walmart, FedEx, RE/MAX, Sperry Shoes, Nike, GoDaddy and Enterprise Rent-a-Car are just a handful of the veteran-owned companies out there that are phenomenally successful.

Veteran entrepreneurs also help reduce veteran unemployment. Veteran-owned businesses started within the past 15 years have created 324,000 jobs. This means there is great untapped potential for future job growth.

How you can help a veteran.

This Veterans Day, all Americans, but especially our country's entrepreneurs, should be thinking about how they can support veterans in building these enterprises. Entrepreneurs and industry experts can help support veteran-owned startups in three ways:

  • By using their extensive social networks to help spread the word about businesses like True Made Foods.
  • By sharing their networks with veterans by connecting with veterans' groups on LinkedIn and offering their expertise through mentorship.

Organizations like Score, ACP's Women's Veteran Mentoring Program and eMentor's Military Entrepreneur Program all help connect veterans with mentors. Veterans in Global Leadership, a program that trains, mentors and empowers veteran leaders, is an exceptional avenue for entrepreneurs to support veterans through networking and mentoring.

And through Elite Meet, industry leaders can connect with, hire and mentor elite veterans (former pilots, special forces and Navy seals) who are transitioning out of the military. Entrepreneurs active in their universities' alumni programs can guide veterans who are looking to pursue higher education. And, of course, entrepreneurs that want to learn more or get involved can do so through our Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program.

  • Consumers can also invest in veteran entrepreneurs.'s searchable directory is one easy way consumers can find veteran-owned businesses nearby. But it's also important to think beyond retail. Entrepreneurs and people looking for a service, like a financial advisor or IT consultant, should consider hiring veterans first.

Related: These 12 Remarkable Veterans Changed Business Forever

Supporting veteran-owned businesses isn't a charity effort. These businesses successfully provide critical services and fill critical needs every day. This Veterans Day, we should support veteran entrepreneurs not only because they have put their lives on the line for our nation, but because they are now contributing to our national economy-- and doing it well.

James Schenck

President and CEO, PenFed Credit Union

James Schenck is president and CEO of PenFed Credit Union and CEO of thePenFed Foundation. Since becoming CEO in April of 2014, Schenck has led PenFed’s asset growth from $18 billion to $24 billion, grown annual net income from $116 million to $179 million and increased membership from 1.3 million to 1.7 million. In a nationwide vote conducted by Credit Union magazine in 2017, Schenck was elected the National Credit Union "Hero of the Year." A former Army Black Hawk helicopter pilot, he graduated from the  U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

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