Non-profit seeks to help veterans become entrepreneurs

The launch of the Business Development for Veterans in town was a festive event and featured a musical contribution from students from The Stanwich School. —John Ferris Robben

The launch of the Business Development for Veterans in town was a festive event and featured a musical contribution from students from The Stanwich School. —John Ferris Robben

Members of the armed services prove themselves every day by risking their lives to protect the safety of the nation, but they face new challenges when they come home.

Local nonprofit Business Development for Veterans (BDV) hopes to help military veterans find a career upon returning home and those efforts have now come to Greenwich thanks to the help of State Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151st) who helped launch things in Greenwich late last month.

BDV was recently started by Roberta Bryant, the daughter of a Marine, a lifelong activist and an avid supporter of veteran causes. Ms. Bryant, a resident of Glastonbury, initiated a similar organization in Florida several years ago. There, she consulted with two 85-year-old Korean War veterans who wanted to help veterans returning from the war in Afghanistan. While working on this program, she says that she was incredibly inspired and impressed by the two men’s “excitement about their organization” and their desire to give back. She realized that she wanted to extend their mission nationally and help veterans who served in all wars, not just Afghanistan.

Transitioning back into everyday life can be a difficult experience for veterans, from integrating socially, emotionally and professionally, so BDV’s goal is to ensure they have the support they need to succeed professionally. The organization offers business grants to veteran entrepreneurs who reside in Connecticut, of which there are currently roughly 250,000 and counting.

She counts her personal experience as the daughter of a Marine as instrumental in her involvement with veteran causes. In addition to her father, several of her uncles and even her youngest brother were members of the military. She has seen first-hand the challenges and “culture shock” that returning veterans face, and wanted to do her part to support and help them.

Ms. Bryant said she saw a need for greater professional support services for returning veterans. These men and women, while amassing a versatile skillset throughout their years of service, returned with skills that didn’t receive proper accreditation or that failed to translate into real-life work experience. According to Ms. Bryant, many of them seemed stuck and in need of guidance. There was no organization that provided assistance for veterans to begin and grow their own businesses, and thus BDV was born.

“They undergo enormous difficulty while at war. I think these guys can do anything. Part of the problem is coming back and not having certification for their skillset and experiencing difficulty applying for jobs,” says Ms. Bryant. “It’s been problematic … they come back here and if they want to start a job, they didn’t know where they could go.”

The organization was launched in Connecticut in September 2013 and a second chapter in Texas followed shortly after. At present, both organizations are in the beginning stages, focusing on outreach, networking, and above all, fund raising.

BDV relies entirely on private donations to provide grants to veterans. Since the Connecticut chapter’s launch a few short months ago, it has raised roughly $70,000 and hopes to eventually reach a goal of $450,00 in pledges and donations for its first year. There are a variety of public events and fund-raisers still in the works for the year.

While the organization may be young, it has been fortunate in building awareness and becoming integrated into the local military community. Ms. Bryant sees her years of involvement as an integral factor in establishing relationships with local government officials and getting the word out. She counts Linda Schwartz, Connecticut veteran affairs commissioner, as one of the organization’s most vocal supporters. In addition, Ms. Bryant says that the BDV has been very lucky in being embraced by other veteran organizations such as the Veterans Association and the U.S. Small Business Association (SBA).

It’s evident that the organization has been fervently working towards building a solid foundation of relationships. That’s how Mr. Camillo joined forces with the organization in the summer of 2013.

Mr. Camillo, the son of a Marine, was also very much concerned about the plight of veterans in Connecticut. Mr. Camillo and Ms. Bryant had known each other for many years and when Ms. Bryant asked him to come on board, there was no hesitation.

“We’re part of a community who all knows each other. Fred is one of the finest people I know… He’s exactly what I wanted to be the face of BDV here in Connecticut,” said Ms. Bryant.

As executive director, Mr. Camillo will be assisting in all day-to-day operations, which he calls a melange of duties. At the top of the current list of priorities is fund raising, followed by other tasks such as improving the website and social media efforts, working on community outreach, and continuing to hone the organization’s goals and long-range plans.

Mr. Camillo says that the support from the Greenwich community has been strong and that residents have been “very, very receptive to our mission.” BDV held its launch in Greenwich on Feb. 27, at the C. Parker Gallery. According to Mr. Camillo, the night was a great success, with more than 100 people in attendance.

Aside from BDV’s focus on networking, community outreach and fund raising, the Connecticut chapter hopes to provide compelling work opportunities and incentives to stay in Connecticut for the roughly 4,000 military members returning to the state this year. BDV is in its first round of accepting applications from veterans and, to date, has received an estimated 30. According to Ms. Bryant, applications have been diverse, organized and quite impressive, with business goals ranging from weapon design to wholesale materials.

The application process consists of several steps. Veterans eligible to receive a grant must have received an honorable or administrative discharge, provide proof of residency, and intend to build their business in the U.S. Those eligible then may submit their concept and business proposal to the BDV, whose board of six individuals, including Ms. Bryant and Mr. Camillo, reviews all applications. Individuals whose applications are selected will be mentored and assisted by BDV’s partnering organization, SCORE.

SCORE, “Counselors to America’s Small Business,” is a nonprofit association comprised of more than 13,000 volunteer business counselors throughout the U.S. SCORE members, trained to serve as counselors, advisers, and mentors to aspiring entrepreneurs and business owners, will assist by mentoring the veterans.

“We’re excited. We’re hoping that by June we’ll give out our first round of financing for these grants… I would like to raise as much money as possible and give out as many grants as our mentors at SCORE feel confident can succeed,” said Ms. Bryant.

As BDV’s Connecticut chapter is still in its early stages, it will be accepting applicants on a flexible timeline. Ms. Bryant envisions implementing set application deadlines next year and ideally having two rounds of application seasons.

“We’ve had to open the gates because we’re new, we’re going to make some mistakes. We need to be a little bit more flexible than we originally planned,” said Ms. Bryant.

Veterans whose business ventures are approved will receive a grant and enjoy a three-year oversight from BDV and SCORE. During her time consulting in Florida, Ms. Bryant saw veterans succeed in an eclectic array of entrepreneurial projects, in fields spanning hospitality, landscape design, weapon design and transportation. She is hoping for the same kind of well-rounded success for Connecticut veterans, and dreams that in the future, they’ll “end up giving back and perhaps mentor the next generation of applicants.”

In addition to BDV’s partnership with SCORE, it is also affiliated with Wells Fargo and the First Bank of Greenwich, two financial institutions that the BDV calls strong advocates of veterans. With Wells Fargo and the SBA, BDV will be sponsoring entrepreneurial seminars in New Haven open to all Connecticut veterans, slated for June.

The event will consist of seminars on a wide range of topics, including health care, personal finance and employment assistance. While BDV’s primary mission is to aid and support entrepreneurial veterans, both Mr. Camillo and Ms. Bryant adamantly state that the organization is wholly dedicated to promoting the cause of all veterans, by also raising awareness of other available services aside from those of BDV.

“We’re not just giving grants to veterans but helping veterans with other problems… If someone applies for a grant and is not successful, we’re certainly not going to walk away from them,” Mr. Camillo said. “We will do our best to help them.”

Ms. Bryant hopes that BDV will be successful in financing many veterans and helping them succeed in their businesses. In order to do so, BDV is asking the community for support by donating and visiting their website at Bdvusa.org.

“We welcome anybody to get involved, whether financial or physical, to help us further our goals of helping those who really risked it all for us,” said Mr. Camillo.

 

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