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Some Veteran Entrepreneurs Say Military Experience Is Helping Them Withstand The Pandemic

Veteran entrepreneurs sit around a table
Rosie Lee
/
Veteran entrepreneurs take part in a 2019 class at Action Zone in Tampa. The non-profit organization moved online in 2020 to continue its classes in entrepreneurship for veterans.

The pandemic has forced some veteran-owned businesses to close. But other veteran entrepreneurs say their military experience has helped them withstand hardship.

Army veteran Natacha Delince served two tours in Iraq. While she was deployed, a crisis was unfolding at home.

"Towards the end of my military career, my Mom had gotten sick," she said. "So that kind of opened the gateway and exposed me to healthcare."

When she left the Army in 2012, Delince had to move her mother into a nursing home. She also decided to pursue healthcare as a career - first as a nursing assistant, then as a healthcare administrator. She said the experience of watching her mother decline and die in a nursing home was traumatic. She wasn't aware there were other options, like a group home.

"I wanted to start my own company," she said. "Not only to provide those kind of services, but to also educate, if you will, the community on their options."

By early 2020, she was ready to open her own group home ... and then came the pandemic. Her new business has been in a holding pattern ever since.

"Each month that goes by, there's a loss in revenue, because it's five empty beds that I have in my home right now that I have not been able to fill over the past year," she said.

According to a survey from Syracuse University's Institute for Veterans and Military Families, 76 percent of vet entrepreneurs say they lost business because of the pandemic. About a third anticipate closing their businesses. 

Still, Syracuse researcher Rosy Vasquez Maury says most vet-owned companies have weathered the pandemic economy fairly well. 65 percent of those surveyed said their military experience prepared them for business challenges brought on by COVID-19.

"I think, overall, with the data that we've collected, most people indicated that they are prepared. They won't close tomorrow, if you will. I think a good majority said they could probably be in this uncertainty for about a year timeframe," she said.

For now, Delince continues working her day job as a program administrator for the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs. She says she's tried to make the most of the past year, connecting with other home health providers so she can get a running start once the pandemic is under control.

"They send referrals, they discuss maybe other opportunities, in terms of the future. If your home is full, and I have an open bed, maybe we can network that way," she said.

As Delince was preparing to set up her business, she worked with Action Zone, a Tampa non-profit organization that guides veterans and their spouses through the steps of entrepreneurship. It's among dozens of private organizations and government agencies around the country that help aspiring veteran business owners.

At Action Zone, participants get up to 14 weeks of training on the ins and outs of running a business, such as hiring, payroll, and marketing.

"We do one on one consultations," said Action Zone founder Rosie Lee. "We have mentors and subject matter expert referrals. We just nurture them from the time they have that idea to when they launch and beyond so that they can grow a viable and sustainable business."

Lee said Action Zone has pivoted to offering training through Zoom and Facebook Live. She said vets learned how to adapt to difficult situations in the military - a necessary skill during pandemic lockdowns and economic uncertainty.

"They have this culture which is extremely entrepreneurial, because they're very collaborative," Lee said. "They recognize opportunity, they recognize challenges as opportunity, and they find a way to fix that."

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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