The Military Divide

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Business Programs Help Veterans Bridge Gap from Service Member to Civilian Entrepreneur 

James Bogle
James Bogle

When veterans come up in public or private conversations, one of two narratives often unfolds: the patriotic hero or the trauma-scarred soldier. James Bogle, director of the Master of Business for Veterans (MBV) degree program at the University of Southern California (USC) Marshall School of Business, says there’s a third story that deserves telling: veterans as entrepreneurs and business leaders.

[Above: Robert Turrill, academic director of the MBV program and professor emeritus of clinical management and organization at USC Marshall School of Business, welcomes the MBV class of 2019 to campus.] 

Organizations and educators who work with veterans say that many of the skills learned during military service — leadership, management, analysis, dedication — give them a head start when it comes to succeeding in business. Therefore, it’s no surprise that veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than non-veterans, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration. Additionally, veteran-owned businesses employ 5.8 million workers in the U.S. 

Despite their strong representation in the entrepreneurial world, veterans face hurdles as they transition out of the military and into civilian life and employment. A report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation found that while these individuals are typically highly regarded by human resource professionals, these same employers express concerns about mental illness and substance abuse among this population. The report also found that 44 percent of veterans leave their first post-military job within a year. 

Takiesha Waites-Thierry, a graduate of the MBV program at USC who is now the U.S. intelligence and analysis manager in Global Corporate Security at Bank of America, understands these struggles firsthand. When she separated from active-duty service in the Navy, she found it difficult to match her skill set to civilian opportunities outside of Washington, D.C. Ultimately, she decided that a master’s degree in business was the answer. 

“I was searching for more flexibility to obtain employment,” says Waites-Thierry. She wanted to be able to work “anywhere in the world, instead of one city in the United States.” She decided USC’s MBV program was the perfect fit. 

Takiesha Waites-Thierry (back left) and her classmates in the MBV class of 2017 listen to a lecture led by Gen. David Petraeus.
Takiesha Waites-Thierry (back left) and her classmates in the MBV class of 2017 listen to a lecture led by Gen. David Petraeus.

The program is designed to strengthen professional competencies that many veterans already possess, including leadership, and fill in missing business-specific skills in areas such as financial management and business strategy. Faculty of the one-year program teach classes with a more mature learner in mind, Bogle explains, given that MBV students are, on average, about 35 years old and already have professional work experience.

Because the military environment is quite different from that of civilian workspaces, the MBV program goes beyond traditional business classes to help its students navigate new professional norms. “In the military context, you have a whole social structure and culture that support positional and rank-based leadership,” says Bogle. “So when you step out of that into an environment where everyone is not wearing their rank on their clothes, … a lot of military folks feel like they’re not sure where their sources of power or leverage might be.” 

In response to this challenge, USC developed a very specific power-and-influence course that teaches business students how to use their professional competence to develop credibility and influence. “Essentially, it’s providing new tools to help people as they go from one professional context to another,” says Bogle.

Other universities and nonprofit organizations across the U.S. are also working to help veterans ease into the business world. Bunker Labs is a nonprofit that was founded four years ago to change the narrative about veterans and empower them as leaders in innovation. Ariel Shivers-McGrew, community outreach and support manager for the organization, says that Bunker Lab’s goal is to provide “on-ramps” for veterans looking to become entrepreneurs. 

A monthly networking session gives participants access to relevant leaders, and the CEO Circle — an invitation-only group for business owners who, Shivers-McGrew says, are “ready to participate in a mastermind type of setting with other business leaders” — provides support to rising stars who need peers to bounce their ideas off of. Bunker Labs also offers an online, self-paced, basic entrepreneurship course called Launch Lab. It lasts 20 weeks, and according to Shivers-McGrew, half of the participants have gone on to start their own businesses. 

Additionally, some institutions — like Oklahoma State University (OSU) — offer short, lower-residency programs for veterans. The Veterans Entrepreneurship Program (VEP) at OSU consists of three modules: two remote phases that, combined, take a little over six months, and one on-campus, eight-day training. Admission is limited to veterans who have a service-related disability or have been deemed “service distinguished” for their exemplary military conduct. 

Chad Mills, coordinator of outreach programs at the Riata Center for Entrepreneurship at OSU, says the program was initially created for post-9/11 veterans. “We saw that there was a high unemployment rate for veterans as they were coming back,” says Mills, “and we wanted to help them, … to give them opportunities.” 

He says the program is unique in that it focuses solely on veterans who have a business idea and are looking for the skills to get their company off the ground. Each year, its curriculum shifts, allowing participants to study topics that will help them launch their particular businesses. A cohort whose ideas are largely service-industry-related, for example, wouldn’t spend time learning about manufacturing.

Beyond the professional adjustments that many educational and professional programs address, transitioning from military to civilian life can be difficult on a personal level as well. Bogle, who is himself a veteran, says that there are three aspects of military life that most veterans miss: a sense of mission, camaraderie, and identity. 

By arranging its curriculum around a cohort system, MBV at USC ensures that students walk into a ready-made social group. “[It] provides for a very powerful experience,” Bogle says, “because they come in with a certain level of trust just by virtue of having served in uniform. When you combine that with a very strong brand and strong sense of family that USC really encourages among alums, … you’re part of something again — and part of something meaningful.” 

And that “something meaningful” doesn’t dissolve after graduation. Waites-Thierry calls the group of former MBV students she’s stayed in touch with the “Party of Five,” and she says her career and life wouldn’t be the same without them. As students, they not only carpooled together but also helped each other with presentations and held each other accountable academically. 

“My relationship with that core group of five has absolutely helped me succeed since I graduated,” says Waites-Thierry. “They elevated me and continue to encourage me to be my best self.”

Alice Pettway is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article ran in our October 2018 issue.