Women Veterans Get Blueprint for Starting their Businesses

Entrepreneurship can be a roller coaster, with ups and downs often in the same day, Melissa Kjolsing Lynch told a gathering of women veterans Aug. 24 during The American Legion’s 100th National Convention in Minneapolis.

Lynch spoke during the daylong Women on the Rise, an entrepreneurship training program for women veterans, servicemembers and military spouses. The program was jointly put on by The American Legion and the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University.

The two dozen attendees heard about experiences from various entrepreneurs, received tips on marketing, networked with others and left inspired to carve their own niches.

Lynch is the managing director of Luna Startups and co-founder of Recovree, a Minnesota tech startup. Recovree uses technology and peer support to help improve recovery for those dealing with substance abuse. She walked attendees through her trials and tribulations of starting a business.

Would-be entrepreneurs all have a mix of hope and fear, Lynch said. “There’s hope — in hoping for something better, better outcomes, better lives. Or fear — that you are concerned about things not going right, for yourself or someone else.”

Lynch started her business when her Air Force veteran brother was dealing with recovery from substance abuse. She highlighted several key points for entrepreneurs to follow:

• “Don’t wait for permission.”

• “There is no right way to do this.”

• “Perfectionism … you have to let this go.”

• “If you like to learn, you are in the right spot.”

• “Be you.”

• “Enjoy the adventure.”

She recommended that future business owners focus on the process and remain flexible. “Fall in love with the problem you are trying to solve — not your specific solution — because you are going to find new iterations, new ideas that come into the scene.”

That was among the lessons learned for Joan Sallee, commander of American Legion Post 102 in Walworth, Wis. She joined The American Legion immediately after leaving the service in 2010.

“My key takeaway was ‘just do it — and don’t give up,’” Sallee said. “When you decide what you want to do, do it and don’t give up. What you decide to do will probably change and will morph into your final product. Your final product isn’t always going to be what you come to the table with but you need to just do it and not give up.”

Sallee, who is originally from Washington state, attended the session because she wants to start her own coffee shop business in remote Wisconsin. “We travel a lot these days and we don’t always have the time to sit down and have a meeting at a coffee shop,” she explained. “So Washington state has a lot of drive-through coffee shops and you don’t see those around southern Wisconsin. I wanted to start some of those.”

Originally, Sallee — who also is a veterans service officer — thought she would own one shop. “But then I thought about it and asked myself, ‘Why don’t I get a bunch of shops going?’ I don’t want to sit in a coffee shop all day. I can hire people to do that so I can still help veterans every day.”

She plans to take the information she collected back home and share with Legion members, women veterans and others.

“I want our veterans to grow and not just be a single person doing this one little thing in their little part of the world,” Sallee said. “This is one thing I think I can bring back — women starting their own businesses.”

During the presentations Sallee realized she needed to add a key ingredient to her coffee shop plan. “I was trying to figure out what I was missing, what I needed to make this happen,” she said. “The most important thing I learned was market analysis. So I am going to do a market analysis on this coffee shop plan and see if it would work where I am.”

American Legion National Commander Denise H. Rohan kicked off the program, welcoming the participants and wishing them a successful day. She also relayed her experience, first as a soldier and then as a military spouse, and how the military became her second family.

“As a military spouse, I learned how important the military family is,” she said. “It’s not just the person in uniform who serves, it’s the entire family.”

Rohan witnessed that bonding during an event in May where women veteran entrepreneurs gathered. “It’s amazing how these women who had never met each other before instantly bonded and became another family because we take care of each other.

“And as you work together in this workshop, I hope you find new friends as you share your ideas and mentor one another and grow.”

Maureen Casey, the IVMF chief operating officer, praised the Legion for its involvement in helping women become entrepreneurs.

“We have been working very hard over the last several years to build partnerships with The American Legion, and its Auxiliary. They are legends in this space — the military connected community. We are thrilled to be working here and to get this off the ground.”

Casey explained that the IVMF’s mission is “singularly focused on you,” she told the group. “It’s focused on advancing the post-service lives of transitioning servicemembers, veterans and their families.”

IVFM takes a two-fold approach to its mission. One part is research on what services, programs and assistance are the most needed. The second is the coordination of programs and other activities that deliver career, vocational and entrepreneurial programs for veterans, servicemembers and their families.

Misty Stutsman, the director of Entrepreneurship and Small Business at IVMF, served as the program’s emcee.

She noted how women veterans and military-connected spouses were interested in launching their own businesses but they all had similar questions. Should I start a business or stick with my career? If I launch a business, what does that route look like? How do I get connected to local resources?

The Women on the Rise is among the programs that emerged to provide veterans with a series of one-day learning events.

“That is why we started this program and that is why we see the importance of networking and making those connections,” Stutsman said. “Meeting people within the community that could then turn into future mentors or someone you could do business with. And then kind of learning about all the basics so that after this one day you can then make the charge and go out into your community and make it happen. That is why we do these programs.”

Stutsman credits The American Legion for its role in the program.

“Partnerships like these really help move the needle,” Stutsman said. “It’s really entrepreneurial, if you will, for The American Legion to recognize the importance of networking. It really makes these conferences more cutting edge. And obviously The American Legion has a long history of advocacy and everything else so it’s really important to us to partner with folks like that on these events because it just makes it that much more impactful for those that we serve.”