Veteran business owners and advocates expressed some frustration with federal programs intended to help budding entrepreneurs, but they largely pushed lawmakers to provide more funding and support for such programs, not less, during a recent congressional hearing.
Programs such as Operation Boots to Business, a U.S. Small Business Administration initiative developed with Syracuse University, have come under fire from lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle who said the efforts were not approved by Congress, lack needed oversight and may be unnecessary in light of offerings from the private sector.
Witnesses at a May 7 hearing of the House Small Business Committee, which was called to highlight similar private-sector initiatives, expressed a different view.
“The more dependable entrepreneurial programs for ... the veterans community have been the federally funded programs, such as the Veterans Business Outreach Centers, or VBOCs, and the versatile Boots to Business curriculum,” said Davy Leghorn, an assistant director with the American Legion. “Any discussion that seeks to reduce funding, or inhibit the operations, of [SBA’s Office of Veterans Business Development] will be met with opposition from the American Legion.”
Leghorn said that because SBA’s veterans operations are “too small and underfunded” to bring Boots to Business to all vets who need it, the Legion has tried to help fill the void, reworking the program in consultation with SBA and Syracuse, and offering its own version.
But the Legion can do only so much to make up for the lack of federal support. A recent workshop for female vets held in Houston attracted women from around the country but had to be capped at 120 people, with everyone else being put on a wait list, he said.
Other witnesses touted the various private-sector initiatives that helped them launch businesses and pushed for the federal government to do more.
Wade Franklin, a Navy vet who relied on the International Franchise Association’s VetFran initiative for help starting a UPS store franchise, said he had trouble coming up with the money and didn’t get much help from the federal government. He suggested that the feds develop something for entrepreneurs akin to the Post-9/11 GI Bill’s generous support for student veterans.
Air Force vet Dawn Smith expressed similar frustration, saying that her application for an SBA Patriot Express Loan was denied, and the military’s transition assistance program, or TAP, didn’t help her much.
The Business and Professional Women’s Foundation was much more helpful, providing a mentor who worked with her one-on-one throughout the process. Smith suggested that this foundation’s offerings be incorporated into TAP.
Leghorn agreed, saying the federal government should consider providing funding to that foundation and similar programs.
During an April 30 hearing, both Republicans and Democrats on the House Small Business Committee criticized SBA for developing Boots to Business and other new programs, saying such action was “alarming,” made no sense and “seems to be flying in the face of what Congress wants.“
At the end of the May 7 hearing, Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., who chairs the committee, expressed continued concern about such federal programs duplicating private-sector offerings.
“It’s encouraging to hear about all the private-sector initiatives that are truly helping our nation’s heroes, and I do believe it’s important to consider our federal programs in the context of what’s happening in the private sector, so that instead of duplicating the programs, we can focus on filling those gaps,” Graves said.