Enabling Veteran Entrepreneurs: The Jonas Project

Teri Kelsall, The Jonas Project

Teri Kelsall, The Jonas Project 2015 L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honoree

Veterans face an array of challenges during and after transitioning out of the military. The job market is currently one of the least welcoming to millennials, and veterans experience a higher rate of unemployment than civilians. However, while there are many industries that welcome veterans with open arms, sometimes the best path towards stability in then civilian world is the one less traveled: entrepreneurship.

Starting and running your own business is a huge risk, and it continues to be every step of the way. But the satisfaction of being your own boss and building a company from scratch is invaluable to those who stick it out and find their footing. The process of becoming an entrepreneur might seem insurmountable, but groups like The Jonas Project are changing that.

The Jonas Project, a charity dedicated to supporting entrepreneurs who've transitioned out of the military, was founded by Teri Kelsall and John Kelsall, two professionals with nearly 40 combined years of business experience. On August 6th, 2011, their son Jonas was killed in action in Afghanistan. Lt. Commander Kelsall's life ended when insurgents brought down the helicopter he rode in, and was one of 30 casualties that day. It was the single greatest tragedy to strike the Navy SEALs, sand it was the catalyst for bringing the Jonas Project to fruition.

Military.com had the opportunity to interview Teri Kelsall, founder and co-owner of the Jonas Project and 2015 L'Oréal Paris Women of Worth Honoree. Below, Teri discusses the Jonas Project and the wealth of resources it provides to veterans who want to become an entrepreneur.

How did Jonas inspire the Jonas Project's mission of creating jobs by growing veteran-owned business opportunities?

Jonas used to talk a lot about how much he loved his job, and how honored he was to work with his military community who were so dedicated, focused and had such incredible work ethic. He was really touched by the caliber of people he was surrounded by. He wanted to find a way to give back to that community when he left the military, and often asked us to help him figure out how to do that. And he was always coming up with the craziest business ideas and telling one of us to chase them down.

We decided that with our combined skill sets (myself, my husband and my daughter), this would be a good fit and close to what Jonas wanted to accomplish.

What were some of the challenges in starting up The Jonas Project?

It's interesting that starting a non-profit is very much like starting a business.  Starting a non-profit is starting a business. You have to find an audience that will listen and money to operate and provide services for our veterans. It took us a long time to find our audience, our partners, and we are still looking for money! We've also had an incredible team of volunteers along the way who believed in the cause and helped us with things like our 501(c)(3) designation.

We are still figuring things out as we grow and serve more veterans. Each milestone comes with its own challenges, just like our veteran entrepreneurs face.

Has The Jonas Project received any support from the SEAL community or those who personally knew Jonas?

We've had incredible support from friends, family and even SEALs. The Navy SEAL Foundation has offered a grant for SEALs interested in entrepreneurship. We've even had a few SEALs work with us.

We have a mentor who went to high school with Jonas and now works to advise veterans on web sites.

We have Jonas' friends and colleagues who volunteer their time or donate on a regular basis.

The support we've received from the military community and from our own friends and family has been tremendous, and honestly helps keep us moving forward on tough days.

How does TJP hope to grow in the next 5 years?

Our intent is to grow in a measured and deliberate way so we can keep the personal touch we now have with every veteran and mentor. Every year we'll increase the number of veterans we serve, recruit more mentors, and eventually have a physical location where we can develop a start-up incubator, programs, and training for our veteran entrepreneurs.

We have talked about expanding our services in the future to fill in certain gaps we've discovered. Many veterans who apply will not eventually open businesses either because they will decide it's not right for them or their idea is simply not viable. We want to make sure those veterans have the resources to be successful no matter what career path they choose.

We also hope to open satellite offices in states where veteran populations are highest, such as Texas and Florida. This is why I'm grateful to be honored as a L'Oréal Paris Woman of Worth, because awards like this will allow us to further our mission and work towards our goals.

Can you briefly describe some of The Jonas Project's biggest success stories?

We have some great success stories, considering this is only year three of our existence.

We have a female veteran in Fort Worth, Texas, Monica Vasquez, who started her own construction company called E9 Construction. We were able to help her get her Service Disabled Female Veteran Owned Businesses certification, and now she's winning contracts regularly, hiring more workers, and growing quickly. She just signed her first six figure contract. She's on her way.

Teague Savitch, one of our veterans in Orange County, California, is growing his business called The Assemblers. He makes delicious acai bowls and is now in three to four farmer's markets every week and looking to build a more permanent location.

And there's Jamie Chester, owner of Apex Target Systems, who just recently completed the design of the mobile app that will accompany his target system.

These are just a few examples of the successes our veterans are having. We have a lot of veterans who work with us and decide to take a different route. Some of our veterans go back to school for more training or take amazing jobs for more experience. We consider these wins as well. Whatever it takes to make them successful.

Do veterans who have successfully used The Jonas Project return to mentor newcomers?

Because The Jonas Project has only been around for three years, we have not had enough time to have a veteran come back and mentor. However, most of them tell us that once they "make it" that's exactly what they'll do.

We do have veterans that help each other out. They talk regularly and get advice from each other or just use each other as a sounding board on a bad day.

What are you looking for in veteran mentors, and how do they apply?

Mentors at The Jonas Project make a pretty big commitment to our Veterans. Because we realize that the most critical time for any new business is the first two years of operation, our Mentors commit to working with their veteran for two years. Our mentors are entrepreneurs, business executives and specialists. We have mentors who are veterans, and some who are civilians.

We are always looking for mentors who are willing to volunteer their time and dedicate themselves to the success of our veteran entrepreneurs. Anyone interested in becoming a mentor with The Jonas Project can visit our website to learn more on our mentor page.

What's one of the biggest barriers that veteran entrepreneurs face?

Veteran entrepreneurs have a few unique challenges. They are generally starting businesses right out of service, so they are behind on professional networking. They have not had time to develop certain skills like business planning or financial planning. Those networks and skills are vital for business. That's why we offer Mentors at The Jonas Project. Our mentors help them overcome those obstacles. The mentors are entrepreneurs, executives, and most are veterans themselves.

Another issue that we often see is funding for their businesses. We've seen service men and women who don't have great credit scores because of things that may have happened while they were on deployment. That's why The Jonas Project is working with congress to pass the Credit Reporting Act for the military to help service men and women adjust their credit ratings for anything that may have happened while on deployment.

What are some of the most critical elements to success for a veteran entrepreneur?

  • Be prepared – It takes a lot of work to be a successful entrepreneur. More work than most people know. Starting with a very thorough business plan, market research and a healthy understanding of exactly what it's going to take to make a profit.
  • Have a team to rely on – We hear a lot from our veterans that entrepreneurship is a really lonely road. They come from a very tight-knit community where everything is done in teams. Suddenly they find themselves completely alone trying to tackle this huge next step. Surround yourself with a team of people you can trust. That's part of what The Jonas Project mentors do for our veterans. They become the veteran's team and are there for them. From late night calls about personal lives to business matters, we provide a team the veteran can count on. None of the famous and successful entrepreneurs you've heard of succeeded alone. Apple was founded by two Steves, not one. Hewlett-Packard is two last names, not one. Uber was started by two people as well. The Jonas Project is a veteran entrepreneur's new teammate, even when there are already two veterans partnering to start a business. No one thrives more with teamwork than veterans.
  • Listen to advice – Successful entrepreneurship is a narrow lane to follow. You must be bull-headed enough to want to be your own boss, but not so bull-headed you don't listen to good advice. We encounter a lot of veterans who have the will to succeed but aren't ready to take advice from the people who have been there, made the mistakes, and had the successes. You have to be comfortable realizing that you don't know everything and you'll need some help along the way. Don't be afraid to ask for help, and don't ignore good advice!

What is the value of veterans in the workplace, and of veterans creating sustainable businesses?

It's a cliché that veterans work well in teams and have a can-do attitude. We believe, however, the more important benefit is the example of selfless service they bring. There are many giving and selfless people who never served in the military. And in the military that quality is nurtured and developed to an extraordinary degree.

From the first day of basic training you are taught that your primary concern is the welfare of your team and its success, even if that means your own death. What manager or supervisor wouldn't want an employee who thinks that way? Next is the willingness to solve problems when resources are limited. Finding a way to make it work, whatever "it" is, is a useful quality in any team member.

Is there a benefit to having veterans mentor other veterans as opposed to civilian industry experts?

An industry expert is an industry expert. There is a lot of wisdom in years of experience whether you're a civilian or a veteran. We have civilian mentors at The Jonas Project who are leaders in their field and are sinking everything they have into our veterans.

The big difference in a veteran mentor is shared experience. They understand the lingo, the life, and what it was like to transition from military life to civilian life. Nevertheless, we choose mentors according to who will be the best match for any given veteran. The mentor-veteran relationship will inevitably become close. It's the suitability of the match that matters.

Our mentors, whether they are civilians or veterans, all come to the table with the same goal – make our veteran entrepreneurs successful.

How can veterans participate in the program?

We welcome veterans to apply for The Jonas Project. They should have at least a working draft of a business plan, some marketing research, and working knowledge of the industry they wish to enter.

We take applications through our website.

When a veteran applies to The Jonas Project, they will be contacted for a brief telephone interview and then their business plan is reviewed by a panel of mentors. If the panel thinks the idea is viable, and we can help, they are then accepted, assigned a mentor and will begin the process of making sure all the logistics of their new business are in order. We provide resources at no cost to the veteran.

How can potential donors reach out to the Jonas Project?

We have a very small staff doing mighty things at The Jonas Project. We try to keep our costs down so that we can devote the maximum number of dollars to our Veterans. If someone is interested in donating to The Jonas Project, they can visit our website.

Or simply text JONAS to 41444.  All donations are tax deductible.

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