Today's veterans face many challenges: reintegration, delayed benefits, unemployment, and the often invisible wounds of PTSD and TBI, among others. These issues deserve our national attention. But none of these is the biggest threat to returning veterans.
The big threat: loss of hope in the American Dream
Most post-9/11 veterans transitioned out of the military during a period of economic malaise. Economic uncertainty is difficult for everyone, but especially transitioning military veterans. I returned from Iraq in 2008, as the financial crisis was just beginning. As we all know, the economy hobbled along in the years that followed. But hope in the American Dream has not yet returned. In fact, a recent New York Times poll asked the question "Do you think it is still possible to start out poor in this country, work hard, and become rich?" The result: the lowest positive response rate in over 30 years. History tells us that veterans can turn the tide.
History lesson: entrepreneurship by military veterans leads to economic growth
Following WWII, millions of American military veterans became business owners. This "greatest generation" hit the labor forced, worked hard, sparked an economic boom, and America flourished. It is well known that the size of this transitioning force led to increased demand for goods and services. Less known, however, is the role of entrepreneurship among veterans: a staggering 49% of the greatest generation went on to own or run a business. As a result, the country boomed, and the greatest generation thrived. Could today's veterans do the same?
Present challenges: today's veterans face unique barriers to becoming business owners
My generation of veterans is obviously much smaller than our grandparents, and less than a quarter of today's veterans want to be entrepreneurs. My generation of veterans is also uniquely burdened by regulations that have at once increased the cost of doing business and diminished the availability of capital. What's more, bank consolidation, new banking laws, and dissolving community banks reduce funding options. Meanwhile, predatory "payday" business lenders circle online—just as they did outside the gates of our military installations when we were on active duty. To be sure, the present business environment is tough, but my generation is used to hostile environments.
The hope: a new generation of veteran entrepreneurs is emerging
Despite these headwinds, a new generation of veteran entrepreneurs (or "vetrepreneurs") is on the rise. This generation is supported by a self-made business ecosystem in which veterans are supporting veterans. This network is complete with our own training programs, startup incubators, mentoring programs, angel investors, and resources.
My generation of veterans is the most technologically-savvy, creative, and diverse in American history. We fought America's longest war, a war filled with uncertainty and complexity—just like the business world. We're now applying those same skills to running our own businesses.
Exciting days lie ahead for entrepreneurship in America, and veterans are leading the way. Stay tuned as we share the stories, successes, and lessons from the new greatest generation of veteran entrepreneurs in a regular column.
Mark L. Rockefeller is the Co-Founder & CEO of StreetShares.com, a "veterans funding veterans" business loan marketplace. StreetShares has secured the largest private commitment to fund veteran-owned businesses in U.S. history—$200 million over the next four years. StreetShares has also formed the largest coalition of veteran-focused small business and entrepreneurship organizations in the nation. Mark is a veteran, entrepreneur, and (recovering) lawyer. Follow Mark on twitter @markrockefeller.