Military spouse entrepreneurs are getting more access to education, training and loans, but a broader look at the issues they face could open up more opportunities, experts say.
"At the highest level, we need, as a community, to do more of that," said Mike Haynie, vice chancellor for veterans and military affairs and executive director and founder of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University.
When talking about transition services for the troops, the discussion needs to include the family, he said. That creates the impetus to really rethink the approach, design and development of all these vocational programs.
"At the end of the day, if you want to positively impact the experience of veterans and service members, part of where you have to focus on is the spouse. That's going to require a broader shift of thinking, not just in places like DoD and the VA, but also in Congress," Haynie said in an interview during an entrepreneurship training conference for women veterans and military spouses in Washington, D.C.
The conference is part of the Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship, or V-WISE program, and officials encourage more military spouses to participate.
Sometimes spouses are ineligible because of the laws that authorize programs. "A lot of things we can or can't do for spouses are not a function of the will of the agencies or others, but really a function of how legislation comes down to authorize, or not, who is eligible for these various programs," Haynie said.
"In the context of continuous improvement opportunities around transition programs and supportive services provided to those who are serving, how do we open the door as wide as possible for spouses to participate and benefit from these programs?" he said.
But there has been an improvement in what's available for spouses as well as vets, he said.
"There's almost no excuse for not positioning yourself as informed, trained and ready to be a business owner before you make that commitment," he said. "The power of business ownership for military spouses is the portability of the vocation."
He noted that with a laptop, you can launch a business almost instantaneously. And if you do it in such a way that the product or service is not tied to geography, "then all of a sudden, you have a very portable vocation that's well-suited for military spouses.
"It allows them to overcome the career challenges that are associated with [permanent change-of-station moves], licensing, credentialing, etc. A lot of that can be overcome through business ownership."
Besides the fact that business ownership may offer a way for spouses to have a portable career, building a business offers a safety net while the active-duty member is still in the military. "They're building a business knowing there's a second income coming in, as opposed to at transition, with the risk for a family if one member is pursuing business ownership [and] the other member doesn't secure employment," Haynie said. "If there's income coming in from the service member, that's a wonderful safety net."
At the Institute for Veterans and Military Families, all of the programs related to issues like vocational transition, licensing and credentialing are also open to military spouses.
One example is the Small Business Administration's Boots to Business program, now open to active-duty members and their spouses from the day they enter the military, not just to those within a year of leaving the military.
In Boots to Business, SBA works in partnership with Syracuse's IVMF to help troops and spouses explore opportunities for business ownership or other self-employment, leading them through steps to evaluate business concepts and providing knowledge for developing a business plan.
V-WISE is an entrepreneurship training program for female veterans, active-duty women and female partners, and spouses of service members, and it's also a partnership with the SBA. The regional training focuses on helping women learn business best practices, develop entrepreneurial skills and build networks as they launch or grow their businesses.
"Building a good network is really important, so opportunities like V-WISE are huge for starting, growing and building a business," said April Keating, whose husband is on active duty with the Army National Guard.
She started her business in 2010 when she was pregnant with their first child, after struggling through PCS moves and being laid off. Her business has evolved a bit and she now does social media and email marketing for small businesses.
Her own business offers her flexibility and portability. "I was frustrated. If I wanted to do something that allowed me to build a career, I felt like I needed to do it on my own," she said. But her challenge at that time was in not knowing what she was doing, and in finding the right resources.
More resources are available now, and organizations like IVMF, SBA and DoD can help identify them.
Barbara Carson, the SBA's acting associate administrator for the Office of Veterans Business Development, said everything available through the SBA for veterans is also now available to military spouses, by law. That includes, for example, no-fee business loans on up to $350,000 and reduced fees for loans up to $5 million. The SBA doesn't make loans, but it guarantees loans through lenders.
Although the name of her office doesn't include military spouses, "If I could change the name, I would," said Carson, an Air Force reservist who is married to an active-duty Air Force officer and started her own business when they were stationed in Okinawa. "I feel strongly about this."
Being eligible for these benefits from the first day of military service means military families will do things differently than if they waited until transition. "They will have a much better plan, potentially will have saved more money, and will have a better credit score because they're paying attention," she said.
Benefits like the reduced- or no-fee loans "will open the door for you, but won't get you through," said Carson. "If you're not prepared for that opportunity, it's not going to happen."
The programs through SBA, Syracuse's IVMF and others help with that preparation.
"What we're doing is help them investigate and make that decision. ... We do help save people from making decisions that could be harmful to the family" in terms of finances and other aspects, she said.
"As passionate as I am about trying to open doors to business ownership for veterans and military spouses, I would never recommend business ownership to someone without first recommending they go out and participate in something like V-WISE or connecting with resource partners like the SBA," said Haynie.
"It's not something that you jump into on a whim."