Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional information from one of the study’s researchers.
Veteran entrepreneurs know that networking and having a mentor are important for business. But developing those relationships may be easier said than done, a recent study shows.
Researchers at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University asked veteran and military-connected business owners across the country about their entrepreneurship journey. According to their findings, veterans listed mentorship and networking as two of the most helpful resources for their business — as well as two of the most challenging.
For some, the challenge came from relocating to a new area after their transition from the military, the report states. Others simply didn’t know how to cultivate those relationships.
“We found that many veterans are not maximizing their networks,” said Nyasha Boldon, co-author of the IVMF study. In at least one group discussion, researchers found most of the participants weren’t approaching this aspect of their business thoughtfully, she said.
The report, “Bridging the Gap: Motivations, Challenges, and Success of Veteran Entrepreneurs,” is based on nearly a year of interviews and surveys of 85 aspiring and current military-connected business owners — most of them veterans. Researchers are planning to dive deeper into some of the study’s specific findings, including participants’ responses on networking and mentoring.
Military culture is a big reason veterans struggle in this area, said Michael Abrams, executive director of the Columbia University Center for Veteran Transition and Integration and co-author of the guidebook, “Business Networking for Veterans.”
“A lance corporal would never go into the first sergeant’s office and say, ‘Hey, first sergeant, let’s sit down and talk about your career’ and ‘How can I advance in my career?’” Abrams said. “They’d be viewed as a kiss up or someone who is just trying to get ahead.”
After the military, the challenge becomes teaching service members that networking isn’t brown nosing and that’s it’s OK to build mutually beneficial professional relationships with people who are more experienced, he said.
Limited networks can be another reflection of military culture.
“When you’re a junior person, you’re in your squad or you’re in your platoon. Typically service members — they don’t go beyond their company. The squads, the platoons are very tight knit,” Abrams said.
The report lists mentors and networks in the list of the top five resources veteran business owners found most helpful, along with education, business planning, and marketing. When asked where they look to for help, 41 percent of study participants said mentors, and 38 percent said other business owners.
Among the 75 percent of participants who said they’d experienced challenges starting and growing their business, limited networks and difficulty finding a mentor, as well as accessing capital, were the most common problems.
Air Force veteran Ryan Brown, an aspiring multi-unit franchisee in Atlanta, said his mentor has played an important role to business ownership, and he wouldn’t be where he is today without that guidance.
“That’s point blank — period,” he said.
Brown’s mentor, whom he met through the International Franchise Association, has helped him broker deals and better understand business evaluations, both for his current partnership in a Great American Cookie franchise and the franchise he is currently in the process of purchasing as sole owner.
“Anything that arises I can call him, email him, text him, and he can give me feedback,” Brown said. “He gives me different ways to look at it in order to combat the challenges.”
IVMF’s research indicates veteran business owners are making an effort in this area, Boldon said. Many who shared experiences about being burned by a mentor or struggling to build their professional network still recognized their importance.
Boldon said there’s no one right way to develop these relationships. A mentor could be anyone — or multiple someones for different areas of your business — and networking can happen anywhere. The report recommends that veteran service organizations and other groups start providing more guidance in this area.
“Despite there being tons of ways to (network), it was a little surprising that a lot of veterans are still thinking of it just one way,” she said. Vets can network at general entrepreneurship-focused events, speed networking sessions and on LinkedIn, she said.
LinkedIn worked for Brown, who started reaching out to other franchisees before he transitioned from active duty in 2015, he said. Volunteering in his community — one of Abrams’ top networking tips for veterans — also helped him make contacts.
“Most veterans should know and understand that they shouldn’t fear the rejection,” Brown said. “They would be surprised at how many people are willing to help us as we transition out.”
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.