Military.com had the chance to chat with Emily McMahan, director of the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center (AVBEC). AVBEC is an organization that assists transitioning service members with obtaining employment and fostering new businesses.
Military.com: Tell us about your military background.
Emily McMahan: "I graduated from West Point in 2001 and was commissioned as a military police officer. I was on active duty for about five years and did the reserves for about two. I served in Iraq, Afghanistan and at the Pentagon after 9/11. My MP [military police] unit was deployed to D.C.
"When I left active duty, a classmate from West Point started a government contracting firm in Arlington, Virginia. I was lucky enough to work with her and her business. It was great to get that experience right out of active duty. The company was successful, and I was very lucky to be a part of it as the chief financial officer for her company."
Military.com: How did you get started with the Alexandria Veterans Business Enterprise Center?
EM: "While I was working, I ended up going back to business school. I went to the University of Virginia Darden School Of Business in their executive program. There I met Stephanie Landrum, the COO of the Alexandria Economic Development Partnership in Alexandria, Virginia. They are the economic development agency.
"They do all the economic and commercial development, and make sure that all the companies in Alexandria are happy, and try to recruit businesses into Alexandria. She informed me, as I was transitioning out, of an initiative that had started in Alexandria. That was led by some private citizens, some folks in government and some businesses who were all asking what businesses were doing for veterans in Alexandria.
"There was some concern that the city was not organizing, coordinating or facilitating the success of veterans in the city. The other concern was that the sequestration would hamper the city's ability to reach out and make itself an attractive place for veterans to transition. We also asked what the veteran community in Alexandria looked like. How were we organizing and rallying veterans and making sure they were reintegrated?
"I became really excited about that mission and thought that I could relate to those issues and felt that it was very relevant. I was really excited because I hadn't heard of anything at the city or municipality level like that idea. I really wanted to be a part of it."
Military.com: What are the goals of AVBEC?
EM: "We have a vision, mission and purpose. The pie-in-the-sky vision is to be the best in the veteran business community in Virginia and the United States. That's our 50,000-foot goal. Our mission, what we really want to focus on, is to make Alexandria the ideal location for veterans who are interested in starting a business. We want to focus on their growth and their goals.
"Lastly, we want to focus on the veterans who are interested on the employment side and those who might have already transitioned and are looking to start a new career. We're focused on making ourselves the top community for veterans to start a business, grow a business or explore a new career. We want to guide veterans to success in business.
"One of the main goals right now is to create the physical, brick-and-mortar center. Our goal is to have that co-located with the small business development center so veterans can access some of their resources that are already in play. Our vision for that center is for it to be a co-share workspace, so it would act as an incubator and accelerator for business-owned companies.
"It would also be a place where veterans could have meetings, bring clients in and train. We plan on having a really strong curriculum for veterans who are transitioning. We are open for business now; we're working with clients virtually, but we'd like to have a home.
"Our second goal is to increase the number of veteran-owned businesses in the city. Part of that is to piggy-back on the center for having a place for everyone to connect. It's also creating a sense of pride and spirit within the veteran business community and figuring out how to help them grow. We want to provide a database of all the veteran-owned businesses and help them promote themselves and their company.
"Our third goal is to hire Alexandria veterans and reduce unemployment within the veteran population. What's exciting about this goal is that we're trying to incorporate some of the programs at the Virginia state level. Virginia actually has a powerful program for companies hiring veterans, and so we're trying to harness that down at the Alexandria level. We have a lot of companies that are interested in hiring veterans, and we're just trying to connect them.
"Our fourth goal is related to marketing. We want to brand the city, create events, foster the hometown feel in Alexandria, create an environment for networking and help veterans feel like they're integrated and part of the city."
Military.com: What specifically does the Veterans Business Center provide?
EM: "There's the organization that was originally charged with the economic development activity for the city. Underneath them is the Alexandria Small Business Development Center, and that's an organization that does a lot of counseling and provides services for entrepreneurs and small businesses. We see ourselves in league with those organizations but for veterans. We're offering services such as business counseling, transition assistance, and professional sponsorship and mentorship. We try to connect veterans with the top resources available.
"One of the things that we did initially was reach out to all of the different organizations that are in Northern Virginia, and even nationally, that are on the entrepreneurial side and employment side to try and establish partnerships with them. For example, we work with American Corporate Partners who provides mentorship and sponsorship for veterans in specific fields.
"We try to connect veterans with resources since they might be overwhelmed by them and not know where to start. Key for next year, our mayor just declared 2014 the year of the veteran. As part of that, we have a whole year's worth of events that are going to showcase us as a top member in the veteran business community."
Military.com: What is the best way for veterans to utilize AVBEC's resources?
EM: "Contacting the center is the best way. One of the things that's really nice about where we are right now is that we can provide a very personal, one-on-one relationship. I see myself as, hopefully, being able to relate to veterans. I'm not someone without experience.
"I feel like I can empathize with veterans who are starting companies or are transitioning. We're currently working with 13 entrepreneurs in all different stages. We're designing the program for the clients and the customers. We're in the process of developing our website, but we put out information through LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.
Military.com: What do you think the value is of having veteran-owned businesses in the community?
EM: "It's the attributes of veterans. They're a population of folks who have attributes any employer would want: They're loyal, diligent, hard-working and punctual. Those are attributes that are really respected and are well-established in the veteran community.
"On the veteran business side, I think this is attractive to the city because veteran businesses have been a proven success in the city. We have over 250 veteran-owned companies within Alexandria, which is pretty remarkable for our size. The reason why those are successful is that you often have people who are tested. They understand leadership, risk, and how to execute and how to problem solve.
"Veteran companies tend to adapt and overcome many of the issues small companies usually face. Being a veteran is like having a badge of honor on your sleeve; people know what you've been through and where you come from."
Military.com: What would be your No. 1 piece of advice for transitioning veterans?
EM: "I think it would be reflection. The one piece people sometimes forget is that it's a wonderful time to really stop and take inventory. It's one of the few times in your life that you, for the most part, have a blank slate. Slowing down and taking inventory of what you want to do and coming up with a plan is really important.
"Frequently I see folks coming out of the military at 100 mph. They've done all the requirements, and they try to rush through everything. They look so stressed and have just gone through a very administrative and emotional process. Taking time to reflect on what they want to do and what's of value to them is in order. There's a lot of pressure to get a job immediately or know exactly what you want to do. It's a tough process, and it's OK to ask for help. You don't have to have all the answers."
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