Getting to Know Bedford’s Edith Nourse Rogers Memorial Veteran’s Hospital: The Bedford VA’s Veteran Business Owners Initiative

By Lee Vorderer

“You will be a change agent.”

Jerry Pinsky, LISCW and founder and director of the Bedford VA’s Self Employment Program, The Veteran Business Owner Initiative (VBOI), says that he heard this phrase at his graduation from Simmons, and it has guided his work at the VA since.  His background: after his military service he joined the computer field, and he realized that he was not doing what he wanted to do.  Getting his Social Work degree enabled him to identify his dream – to help others. The Bedford VA is known throughout the VA system as a location for trying new approaches, and a Fellowship at the Bedford VA created a perfect opportunity. After graduation and with the support from Dr. Charles Drebing, Pinsky became an agent of change by creating the Veteran Business Owner Initiative, a self-employment program that welcomes Veterans regardless of their other challenges.

Compensated Work Therapy is the foundation of the program, an approach that recognizes that work has a real benefit to offer to those who have been outside the community’s mainstream.  While their peers were building their roots in the community – buying homes, getting jobs, starting families- Veterans were often away from home, away from families, serving their country, accomplishing missions, and keeping each other safe. They sacrificed this root making opportunity in order to serve their country. They came back home after their service and were forced to start making connections that many did not know how to make.  Many came home with physical and emotional injuries that have still not healed.  And they came to the VA for help with their illnesses and help with their futures. The VA does not turn them away.

In developing the Veteran Business Owners Initiative, Pinsky collaborated with a colleague to develop a strong business curriculum that would enable those who finished it to take the next steps toward starting their own businesses. The 18 modules comprising the curriculum, or about a 4-and-one-half month-long course, has evolved over the last 14 years, but the essential purpose did not change:  those who complete it are ready to take the first steps in creating their own business.  They will have identified their interests and talents and they will have learned how to prioritize the steps required to get from business idea to actual operation.

Like so much at the VA, the Veterans who went through the course designed a support structure for themselves and for everyone completing the course.  Veterans are committed to helping one another, so a long-term support network evolved. Called the Veteran Business Owners Association, it is a not-for-profit organization that continues to support and encourage Veterans as they create and operate their businesses.  The Association is run entirely by Veterans; Veterans join the Association by vote of the Association members. The members ask each person who completes the 18-module course to spend six months creating a detailed development plan for their idea together.  Each Veteran presents his or her ideas to the Association and receives feedback or suggestions.  As the Veteran moves forward implementing his or her plans, the Association is there to help – by mentoring, by making connections, by always offering advice and support, and by modeling healthy business relationships.  In this as in all other Veteran programs, this support is there forever. More than 250 businesses have been created with the help of the Veteran Business Owners Initiative over the past 14 years.

Clearly, this program offers important benefits by giving Veterans a chance to help other Veterans through business enterprise. By assisting veterans facing physical and emotional challenges to run profitable, secure business ventures, it enables them to begin to build both their own futures and the community roots that their non-veteran peers built.  Equally important as a program outcome is that The Veteran Business Owners Initiative enables its Veteran members to give back to their communities.  Strong businesses pay local taxes, hire local people, and provide local services; by doing so they enrich the fabric of the communities in which they locate.

Although it was designed to serve Veterans, the Veteran Self Employment Initiative welcomes non-veterans to apply for the course and eventually, for membership in the Association.  Anyone, Veteran or non-veteran, who wants to take part in the program meets with Pinsky to be introduced to the program and to sure there is a good fit between the goals of the person and the capacities of the Veterans Business Owners Initiative.

Success stories abound.  About six years ago, a woman in the Veteran Business Owners Initiative began thinking about starting a wig business; over time, her ideas evolved and changed.  She got support from the Association through all the levels of her changing ideas, her planning, and implementation. She is now a successful Real Estate developer, who is creating homes and businesses in and around her home community. She continues to be a member of the Association so she offers what she’s learned to everyone else in the group.  Another Veteran decided he wanted a career in food service, and he started a Victorian Coffee Shop in his home community that thrives.

Starting a business takes personal resources and it takes money.  The financial aspect of business development is part of the Veteran Business Owners Initiative as well. It has identified lenders across Massachusetts that are interested in making small business loans for particular types of businesses to Veterans, and the Association has assisted members in borrowing more than $2 million dollars in Small Business Association (SBA) Patriot Express loans from commercial banks. The Association also has created its own Bank, the VBOI Empowerment Bank, funded through donations and Association dues, that offers small business loans to those taking part in the program.  More than 100 loans have been taken from the Association bank, totaling about $100,000, and all but three have been paid back.

One more story….one of the Association Loans was taken out by a Veteran who started developing his business.  Early in this process he was diagnosed with a fatal illness and found himself in bankruptcy.  Before his death, his loan was paid off by the other Veterans in the Association, because they knew that the Veteran did not want to die owing money to the Association. Throughout the program, Veterans who learned to take care of one another during their military service continue this care for each other when they are no longer serving.

The Veterans Business Owners Initiative’s success is well known through the Veterans Administration and through the federal Small Business Association as well, which has named the Veteran Business Owners Initiative a Small Business Champion.  But the program is not replicated in other states, even though Veterans talk with one another, creating a kind of viral marketing of the idea and its success. Beyond the idea, funding is needed to teach the curriculum at other Veteran Centers around the country and to support the creation of Veteran Groups who can offer the detailed and general business support that is available through the VBOI in Massachusetts.  Local businesses could sponsor the training, in partnership with their local VA services, or host the Association meetings. The outreach needed for this kind of partnering is beyond what is possible for federally funded VA staff. Association members could undertake this outreach role, but they need guidance and mentoring to do it effectively. This missing link is what prevents the Veteran Business Owners Initiative from spreading across the country.

With such positive outcomes for Veterans and communities, a program like the Veteran Business Owners Initiative could change the lives of Veterans across the Country as it has here in Massachusetts.  Jerry Pinsky and the VBOI are agents of this change.

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