It's Time We Empower Veterans with Entrepreneurial Skills

This post originally appeared in The Hill. It's written by Steve Weiner, co-founder of VetTechTrek.

By the end of the year, over one million veterans will have transitioned from the military to civilian life since 2011, settling into communities across the country and charting new career paths for themselves. For some veterans, pursuing the educational opportunities covered by the GI Bill will be their logical next step. One recent study found that the majority of veterans utilize GI benefits to pursue higher education and personally, that was the path that made the most sense for me. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I left the military and a handful of my predecessors had been accepted to top business schools. Universally, they seemed to be landing jobs at impressive companies when they graduated, so I decided to attend Wharton to earn my MBA.

Yet for many veterans, despite the financial support provided by the GI bill, higher education may not be the optimal next step. Veterans deserve the choice to put those benefits to alternative, productive uses, such as towards starting their own business. The Small Business Administration has reported that veterans are 45 percent more likely to own their businesses than non-veterans. And while this number is in decline, due to the aging of the veteran population, it’s all the more important that the younger generation of post-9/11 veterans are adequately prepared to continue this legacy. I’ve definitely felt the urge to build companies and I witness this desire among my fellow former servicemen and women, too. I receive cold emails from veterans every week asking for feedback on their business plans.

The Veterans Entrepreneurial Transition (VET) Act of 2015, sponsored by U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Jon Tester (D-MT) would help veterans pursue their small business and entrepreneurial aspirations. This legislation would establish a three year pilot program, administered by the Small Business Administration (SBA) and independent partners, that will enable up to 250 GI Bill benefit eligible veterans to pursue an educational entrepreneurial training program, receive business plan development assistance, and to start a new business.

There’s no question that, had I been given the opportunity to utilize my benefits, I may have reconsidered my decision to attend business school. The opportunity cost of attending graduate school is extremely high and most top MBA programs are focused on high-volume talent output to professional services. I saw most of my peer group accepting jobs that would pay off student debt quicker rather than make the effort to soul search for a career that aligned with their personal and professional motivations. For me, starting VetTechTrek scratched my itch to build a company, while bridging the knowledge gap between the veteran community and the evolving post-military job landscape. At VetTechTrek, we expose veterans to opportunities in the tech industry through various programs.

It’s through this work that I’ve witnessed the enormous potential of my fellow veterans to thrive as entrepreneurs. In the military, we make decisions with limited information in rapidly changing and ambiguous environments. It turns out, this experience is a great fit an early stage company, so earlier this year, VetTechTrek teamed up with one of the country’s most successful startup accelerators, Y Combinator (YC), to increase veteran representation amongst YC companies. We identified 40 entrepreneurially-minded veterans to travel to Silicon Valley and pitch their business ideas to YC Partners. The participants received feedback and recommendations on how to apply to YC and we hope that many will receive funding to build business that achieve global scale and become tomorrow’s tech leaders. The VET Act would make an experience like this one accessible to far more veterans.

Today’s global economy no longer resembles that of 1944, when the G.I. bill was crafted for veterans returning home from World War II. Today, entrepreneurship, particularly tech entrepreneurship, is the driver of the 21st century job growth and innovation. It’s incumbent upon Congress to ensure that veterans are empowered with the necessary training and tools to become leaders in this evolving economy. Modernizing the G.I. benefits to enable veterans to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions is just one important step towards this.

Together with the startup policy organization, Engine, we’re calling on Congress to pass the VET Act. In this election year, legislative action on any issue may be difficult. But modernizing and expanding benefits for the veteran community should be a no brainer. It’s all the more important Congress reaffirms its unwavering support for veterans.