The stereotypical view of “disabled veterans" brings to mind images of older military service members in wheelchairs, or younger vets with visible wounds, such as missing limbs or physical scars. But not all service-related injuries are obvious, or even visible. And yet they can shape how veterans view themselves and their career opportunities post-military service.
One career option that has proven popular with veterans in general, and disabled service members in particular, is entrepreneurship. In fact, veterans are 45% more likely to become business owners than non-military personnel, according to a 2012 report from the Small Business Administration. Military veterans run 9% of the nation's small businesses, generating $1.220 trillion in annual sales. And, among veteran-run small businesses, 8.3% are run by veterans with service-connected disabilities.
Looking at Courtney Lynch, co-founder of multimillion-dollar boutique leadership consulting firm Lead Star, you'd never guess that she has a service-connected disability. And yet she endured a series of debilitating stress fractures in her hip during the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidates School (OCS) from all the gear she had to carry. She was in a tremendous amount of pain but refused to halt her training, until she reached the point where she was physically unable to run.
To allow the fractures to heal, Lynch was sidelined for three-and-a-half months at a dreaded desk job, and then returned to full duty. However, once she left active duty, her superiors encouraged her to have her hip evaluated by the Veterans Administration (VA). There she learned that her injury was severe enough to qualify her for a service-connected disability rating. That means, she explains, that she is able to work but will always have access to benefits and medical care through the VA.
Shortly after leaving active duty, Lynch and fellow Marine Corps captain Angie Morgan founded Lead Star and began working to build a successful company. “You face a lot of the same challenges in entrepreneurship as you do in military service," says Lynch, and enduring an injury, “made me better at running a company," she says. “Having an injury I couldn't just will to heal set me up to be more successful."
Since its start-up in 2004, Lead Star has grown from two employees to 11 and now provides leadership development solutions to a wide range of organizations, from Fortune 500 powerhouses such as Schlumberger, Facebook, and Walmart, to small businesses, nonprofits, and academic institutions.
Her classification as a service-connected disabled veteran also qualifies Lead Star for contract set-asides through the federal government but, since the firm's primary client base is in the private sector, that qualification in itself has not led to new business.
Jeff Clemmensen, owner of MiPhone Doctor of Fresno with his wife Deadrea, is another thriving veteran business owner. Clemmensen served in the U.S. Navy for six years, fighting as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom aboard the USS Cleveland. It was there, doctors believe, that Clemmensen's hearing was damaged.
The ambient noise aboard the ship, coupled with long-term exposure to transmitter noise as part of his job as an electronics technician, caused tinnitus and subsequent hearing loss significant enough to be classified as a service-connected disability, explains Clemmensen. But he hasn't let that interfere in any way with his plans for the future.
Unsure of what he wanted to do initially, he put his military training to good use installing satellites for a few years, until one fateful day in 2013 that he dropped his iPhone and broke it. He took it to be repaired but was unimpressed with the quality of the repair job and with the business providing the service. Knowing he could do a much better job, Clemmensen purchased a business package from MiPhone Doctor and became its newest location, in Fresno, California.
There were eight cell phone repair competitors when he started the business, 10 others have come and gone, and there are a total of 16 similar local businesses now, reflecting the growth potential of the phone repair industry.
What MiPhone Doctor of Fresno strives to do, explains Clemmensen, is to “apply the same honor, courage, and commitment required in the military every day at the business." That means being up front and honest with customers about the work to be done, doing it well, and advising clients when their phone is simply not worth fixing. That approach is working, and MiPhone Doctor of Fresno has been experiencing annual growth of 10% consistently. Clemmensen estimates that 45-55% of his business consists of repeat customers.
Like many entrepreneurs, Clemmensen has big plans for the future, including expanding the MiPhone Doctor of Fresno brand nationwide and creating entrepreneurial opportunities for fellow disabled veterans. “That's my dream," he says.
Veteran-owned small businesses have a huge impact on our economy. Contributions veterans make to this country go beyond their active military service at home and abroad. Their contribution is just as big after their military service ends with about 2.4 million veteran-owned businesses with 5.8 million people employed by these organizations.
Continuing our Veteran-owned small business series, we salute and celebrate the men and women who have served in the U.S. Military, and continue to serve as a member of the small business community.
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1. Marcia Lynch, Interview, 2016
2. Jeff Clemmensen, Interview, 2016
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