Veterans who own small businesses, or want to start them, got plenty of good advice at The American Legion's recent small business development workshop, held March 22 as part of the organization's 51st Annual Washington Conference.
Two attendees, Brian and Janice Cavolt  of Virginia Beach, Va., came to the same kind of Legion workshop two years ago. They own JBC Corp, a small business that supplies customized medical kits to the Department of Defense, emergency medical service providers and other clients.
"We found out that The American Legion is the best advocate a veteran can have," Janice says. "People talk about having lobbyists. Well, if you're a veteran, you want the Legion on your side. That's who's going to take care of you."
When the Cavolts ran into a problem with their prime contractor a couple of years ago, the Legion's Economic Division stepped in to help.
"JBC Corp had received a very large order for medical kits – destined for DoD. But the prime contractor was refusing to pay them anything until all the orders had been fulfilled," says Joe Sharpe, the Legion's Economic director.
This particular contract was for the purchase of 40,000 medical kits at a cost of nearly $10 million.
"So we were in quite a spot," Brian says. "Basically, we were going to lose our house, we were going to lose everything. Because we owed millions of dollars that wasn't given to us from the prime (contractor). They weren't going to pay us and the government wasn't going to help us."
Sharpe and members of the Legion's Small Business Task Force arranged for Janice to testify at a March 2009 hearing before the House Subcommittee on Contracting and Technology. She described a military procurement system in which prime vendors wield a great deal of power, which they sometimes abuse.
In her written testimony, Janice said the system in place "does not work in a way that promotes or ensures economic growth and stability for the small business...." Prime vendors "exercise great power over the small business" and sometimes "that power becomes abusive.
"A small business may take years to develop a product," only to have a prime vendor "take your product and actively pursue manufacturers that will produce it for them," Janice told the subcommittee. "The tactics used by many prime vendors to take advantage of the small business are coercive and frequently test the ethical standards of business."
Soon after the hearing, the prime contractor in question contacted the Cavolts and asked them to "call off the dogs," according to Janice. Behind the scenes, JBC Corp got some key assistance from three members of Congress: Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va.; Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; and Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y.
JBC Corp is still providing life-saving medical kits to DoD and other clients, shipping many directly to Iraq and Afghanistan. Several military commands currently train their medics and hospital corpsmen with medical kits developed by JBC Corp.
"We take our business very seriously," Janice said. "We take our commitment to The American Legion very seriously. Because without them, we wouldn't be operating."
"The American Legion stood there day after day and worked with us until we finally got paid," Brian said. "We would be homeless if it wasn't for the help of the Legion."
The story of the Cavolts was one of several shared by attendees during the small business development workshop, engineered by the Legion's Economic Division. But mostly, they came to listen and collect useful information to help them succeed as veteran entrepreneurs.
Keynote speaker Margot Dorfman, founder and CEO of the U.S. Women's Chamber of Commerce, talked about the challenges of small business ownership – especially for women – and the potential for success.
Dorfman also discussed two programs created to help women entrepreneurs: the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) federal contract program, and the Economically Disadvantaged, Women-Owned Small Business (EDWOSB) program.
Attendees also heard about four veteran-employment programs developed by Dr. Michael Haynie , assistant professor of entrepreneurship at Syracuse University.
Haynie's first program, Entrepreneurship Boot Camp for Veterans (EBV) with Disabilities, began in 2007 and was joined three years later by EBV Families, a training program for family members who have become caregivers for wounded veterans.
Two more programs were developed, in partnership with the Small Business Administration: Endure and Grow, a small business management program for National Guard members and reservists; and VWISE – Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship.
VWISE is a national training program for women veterans, featuring conferences for up to 200 women in several cities across the U.S. This program, like the other three, is free of charge but also covers food and lodging for eligible participants. The first VWISE conference is May 5-7 in San Antonio.
According to Walter Cotton , a member of The American Legion Small Business Task Force, veterans attend the Legion's small business workshop "because it provides training, which is one of the key elements to success in a small business's efforts (to capture) contracts in the federal government."
A disabled veteran and small-business owner, Cotton said the Legion's small business workshops are unique because "they bring a cross-section of agency personnel and individuals that are successful vendors" who can share their knowledge and strategic solutions "that may not come out of government-driven organizations.
"There is a paradigm shift that needs to take place," Cotton said. "The winds of change are shifting toward a paradigm where small businesses can participate and qualify for these larger contract opportunities."