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Last week, VA officials, veteran entrepreneurs and those interested in doing business with them all converged in New Orleans for a sprawling four-day business conference that not only gave its attendees invaluable commercial opportunities, but also pumped life into the economy of a city that is still rebounding from one of the worst natural disasters in our nation's history. The National Veterans Small Business Conference brought around 4,000 business-minded veterans from all over the country to The Big Easy for nearly a week's worth of networking, informational sessions, presentations by VA officials and authorities on financial subjects, and luncheons and conferences.
It was the first time in the event's seven-year history that the festivities were outside of Las Vegas. The move to the New Orleans Convention Center was arranged, partly, by Past National Commander John Detweiler, a New Orleans native who earlier in the year organized a luncheon between city mayor Mitch Landrieu (D-La.) and VA officials, including Secretary Eric Shinseki.
"The Secretary asked the mayor what he could do for the city, and the mayor said ‘bring us some conferences,'" Detweiler said. "This is the first time this conference was held somewhere other than Las Vegas, so we're very happy and appreciative to have arranged it here."
In turn, VA took a much more active role in planning and supporting this year's conference. Officials from the department helped coordinate and sponsor the event. Shinseki addressed attendees during their lunch hour on Tuesday, and other VA representatives were on hand in speaking and advisory roles. Formerly, the conference was the responsibility of the Army Office of Small Business Programs.
"I think the amount of emphasis the VA has put into this shows that they really do care," said Dawn Halfaker, Legion Business Task Force member and event organizer. "They really want to find ways to empower veteran-owned businesses and service-disabled veteran-owned businesses. I think they see this conference as a way to get their decision makers here to connect with business owners."
Halfaker's Halfaker and Associates, LLC, helped set up the conference, which featured an exhibit hall for companies and more than 50 breakout sessions on subjects like obtaining service-disabled status for a company or procuring federal contracts.
The Legion's Business Task Force had a strong presence at the event. Legionnaire and task force member Tony Jimenez addressed a lunchtime of around 5,000, speaking to the importance of veteran businesses and the intricacies of getting a start-up off the ground. His MicroTech, LLC, a technology support and services contractor, started modestly in 2004 as a small business located just outside the nation's capital. It's since grown in revenue 4,000 percent and is one of the most recognized and prominent businesses in its field.
"We're not showing that veterans can succeed, we're showing that veterans can exceed the standard," Jimenez said.
A frequent sponsor and promoter of the conference since its inception, he recalled a time when the event was "just table tops" with a small scattering of attendees.
"People didn't know what an SDVOSB was, and they really didn't know what a veteran-owned small businesses was," he said. "We had to beg people to come. We had to work hard to get guest speakers. We had to press people to be interested... Now, the luncheon hall looks like a rock concert. There were so many people there talking and exchanging business ideas."
Jimenez joined American Legion Economic Director Joe Sharpe on the docket of lunchtime speakers for the event. Both agreed that VA's involvement in something like a financial conference was necessary for the organization's advocacy on behalf of veterans.
"VA is and should be the advocate for veterans, particularly in the government, but even more so in the commercial world," Jimenez said.
Ultimately, to Jimenez, the conference growth is an indication of how much recognition and respect veterans have gained in the financial world.
"In a short period of time, we've made veteran small business and veteran entrepreneurship words that people recognize," he said. "They're now thinking of veterans differently than they thought of us in 15, 20 years."