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When you leave the military, the biggest question is "what's next?" It's a scary job market right now, but the skills you've received in the military make you highly marketable. The Legion sponsors dozens of veterans hiring fairs each year, and our employment experts also provide tips to writing resumes, networking and making a strong impression in the interview process.

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Entrepreneurship 101

Entrepreneurship 101
Paul Levering, founder and CEO of FeaturTel, discusses business strategies with Lorelei Taylor during the Inc.-Joining Forces Mentoring Fair in Washington. Photo by Noel St. John

Chris Cancialosi left the Army National Guard in late 2005 after being deployed to Iraq. Shortly after returning home, Cancialosi found it difficult to transition back into his previous job, so he started his own business. He's a partner in the New York-based gothamCULTURE, which provides leadership and team development services, as well as organizational culture and change services.

But despite being a part of an already established business, Cancialosi didn't balk at a recent opportunity to share one-on-one time with corporate and business CEOs. He was one of more than 100 veteran business owners and military spouses who attended the Inc./Joining Forces Military Entrepreneurs Mentoring Fair in Washington, D.C. The fair, which received support from The American LEgion, is collaboration between Inc. magazine and Joining Forces - a national initiative led by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden to support the military community. Fifty business CEOs from throughout the country gave current and potential business owners the opportunity to quiz the CEOs on growing their existing businesses or starting one.

"It was invaluable," Cancialosi said. "I wish it would have been longer ... so we could have dived into some details. I think the biggest thing I learned was more of a confirmation that what I'm doing is the right direction. We're setting the stage to really expand quite exponentially in the next couple of years."

Cancialosi said that he, like many servicemembers, found the going sometimes rough when moving back into the civilian world. "I went back to a job, but the transition was extremely difficult, just mentally and emotionally," he said. "And I think that's (what) precipitated my desire to start a business almost immediately after coming home."

Not just open to veteran business owners, the mentoring fair also invited military spouses to attend. One of those - Misty Leinberger, the wife of U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dana Leinberger - is the owner of Integrated Administration Solutions, which provides bookkeeping, administrative and overflow management services in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia.

Leinberger said one of the biggest benefits of the mentoring fair was being able to "bounce some ideas off of someone other than my husband. I definitely got a lot out of this. I can really see the potential in a program like this and the benefits that come with it. It was a valuable afternoon for me."

It was beneficial for the mentors as well, said Bill Wydra, president of Ash/Tec Inc. in Hegins, Pa. Wydra's company is a contract manufacturer of machined and fabricated parts.

"We just love giving back," Wydra said. "We spend a lot of time in our own community giving back to students. This was a real opportunity to give back, and it was nice to spend time with veterans and families of veterans and really engage them. I was inspired by the ideas they had. It gave me a lot of energy, and I think it gave them a lot of energy and a lot of ideas to move forward."

Giving back was also why Dan Frank - the CEO of Three Wire Systems in Falls Church, Va. - chose to serve as a mentor. Three Wire Systems recently was ranked No. 516 on the 30th annual Inc. magazine's 500/5000, a ranking of the nation's fastest-growing private companies. An IT solutions company, Three Wire Systems has experienced a sales growth of 649 percent in the past three years.

But Frank remembers when he was just starting the company in 2006 and why he chose to spend the afternoon with new or soon-to-be business owners.

"I just go back to having been in their shoes five years ago," Frank said. "I'm fortunate that I have the time to try to help out these entrepreneurs - specifically these military entrepreneurs and these veteran business owners. It's a chance to give back. If this were a non-military event, I likely wouldn't be sitting here today."

During the program, the fair's attendees heard from Dawn Halfaker, the founder of Halfaker and Associates, a company that provides national security devices to the federal government. An Operation Iraqi Freedom U.S. Army veteran and Purple Heart recipient, Halfaker has grown her company to more than 160 employees nationwide; when she started, Halfaker had one employee - herself.

"The first thing I really want to convey is the importance of having well thought out business strategy and strategic plan," Halfaker said. "People really want to be focused around an idea ... but there's so much else that has to go into that. Just because someone has an idea, making it happen is a completely different story. That's really what a business plan or a strategic plan is. It's telling the story of how you're going to make this happen."

Cancialosi called the mentoring session a big success. "It would be nice to have something like this once a month," he said. "Wherever you are, whatever stage of business you're at, this is applicable. I rarely have the opportunity to talk to other business owners who have been through what I'm going through. To pause from the hectic day-to-day and do this is invaluable."

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