Outreach program helps veterans transition to business world

by Casey Page

Now that they’re done serving their nation, a group of about 30 veterans is learning how to serve their community – by starting a new business.

The veterans – some of them still serving in a National Guard or Reserve capacity – took an Introduction to Entrepreneurship workshop Friday as part of the Boots to Business Reboot program put on by Billings’ new Veterans Business Outreach Center. The center is affiliated with Big Sky Economic Development and partners with the Small Business Administration to help veterans overcome the obstacles to opening their own business.

“I hope to learn more about applying for a loan to start my dream of having a commercial business outside of my home,” said Cindy Gabel, 53, a former Marine and current member of the Army Reserve who already teaches Pilates fitness in her home but wants to open a studio to help grow her business.

Gabel said she’s been a paralegal, operated a daycare and worked for a county treasurer and served her country as an ammunition specialist and radiology technologist.

“I’ve been trying to find my niche,” she said with a laugh. “I now have a cash flow (working part-time with the Bureau of Land Management), and I have my afternoons off. This (workshop) is motivating me to open some doors.”

She’s got her business name selected already: LB Pilates. The “LB” stands for “Live, Breathe.”

“Live and breathe Pilates. That’s what I do,” she said.

Boots to Business Reboot is a two-step training program, with the introductory course designed to connect veterans with other veterans who successfully launched businesses as well as other business experts. Step two is an eight-week course instructed by a consortium of professors and practitioners.

Another participant, Stewart West, 48, of Billings, served the Marine Corps as a special operations medic for 22 years. Now he wants to put his gift for creating art to work by launching his own design business. He’s planning to call his business SW Design.

He said he hopes the courses can teach him “all the steps I need to set up a business properly and not become a statistic. I will pull from the experience of people who have done it. I hope to do it right the first time, and if that doesn’t work out, I may have another idea later – or I can assist another veteran.”

During Friday’s morning session, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told veterans he’s working on a bill to help fledgling entrepreneurs to work with the SBA to develop their business plan.

“It is a critical tool to offer veterans as they pursue their dream in the business world,” he said. “If we get that bill passed, it will make the VBOC a very busy place.”

Tester praised veterans for “taking advantage of the business resources available to you. There are plenty of resources. You just need imagination and money.”

Red Oxx Manufacturing President Jim Markel, himself a veteran, said he believes veterans can be successful entrepreneurs “because of their ability not to be broken when they face adversity. You have to work hard, of course, and there’s stress” that comes with finances, on-time deliveries and dozens of other stressors.

“But if you have been conditioned to overcome challenges, anything they throw at you in the civilian world is not as dangerous as you’ve already faced in the military,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., told the veterans of his own entrepreneurial experience with a Bozeman software company and his experience growing up and later working with his father, Clair, a home builder.

“Mom did the payroll and dad was out running the company,” he said. “I guess the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”

“It’s not easy being an entrepreneur. It’s hard work,” he said following his remarks to the group.

Veterans are good candidates to launch successful startups, he said, because “they’re not afraid of hard work and they understand the importance of sacrifice. You combine those qualities with the expertise they’re gaining here, and that bodes well for them to fulfill their dream.”