Business owners and veterans connect at Great Falls forum

by Josh Meny


Scores of people attended a Small Business Opportunity Workshop in Great Falls on Thursday at the Civic Center.

The focus was on helping veterans transition from the military to the business world, and was organized by U.S. Senator Jon Tester(D-MT).

Tester said, “It’s about getting information out there about what’s available already, that folks don’t have to pay for, if you’re a veteran, to be able to start a business up.”

Thad and Heidi Reiste, both veterans, used the same resources and info to get their business up-and-running. They’ve owned and operated Electric City Coffee in downtown Great Falls for the past two years.

Heidi explained, “We utilized them to become a success story. We listened to everything our business mentor says.”

Other veterans who have benefited from previous workshops are now coming back to share their experiences and offer support.

One of them is Jeff Gilmore, who served in the U.S. Air Force. He’s taken his skills as a pilot, and transferred them to Facebook as an Emerging Operations Lead.

Gilmore noted, “Even while I was in the military, I always had a passion for social media and connecting people, and I saw that as a way; if you can connect the world, you can make the world a better place.”

Gilmore says there are similarities between a combat situation and leading his social media team into launching a new product. The methodologies are the same but with different tools and terms. His successful transition started with help from Anne Meree Craig, the director of the COMMIT foundation.

Gilmore explained how the COMMIT Foundation had helped him make the transition: “They helped hone our story, and helped teach us the skills that we needed to be effective and be an employer within the tech industry, and now it’s neat to see that not only is Anne Meree here at this conference sponsored by Tester, but I’m also in a position where I can be able to give back and help other veterans.”

Gilmore actually knows Heidi Reiste, the Electric City Coffee co-owner – she was his Military Training Leader when he was a cadet at the Air Force Academy.

Information about the forum:

Jeff Gilmore – Emerging Services Operations Lead at Facebook, former Air Force pilot

  • As an Emerging Services Operations Lead at Facebook, Jeff and his team oversee the development of M, a cutting-edge artificial intelligence-powered Messenger assistant that can answer questions and complete tasks. Jeff is passionate about veteran causes and veteran employment. He leads the Veterans Employee Resource Group at Facebook. He is also a Major in the US Air Force Reserves as a C-17 pilot and liaison at DIUx. While on active duty, he served 10 years as a C-21 and C-17 instructor pilot. He deployed in support of OIF/OEF and Horn of Africa operations.

Anne Meree Craig – Co-Founder & Executive Director of The COMMIT Foundation

  • Anne Meree Craig is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of The COMMIT Foundation, which aims to create opportunities for veterans by fostering mentorship, extending and growing networks, promoting familiar camaraderie, and inspiring and accelerating veterans into leadership roles as they move from military service to the professional civilian world. Anne Meree is also the wife of a US Army Ranger veteran and served as a civil servant deploying around the world giving direct strategic and operational support to the Department of Defense and Intelligence Agencies. She has also served as the Chief Administrative Officer at McChrystal Group and as the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Berico Technologies. The COMMIT Foundation has also spent this year on-site at Facebook headquarters, helping the company understand the massive value to recruiting veterans and helping it revamp its approach to hiring and managing employees who have served.


Panel 1: How the Country You Served Can Serve You 

  • Sara Hudson – Director, Veterans Business Outreach Center
  • Michelle Leshe – Procurement Analyst and Small Business Technical Advisor, Government Services Administration (GSA) 
  • Rod Alne – President and CEO, The Peak, Inc.
  • Lillian Sunwall – Program Manager, The Montana Procurement Technical Assistance Center

Panel 2: Hiring Our Nation’s Heroes

  • Elaine Stewart – Director of Staffing, The BNSF Railway
  • Daniel Bernhardt – Director, Veteran’s Employment & Training Service at the U.S. Dept. of Labor
  • Joe Fletcher – Employment Coordinator, Employee Support of the Guard and Reserve

Panel 3: Starting Your Own Venture as a Veteran

  • Paul Kanning – Owner, TomTilda Farm
  • Heidi Reiste – Owner, Electric City Coffee
  • Willie Blazer – Owner, Willie’s Distillery