When KC Chhipwadia returned from his second deployment to the Middle East, he knew inside that something had to change.
So the Navy Reserve Commander left his civilian job of 20 years with NASA and worked with a local startup before ﬁnally realizing his dream of helping young people reach their full potential. His new business, Athlete Foundry, is designed to help student-athletes and their parents understand how to succeed not only in their chosen sport, but also in life.
Chhipwadia is one of a growing number of current and former service members who are turning to entrepreneurship instead of pursuing employment in the traditional civilian sector. Each year the SBA helps more than 200,000 veterans, reservists and service-disabled veterans start and grow their small businesses, and last year, the association ensured more than $1 billion in capital for businesses owned by veterans and their spouses.
Federal studies show that veterans are 45 percent more likely to be self-employed than are non-veterans, and the most recent census numbers show that there are roughly 2.4 million veteran-owned businesses in the U.S. But many experts say that number is low, especially with the recent drawdowns and the anticipated inﬂux of one million service members transitioning out of the military over the next few years — many heading into the civilian workforce.
Civilian employment can be a difﬁcult place to acclimate for many service members. “When you’re
in the military, you are given just amazing responsibilities, both for people’s lives and for millions of dollars in equipment and technology…and you could only be 19 or 20 years old,” said Chhipwadia, who is going on 18 years in the Navy, both on active and reserve status. “Then, when you return to the civilian world, it can be a difﬁcult thing to explain to your civilian employers. When you start looking for work in the civilian sector, there can be a sense of deﬂation, a sense that ‘I can do so much more.’”
Lt. Jeremy Boeh, an Army Reservist and entrepreneur in South Carolina, agrees. “In the military, you always have someone in charge of you, but at the same time, you are always your own boss and are responsible for the things that need to happen,” he says. “It’s a totally different mindset in the civilian world.”
Entrepreneurship can be a way to utilize those leadership skills honed in any sector of the military, adds Boeh. “Any skill set you get in any branch of the military is applicable to being an entrepreneur — you just have to know when to use it,” he says.
Boeh knows what he’s talking about, as the founding CEO of IOE, LLC (Impact Over Everything), a creative consulting team specializing in identity exploration and branding, design, organizational culture, leadership and founding Entrepreneurship Director of NEXT High School in Greenville, S.C., a charter high school for students interested in being entrepreneurs.
Boeh advises those interested in taking the entrepreneurial leap to do their homework and apply their skills learned in the military. “It’s just incredible when applied,” he says. “Entrepreneurship is just leadership applied in a different fashion. The military gives you a quick, crash-course in the soft skills needed to be an entrepreneur.”
And while no one can guarantee success, Chhipwadia says, using those military skills to your advantage can certainly raise your odds. “You learn to do a lot with a little,” he says. “You learn to be resourceful, how to make things happen and to accomplish your mission under difﬁ cult or seemingly impossible conditions.
It becomes part of your DNA. No matter what the obstacle, you still have to make things happen.”
Ric Killian, also a reservist and entrepreneur, says that perseverance is key. “Business can be much more difﬁ cult than a military lifestyle (excepting combat),” he says. “Being able to work around obstacles and overcome defeat is a critical factor for a successful small business person.”
Killian is about to retire from the military after 30 years in the Army and Army Reserve, but started working in real estate in 1991, after leaving active duty. He has since grown his real estate development business and recently served three terms as a member of the North Carolina House of Representatives.
Control Your Own Destiny
One of the biggest reasons many service members turn to entrepreneurship is to be their own boss. “There’s a sense of ownership and control when you start your own business,” says Chhipwadia. “As a leader, you want to lead.”
The Commanding Ofﬁcer of U.S. Naval Forces Korea, Reserve Detachment Alpha, out of Des Moines, Iowa, Chhipwadia knows a thing or two about leading, and about dreaming big.
“All my life, since I was about six or seven years old, I wanted to be an astronaut,” he says. “And actually, I got pretty close to that goal — closer than most. But that was when I realized that, even if you set these high goals, if you don’t have a good idea or roadmap to get there, it makes things all the more difﬁ cult to achieve. I thought that there needs to be more information on HOW to achieve a goal. I looked around and saw the correlation between student-athletes and serving in the military — team, vision, passion. My goal now, through the Athlete Foundry, is to create more well-rounded student-athletes by giving them that roadmap they will need to be successful.”
Being in the reserve component actually offers its own set of unique beneﬁ ts and challenges for budding entrepreneurs.
“There’s a ton of risk — especially if you have a family to take care of,” says Chhipwadia. “It’s a lot of responsibility to do it right…but as a reservist, having the beneﬁts — medical, in particular, is amazing — it gave me the peace of mind to pursue my passion.”
Killian says that sometimes it can be harder for reserve component members to balance everything — particularly if they are starting their own business, to boot. “You have these ﬁxed military commitments,” he says, and it is not always easy to keep your business up and running if you have to leave the country for a long deployment.
And while there are some programs out there to help in these situations, he says, it can still take a toll. Killian says he feels it has become more difﬁcult for small businesses in general over the past several years, with increased regulations, decreased availability of capital and increased competition from big business.
Boeh joined the military as a private, then worked his way up to ofﬁcer through the Green to Gold program. He most recently served as company commander, and is about to move into the AGR program in Greenville, S.C., where he does a lot of consulting work for startups.
“In the last three years, I’ve seen lots of veterans starting their own businesses,” he says. The numbers have jumped, he says, for many reasons, in his opinion: more and varied funding opportunities, better access to information and more help and mentoring programs.
“For veterans and reservists, ﬁgure out where you are and what makes the most sense,” says Boeh. “If you’re a 20-year-old reserve Soldier, and you only have yourself to worry about, you can just go for it. But if you have family, can you give up everything to take a chance? At the end of the day, it’s really no different from a civilian looking to start a business as far as risk — but you do have access to a lot more resources.”
Boeh started his own business ventures by doing private consulting, focusing on branding and storytelling. “It seems so simple,” he says, “but it makes such a difference. Framing your personal narrative and communicating that through your business to the public — it is how you can help your brand. There is a big swell of patriotism out there right now, and people want to help veterans. Some veterans are reluctant to share their stories, but it can actually help you in marketing your business.”
Another advantage for reservists, says Boeh, is the opportunity to make extra money if needed. “If you’re actively involved in your military career, you can always ‘fall-back’ so to speak on taking those volunteer deployment opportunities, if you get in a money pinch,” he says.
“And the amount of resources available for reserve Soldiers now, in 2016 — the number of mentors now available, the amount of money available from various sources — it’s so incredible right now,” says Boeh. “There is no better time to start your business.” ?