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WBDC assists would-be veteran entrepreneurs

Wed, May 29, 2013

As both an Army veteran and a former Navy spouse, Crystal Bergfield thinks her idea for starting a telecommuting company could help military spouses who want to contribute to household income. Bergfield is taking the next steps in terms of training, resources and most of all – encouragement – through the Women Vetrepreneurship Program (WVP), which is delivered jointly by the Women’s Business Development Center (WBDC) and the Illinois Department of Veterans’ Affairs (IDVA).

Bergfield was attached to the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg, N.C. where her job was not only jumping out of airplanes but managing supplies: weapons, vehicles, medical and office needs, key control of buildings. She served 2½ years from 2004 through 2006. Then, through her church in North Carolina, she met the mother of a sailor who was stationed at Great Lakes and later married him.

She learned in a very real way that military spouses –however well qualified – have factors that do not endear them to employers. Just like many women, they need childcare to be able to work. In addition, they likely will follow their husbands to a new location every couple of years.

After Bergfield got out of the service, she returned to her hometown near Champaign and took a job as a nanny. The husband in the family was an entrepreneur who eventually came to the Chicago area and she came along to work temporarily for them. In the meantime, Bergfield completed her bachelor’s degree as well as a master’s degree in sociology. She wrote her thesis on military spouses.

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The thesis gave Bergfield a clear vision of how she could help, she says. Her telecommuting company, CinCservices (for Commander in Chief Services) will allow women to work in their homes to do outsourced data entry for websites, customer service or even making reservations for business travel. Her market would be military-friendly companies who have signed on to President Obama’s call in 2011 to start hiring military families and veterans.

Bergfield found the WVP through her current employer, Amy Wicker, who took a 12-week course at the WBDC on developing the business plan for her company, allergysafetravel.com. Through WVP, veterans can take WBDC classes for free and eight- to 12-week classes for the costs of the materials. In June, for example, Bergfield will take “Plan for Profit” for just $40 instead of the usual $400 cost to civilians. There are also free networking events where she can meet with other veterans.

“They have told me in the past that if I email and say I cannot afford it, they will make a way,” Bergfield said. “They have grant money. They just work with you. They are amazing women.”

The women-specific program is crucial to raising employment levels, Bergfield said, because many veterans’ hiring fairs have offered jobs in railroading, engineering or contracting manual labor: traditionally male strongholds even though a few women have made inroads.

Bergfield also values WBDC instructors’ knowledge in their specific fields.

“All the women there have different skills, but they come together so brilliantly and work together so well. Freida Curry, director of the WBDC Procurement Technical Assistance Center, was teaching a financing class and she gave me lots of information on how to get started with a business plan, budgeting and financing. Afterward, she spoke the words I needed to hear, words of empowerment. That means the most. Lots of times we as women get so competitive trying to outdo each other. She just took the time to tell me what I am doing is amazing, what I have is amazing and I have what it takes to get this done.”

The networking is also important, she said, because even in the Army, she was just one of 100 women among 15,000 men. She still knows few of her peers.

The WVP is unique because it offers each participant a customized service plan with itemized activities to help her achieve the goals of her business. The WBDC provides counseling, technical assistance on various certifications including veteran, minority and women-owned, procurement assistance and workshops covering access to capital, marketing, business planning and mentoring. Additionally, through its Micro Finance Program, the WBDC is able to make loans up to $25,000 to eligible businesses, both emerging and established. No-cost childcare is also provided through WBDC’s child care business clients.

For its part, the IDVA facilitates a women veterans’ affinity group to spread the word about U.S. Veterans Administration (USVA) healthcare benefits and other social services, including those related to Military Sexual Trauma. Besides the USVA health and mental health experts, affinity group partners include Cook County and City of Chicago veterans’ resources, mental health and military sexual trauma resources through Alexian Brothers, Vets for Vets, Prevail and Give an Hour.

The Illinois Department of Employment Security and private employers assist with translating military language to that of the private sector.

Between its launch in January and early May, the WBDC has had contact with 150 veterans, of whom 40 women have been counseled and have created service plans; 12 of the women veterans with service plans are attending WBDC workshops and classes. In addition, 10 family members of female veterans have been assisted as well as six male veterans.

Thanks to the WBDC’s partnership with V-WISE (Women Veterans Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship, operated by Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families, the WVP program sponsored 16 attendees at the V-WISE conference in Chicago May 3-5, which ran simultaneous to the National Summit on Women Veteran Homelessness (see main story, page 6).

WBDC Chief Development Officer Georgia Marsh led a session on business resources at V-WISE. She encouraged the would-be entrepreneurs to describe their varied ideas for businesses: customized trips to Africa, affordable housing, retirement homes, diabetes-specific nail and skin care affiliated with a podiatrist and dermatologist, management of vacant and foreclosed property for banks.

Bergfield attended the 2½ days of sessions on marketing, financial and legal issues. She said she received needed one-on-one encouragement from one of the speakers, Master Chief Petty Officer Ginger Lee Simpson (USN Ret.), who is now chief operating officer of a company that supplies renewable products to resorts, zoos and theme parks around the world.

“My overall take from it was I just needed to step forward and act,” she said.

Military culture gave her management expertise, but Bergfield said the WVP gave her the courage as an individual to carry out her dream.

“When you go to the military they break you down to build you up,” she said. “They tell you in basic training they are breaking your spirit to train you exactly as they want you. They want you to be a drone, someone who follows directions very well, which is understandable. In a war zone you can’t be off doing your own thing; you have to follow orders.

“But as women we rely on being told what to do instead of saying our idea is amazing and we can go forward with it,” Bergfield continued. “We lose a little bit of that confidence to know that we can do it on our own, or rather with a great team. Georgia [Marsh] offers time to listen to what I have to say, advice but also encouragement. She has given me the contacts to let me know she respects me as a woman and that I have great potential. Words of encouragement are what I need more than anything.”

By Suzanne Hanney,
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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