Each year the U.S. Small Business Administration celebrates National Veterans Small Business Week, which is a perfect opportunity to explore the attributes shared by members of the military community that contribute to their success as entrepreneurs domestically and globally.
The military community is made up of people from all different backgrounds and members who have served in various branches. There has been incredible growth in entrepreneurship in the military community, including a 295% growth of women veteran owned business since 2007. Research has also found that nearly 45% of veteran business owners have firms with employees, compared to the 20% of all small businesses in the national community. Veteran firms also achieve great success with exporting as veteran firms that export are often larger and have more employees than other firms.
The military’s “secret sauce”
Of course, military experience isn’t required for success in exporting. Indeed, the attributes learned through the military that are important to global success are often present in successful entrepreneurs, including:
- Determination, grit and perseverance
- Creative problem-solving skills
- Ability to measure and manage risk proactively
- Strong planning skills
- Courage to make bold decisions
- Comfort with different cultures
- Ease dealing with uncertainty
While these aren’t exclusive to those in the military community, it’s easy to see how military experience naturally helps to sharpen them.
From my own personal experience of doing business around the world, I’ve seen how skills common in the military community can help drive success. Successful exporters like Lakesha Cole of Mommy Retailing and Craig Carson of Jeco Plastics, have applied the skills they have learned in the military community to achieve exporting success.
From ecommerce to building a storefront
A Marine Corps spouse and global entrepreneur, Lakesha Cole is a journalist and fashion marketer, who was selected as the 2014 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year. She authored her book Mommy Retailing in 2017 and frequently appears on TV and in print.
Success in international business began by accident when she moved to Okinawa, while her husband was stationed there.
She started an ecommerce boutique for children’s apparel that was steadily growing in 2014 when her husband was deployed to Japan. Complications resulting from the move forced her to close, but, undeterred, Lakesha secured a storefront in the mall on base and began exporting from the U.S. to sell to Japanese and Americans in the community.
—Lakesha Cole, owner, She Swank Marketplace
She faced additional obstacles, including complications with shipping and customs that challenged her ability to get her products to customers. However, her cultural flexibility allowed her to form friendships and collaborations that helped her to overcome the hurdles.
Eager to grow beyond the base mall location, Lakesha travelled to trade shows in Tokyo where she made business connections which endure more than five years later. She now runs her business, She Swank Marketplace, from Jacksonville, NC near Camp Lejeune and her customer base extends well beyond the places she’s lived. Buyers from Canada, Singapore, Germany and the U.K. have found She Swank fashions through social media. Lakesha now actively exports to five global markets including Japan, proving the incredible international reach of the internet.
What is Lakesha’s advice for those wondering whether they should take the export leap? It comes down to courage and determination.
“You’ll always have the sense that you might not know enough or that you’re not quite ready, but you have to jump!” Lakesha advises, adding “You have to get out there; you have to meet people; you have to get out of your comfort zone.”
Supplier to the world’s automakers
Craig Carson shared a different export journey, but one built on many of the same attributes. A 1968 graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point and a former Airborne Ranger Infantry Officer who commanded an Army Rifle Company in Vietnam, Craig is the CEO of Jeco Plastics. Based in Indiana, Jeco manufacturers technically complex plastic pallets that are extensively used by auto manufacturers in Germany and Japan.
Jeco’s export success, which earned Craig and his team a Presidential “E” Award in 2016 from the Department of Commerce, is built on three attributes. As a soldier, Craig learned comfort with different cultures, persistence and active listening (while not talking) – all key lessons that have supported his export success.
Craig says that meetings in person, which he finds critical to global sales success, provide a perfect opportunity to listen and observe. In person, he is able to discern formal and informal chains of command among corporate buying teams. This keen skill of observation of indirect communication, honed as an Army officer, has helped him land large international deals.
Craig’s advice for aspiring exporters is simple: “Look for markets where you have a technical edge.” He finds that having that has helped him overcome local competition as well as common export challenges such as fluctuating exchange rates.
Different journeys, similar outcomes
Aside from their common success in Japan, Lakesha’s and Craig’s stories are very different but their shared military experience figures prominently into the international business success both have achieved.
Exporting is a journey, often with unexpected twists and turns. It can be both incredibly rewarding and challenging; persistence, experience in different cultures, and a willingness to step beyond one’s natural comfort zone are critical to success.
Members of the military community often bring those attributes to their export journey – and often find success, which we can all learn from.
Veterans interested in learning more about export opportunities for their businesses can contact the U.S. Department of Commerce’s VetsGoGlobal team for specialized assistance.