Milwaukee and Madison are among the top U.S. metropolitan areas for veteran entrepreneurs and the best places when it comes to livability, according to a 2020 PenFed Foundation study.
We recently sat down with three executives — PenFed Foundation and PenFed Credit Union CEO James Schenck, PenFed Foundation director of veteran entrepreneurs Seda Goff and Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce executive director Saul Newton — to discuss veteran entrepreneurship in Wisconsin.
Their comments have been edited for clarity and length.
What are some of the unique challenges that veteran entrepreneurs face?
Schenck: “(PenFed Credit Union) serves about 2.3 million members and out of our demographic, we have a lot of military members and military spouses and families. A lot of them that are looking to start a business, the two things they’re missing are capital and an ecosystem of support, a professional network. That’s why we launched the PenFed Foundation Veteran Entrepreneur Investment Program (VEIP).”
Newton: “One of the challenges facing, especially veterans once they leave the military and come back to a place like Wisconsin, is their lack of a network, of a dedicated ecosystem of folks that have shared experience, that know the challenges that you’re going through, both technically in terms of starting a business, but also just the challenges of transitioning out of the military. So that’s what we’ve focused on is really being that ecosystem builder to say, ‘Whatever resources you need as a veteran, as an entrepreneur, we may not have the answer to every question but we know where to find the answer to every question.'”
What kinds of businesses are you seeing started by veterans?
Newton: “We’re seeing a lot of businesses that are leveraging technology, leveraging different software and developing applications for everything from construction and contract work, to getting jobs in the service sector, to reentry programs for folks involved in the criminal justice system. All of those are businesses that are really being driven by both the military and civilian experience of their founders.”
Can you share more details about the PenFed Foundation programs that Wisconsin businesses can benefit from?
Goff: “We are doing an ignition challenge … it’s a program to help new businesses, even those as early as idea stage. …Our current ignition challenge focuses on veteran- and military spouse-owned businesses in Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa.