For women vets, it’s back to business

Hazel Beck, Director of Chicago's Veterans Business Outreach Center, looks out at Millennium Park from her Michigan Avenue office. (Aryn Braun/Medill)

By Aryn Braun

Hazel Beck, U.S. Navy veteran and Director of Chicago’s new Veterans Business Outreach Center, sees the jump from military service to civilian entrepreneurship as a logical next step.

“Veterans are very well-positioned as they’re exiting the military, to become business owners because they’ve got the skills, the experience, critical thinking, problem solving, team building, leadership, I mean you get a list that’s pretty long,” Beck said.

The new outreach center, one of 15 funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration, is affiliated with the well-known Women’s Business Development Center, which has aimed to educate and support women in business since its founding in 1986. It is located at 8 S. Michigan Ave.

Two of the veterans center’s programs, Boots to Business and Reboot, provide information and opportunities for active duty military members and veterans, respectively.

“Most of them are stuck, when they exit, with the concept of, ‘Well I repair tanks in the military, there’s no tanks in civilian life,’ ” said Beck. “The program gets them to move their thinking away from what they did specifically in the military… to all the soft skills that they learned, and how to apply those to business.”

The Women’s Business Development Center has been a veteran-friendly organization for years.

In early 2013, the Center, with the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, started the Women Vetrepreneurship Program, which was sparked by increasing concerns about the economic opportunities available for women after leaving the military.

Illinois is home to just over 55,000 women veterans, ranking twelfth among all states, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“That program was started as a result of us seeing newspaper article after newspaper article about the high unemployment rates of women veterans, accompanied by homelessness and the need for additional benefits assistance,” said Georgia Marsh, Chief Development Officer at the Center.

The number of homeless women veterans more than doubled in  four years, from almost 1,400 in 2006 to about 3,400 in 2010, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans in Washington, D.C.

Beck and Marsh expect to serve a growing number of women veterans as more women join the armed forces, especially after Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced recently that all combat roles will be open to women.

Though women only make up eight percent of the country’s veterans, they constitute just over 14 percent of the active-duty military force, according to a 2011 Pew Social and Demographic Trends Report.

“In terms of training, you’re never going to be able to overcome the physical differences between a person who weighs 120 pounds and a guy that weighs 200 pounds, but a lot of what goes on on the battlefield today isn’t brawn, it’s brain,” said Beck.

As a veteran, Beck is especially cognizant of how barring women from combat roles affected their job trajectory in the military.

“I believe that for decades, while it felt like policies in our country were protecting women, they were actually keeping women away from…the job they were born to do,” she added.

Photo at top:  Hazel Beck, Director of Chicago’s Veterans Business Outreach Center, looks out at Millennium Park from her Michigan Avenue office. (Aryn Braun/Medill)