Penn State

Serving others, this time as civilians

Not long ago, Lt. Jimmy Nguyen found himself on a submarine, charged with fixing a major malfunction. Like many other potential crises, it was averted without further ado.

“I essentially helped manage a nuclear plant,” he said. “That was my job.”

In the next five years, his job will include returning offshore and under the waves. But until then, he’s preparing for life after the Navy, one above water but often below freezing: a life back in Minneapolis, his hometown.

“I grew up there; I want to raise my kids there,” Nguyen, 29, said. “So why not do my business there?”

On Wednesday, 0800 hours, or 8 a.m. civilian time, Nguyen and about a dozen others participated in the first Penn State Small Business Development Center workshop for U.S. military and veterans, learning about what it takes to become an entrepreneur after they leave the service. In terms of soft skills, they’re already well-equipped. Experts point to their grace under pressure, their ability to adapt to changing circumstances and their knack for organization.

For Nguyen, who is now serving as an instructor for Penn State’s Naval ROTC program, helping keep an underwater city operational does wonders to prepare one for contingencies. Starting a business begins to look less daunting by comparison.

“Veterans are just so determined and dedicated because of the training they’ve been through, the experiences they’ve had, and they are ready to take an idea and implement it,” said Michael Ryan, a business analyst with the SBDC. “They’re given a task to do, and they accomplish it no matter what obstacles have been put in front of them. Business owners have to do the same thing, and that’s what makes entrepreneurship so attractive to this population.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, veterans are more likely than civilians to be self-employed, while the U.S. Small Business Administration reports about 9 percent of the country’s small businesses are veteran-owned. While some of the reason is attributed to age — most veterans and first-time business owners skew older — a greater amount draws upon their background and experience.

Being in uniform, experts say, teaches discipline that is hard to replicate elsewhere. And when fatigues are traded in for suits, that focus becomes a boon for veterans trying to break into the business world.

“There’s a field mentality in the military,” said Joe Witte, the program director for the Philadelphia division of Bunker Labs, an accelerator tailored to veteran entrepreneurs. “When you get deployed, you pretty much take the book and throw everything out the window. With business, there are also a lot of variables you can’t predict.”

Witte, a former Army captain and Iraq War veteran, founded multiple startups upon returning home. After he outgrew his first, a travel advertising agency, he searched for more of a challenge. Soon one venture led to the next. Each eventually eclipsed more than $1 million.

It’s a rush that appeals to others. Before coming to teach at Penn State’s Naval ROTC program, Ashlee Dillard-Houston, 28, was a damage-control assistant aboard a ship. Her duties involved dealing with disaster — fires, flooding, casualties — and, though she loves her shore duty, she also misses the action of being back at sea.

“For me that was like an adrenaline rush of keeping all of our firefighting systems up and running,” she said.

Like many of her peers, she’s gotten to travel across the world. It’s helped her define her market for her confection company, which is still an idea at this point, but one, she thinks, can gain ground abroad.

While doing a four-year tour in Japan, for instance, she noticed that American-style sweets could fill a niche in a culture that is quickly becoming more Westernized.

“A lot of American businesses kind of do well in Japan,” she said. “Because it’s just a different culture. Especially for, like, cakes, they don’t have a lot of really sweet stuff.”

Nguyen also wants to get into the food industry, which tends to be a mercurial one, Ryan said, for entrepreneurs. But veterans and current military, with their set of skills and experiences, may be one of the best suited to handle the challenge.

“I think it’s just the ability to stomach and tolerate the risks out there,” Nguyen said. “You know you’re going to be in the trenches for the first year or so trying to get this business started.”

For his business, a Vietnamese-style sandwich shop, Nguyen is thinking about a different kind of sub — one filled with meat, vegetables and a dash of sentiment.

“When I have Vietnamese sandwiches, there’s so much nostalgia to it,” he said, laughing. “It brings me to a special place and I want to share that with other people.”