In honor of Veteran’s Day, I wanted to dedicate Startup Spotlight to entrepreneurs with military experience, or who were working on projects to benefit the veteran community. I found a company that embodies both.
Women Veterans Connect is an online community for women who have served in the military. At its core, it is a network where women veterans can connect, exchange stories, engage with peer mentors, and find relevant information. Jo Ann Martinez founded the organization after serving in the Air Force and receiving strong support from an informal group of women veterans. She realized not everyone had the same access to this network and set out to create WVC.
“I have been immersed in the women’s veterans community since day 1,” Martinez said. “These are all women whose stories I know personally, and I realized that we typically don’t ask for help until we are in crisis. I took on project after project trying to figure out what to do, and it finally came down to stopping, looking back at all the reasons why things failed, and doing the opposite. My expertise was with women’s veterans. I wanted to serve that community for all the mentoring they provided me and I wanted to contribute by helping them successfully reintegrate into the community.”
After multiple unsuccessful attempts to get something off the ground, Martinez met the Katherine Webster, the woman behind TechCentral SF and VetsInTech. That encounter led her to attend the first ever VetsInTech hackathon in March. Up until this point, Martinez taught herself basic elements of front end development and design, but knew that to launch a fully-featured web-based platform, she would need more education and help. Much to her surprise, her team placed third and she found the bridge she needed from the military world into the technology world.
“I think veterans make great entrepreneurs,” she said. “Military personal go through so many leadership programs, it makes sense. Plus, we have all the work ethic and commitment that is involved. The Air Force core values are integrity, service before self, and excellence in all we do. I still apply this win my everyday life.”
Many members of the military also receive extensive training in math, science, engineering, and logistics, which can provide a solid foundation to learn programming. Furthermore, startup life can be a desirable route for veterans who struggle to find more traditional forms of unemployment.
“People getting out of the military can have a stigma,” she said. “We’ve got employers out there that are not going to say this directly, but they might look at you as a liability. Veterans come back after multiple deployments, some with PTSD, to a weakened economy and it can be really really difficult to get a job. This is why entrepreneurship becomes attractive for us.”
Women Veterans Connect is not only about supporting returned military personnel, but also about supporting women. Technology and the military are both male-dominated industries and part of Martinez’s mission is to encourage women to throw themselves headfirst into these worlds, even when it can be intimidating.
“I had my daughter in the same year that this idea was born,” she said. “It is my mission to not just tell her, but actually show her all of the possibilities that we are capable of as women. In my experience, women are always willing to make more out of less, whereas men are asking for more and getting more. What I hope happens down the road is women veterans show up more and there are more women overall in tech community.”
The WVC officially incorporated as a non-profit in April 2012. It currently focuses its efforts on the 167,000 women veterans in California, but the vision is to expand the platform nationwide and hopefully gain some influence at the government level.
While women veterans comprise a relatively small segment of the population, Martinez strives to make the services and her vision relatable to the rest of the country. She wants to honor the accomplishments of women veterans, beyond their military service, and tell stories that not only provide recognition, but inspiration.
For more information about this weekend’s VetsInTech hackathon, click here.
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