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12:49 PM on Aug 10, 2020

The southern Dallas nonprofit finally has the connectivity it needs to launch additional programming for female veteran entrepreneurs.

COVID-19 may have been just what the Veteran Women’s Enterprise Center (VWEC) needed to find its footing. After years of struggling to get off the ground, the southern Dallas nonprofit is thriving in the current moment, thanks to funding from The Boone Family Foundation, North Texas Cares, Texas Capital and BBVA.

“I’m shocked that in the second quarter we’ve almost doubled the amount of money we were able to raise in all of last year,” says CEO VR Small, who founded VWEC in 2017.

Small calls herself a “Navy vet and an Army brat.” She also calls herself practical and determined. Through a partnership with Homeless Veterans Services of Dallas, VWEC received space in a building owned by the VA on South Lancaster Road in Oak Cliff, and Small opened the center in November 2018. “We had these ridiculous internet issues,” she says. “It turned out that the building has 14-inch brick walls, and we had one problem after the other with connectivity. We were finally told that we needed to rewire the building and didn’t have money to do that.”

Without strong, fast, reliable internet, Small’s vision of being a place of support and success for female veteran entrepreneurs — a welcoming coworking space, mentoring and coaching programs, and a conference center for workshops and meetings — simply couldn’t develop. Small says that COVID-19 relieved a little bit of the pressure to move quickly and “gave us the time to get things in place without feeling like we weren’t living up to that vision.”

How the stars aligned

It was only in the last several months that Small found the money needed to solve VWEC’s connectivity issues. “I went back to The Boone Family Foundation to see if we could find funding, and I got an email saying, ‘I think we can help you with that.’ I just fell off my chair,” she says.

This was in March, right before the coronavirus pandemic shut things down. Spectrum told Small it would take 45 to 90 days to wire the building. That delay seemed dreadful, the CEO recalls, but when the pandemic hit and she realized that the center wouldn’t have been open anyway, she felt some relief. At the end of June, Small learned that VWEC had received a North Texas Cares grant, and by July, VWEC had the technology needed to become the fully operational resource she’d originally envisioned.

This week, VWEC will close applications for its first comprehensive mentoring program, Next Level Business Transformation, which will provide education, funding and support to a handful of female veterans. With $5,000 grants, 25 hours of technical assistance, 26 weeks of coaching and assistance with developing a business strategy through summer 2021, the program aims to set up entrepreneurs with the expert guidance and tools they need to succeed.

“When they leave the program, they will be structurally sound,” Small says. “We really want them to leave this in a really strong position. One of the hardest things about being new to business is that you don’t know what you don’t know — and when you find out it’s usually when you are in trouble and then it’s too late. We want to make sure they know what they need to know to really be successful.”

A worthwhile mission

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 2.52 million U.S. businesses majority-owned by veterans. Of those, 15.2% are owned by women. Texas has the second most veteran-owned businesses, after California.

Most businesses owned by female veterans are one-woman shows, Small says. Nevertheless, the National Women’s Business Council reports that 3.3% of businesses owned by female veterans employ more 100,000 people in total and generate more than $10 billion. “We want to help increase this percentage.”

That mission is far-reaching. “By helping women veteran entrepreneurs become self-sufficient, we are ultimately strengthening our family structures, empowering our communities and literally fueling our nation’s economy. We’re not just building businesses; we’re transforming lives,” Small says.

Hundreds of female veterans are already engaged with VWEC’s free and low-cost programming, which includes weekly virtual gatherings, monthly classes and bootcamps, and a health and wellness workshop, as well as access to one-on-one mentoring. Check the VWEC calendar to learn more about activities. To apply for Next Level Business Transformation, go to veteranwomensec.org.