As a child growing up in rural Missouri, Valerie Lavin’s father instilled in her a sense of community.
“Get a job, pay your taxes, be a good neighbor,” he would tell her.
The desire to be part of something bigger than herself became engrained in her DNA. Joining the U.S. Army only enhanced the drive to serve, not only her nation, but her fellow soldiers.
Now after 21 years in the military, the retired first sergeant carries on her sense of community with ActionZone, a nonprofit funded through a grant from Veterans Florida that aims to help veterans make the transition from the military to entrepreneurship. As co-owner of a healthcare staffing firm with her husband, Lavin knows all too well the challenges veterans face.
“ActionZone is a veteran entrepreneurship organization created by veteran entrepreneurs for veteran entrepreneurs,” Lavin said. “The advantage of that is we’ve all been through transition. So, we understand the transition from the military to the civilian sector, and we’ve all transformed from the military mindset to the entrepreneurial mindset.”
Lavin maintains a collaborative relationship with the Rising Tide Innovation Center, holding meetings for her latest cohort at the center and partnering with Rising Tide to stage Military Mondays when veterans and their family members can use the cowork space for free.
“Our collaborative relationship with the Rising Tide Innovation Center works really well because we’re able to hold our classes and workshops in an environment that will draw people from all walks of life and all different businesses.
“Some aren’t even entrepreneurs, they’re just interested in the topic and will come and be a part of it. What that does is help our veterans integrate and assimilate into their civilian community as well as network.”
We recently spoke to Lavin as she prepared to wrap up ActionZone’s first cohort and start another. She spoke about the challenge veterans face, the five-step plan ActionZone uses and why her own drive spurs her to help.
Why is it so difficult for veterans to make the transition to being entrepreneurs?
When you are serving everything is about what’s behind the front gate. That’s your world. That’s your life. That’s your community. When you step out of the gate for the first time, you don’t have that community anymore. The landscape changes, and it’s a huge change. Some of them go in when they’re 17 or 18 years old. When they retire at 37, 38 or 39, for the first time in their life, they’re really on their own.
You have five phases of your program: 1) Entrepreneurial Mindset; 2) Validation Camp; 3) Business Model Development; 4) Storytelling; 5) CEO Mindset. Let’s talk about them.
The first phase, Entrepreneurial Mindset, helps them discover whether they’re entrepreneurial or not. The entrepreneurial mindset isn’t about becoming an entrepreneur or small-business owner, it’s trying to determine self-discovery and what kind of mindset you have.
Essentially, there are three types of people in the workforce: There’s the employee who comes across a problem at the workplace and says, “That’s somebody else’s problem because I can still clock in at 9 and clock out at 5. It doesn’t hinder me from doing my job. I’m getting paid to do this.”
The “intrepreneur” comes across a problem in the workplace and says, “Oh I think I have a solution for that problem. It’s not only going to better my productivity and efficiency, it’s going to better the entire workplace.”
Then there’s the entrepreneur who comes across a problem in the workplace and says, “I have a solution and I think I can make money off the solution.” There’s no wrong answer to any of this because some people should just be employees. But we help the military family member discover their mindset and introduce them to the fact that what they learned in the military does translate into entrepreneurship.
And the second phase is, “Effectuation Validation?”
We literally take them on a camping excursion, a chartered camping event, and we take away their technology and essentially help them go through the process an entrepreneur goes through when they’re trying to validate a concept. We break them up into small teams, they come up with a fictitious business and they try to validate that through discussions with their teammates. They go out and do customer discoveries, so they’re going to different campers in the campsite and asking questions.
We do that because it helps with camaraderie. In Veterans Florida surveys (of past cohort participants), one of the comments that came up often is that they didn’t get a chance to network or get to know the other people in their cohort.
What about the third phase, business modeling and development?
That’s a program called Co.Starter and it walks them through basically shaking out their business concept and idea.
Tell me about the fourth phase: Storytelling.
At Action Zone, we strategically place the storytelling, delivered by the Homefront Foundation, just before the marketing block. One of the Homefront Foundation’s theories is that veterans have a hard time with transition because of a communication gap between the veterans and their civilian counterparts. So, the foundation teaches them to connect with their experience and they help them articulate and tell that story so the civilian can receive it.
Do veterans feel like civilians don’t understand what they’ve gone through?
In many cases, yes. But I would say in an equal number of cases, the veterans just don’t know how to communicate their story outside of military acronyms or talking to a fellow service member.
And finally, the CEO mindset?
After the business modeling development and after they learn how to connect their story to their business pitch, if it’s appropriate, we take them through the CEO mindset. So, we can actually teach them how to run a business. A lot of times, small business owners, once they launch, they’re essentially solopreneurs. It’s just them against the world, right? But they really need to learn how to be the CEO of themselves, the CEO of their company. That doesn’t necessarily mean they need to go hire 50 employees or 100 employees. If you decide to outsource all your needs, you have to be able to run your business like a business. That’s the final key to that transformation from the military mindset to the true entrepreneurial mindset.
So, how was your transition from the military mindset to the entrepreneurial mindset?
My transition was masked by helping others. … When I was transitioning, my goal was to use my G.I. Bill, go to school and be a physical therapy assistant. That was the plan. I recognized very early there were challenges for my peers that I was transitioning with, retiring with, whether they were transitioning after six years or 26 years. It was my job as a first sergeant to oversee the feeding and training and caring for troops, so I decided to continue to do that by helping them figure out resume writing, job searches and guiding them through that transition process.
Tell me about your business
We provide staffing services for advanced healthcare providers, allied health, and everything in between: doctors, nurses and other professionals for government and commercial hospitals and clinics. What I really love about this company is at first, when the opportunity was presented to us, even though I had dabbled in staffing before with helping veterans and my husband has 16 years of experience in staffing, healthcare staffing was very foreign to me. I’m not familiar with a lot of medical terms, I’m not familiar with medical education, but my husband’s very first job out of college was medical staffing. Not only as husband and wife, but as business partners, we excel because we’re very aware of our strengths and weaknesses. I trust him. When he said the numbers are right and we can do this, we dove in, head first.
What sets your business apart from other staffing firms?
What sets us apart from other staffing firms, I believe, is we not only see the hospital or clinic, whether its government or commercial, as a client, but we also see the providers as clients because we are working for them just as much as we are for the healthcare systems. The reason for that is, especially, when it comes to the government, whether it’s VA or Army Medical Commander … I’m putting a provider in a place where they are taking care of my comrades. That’s important to me, right? I don’t want to send a provider into that environment where they’re upset with me because I didn’t take care of them.
There’s nothing worse than going to see a doctor that’s angry, right? So, it’s my job to make them happy and to be happy going in to take care of my battle buddies, if you will. Especially with the younger ones who are just graduating, the new providers, I’m the first person helping them get their first job, and I want to make sure the job or position with the clinic is a good fit. If the culture doesn’t work for them, or the position doesn’t work for them, that might set them up for a terrible career down the line. We take care of our providers as much as we do the client.
How much do you enjoy partnering with Rising Tide?
I love Rising Tide. I think the culture that they’re developing here is amazing. For all the benefits you receive here, I don’t think you can beat it.
Valerie Lavin – ActionZone