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American Legion Magazine

Entrepreneur program gives veteran her 'tribe' back

“You can’t tell a tomato plant you just need two tomatoes.”

Stepheni Norton says it first, but her husband, Mike Lesley, says the same thing later on. The sentiment — nature’s going to grow at its own rate — is part of the reason why what started as a garden to provide Norton with the freshest food possible has grown into Dickinson Farm, a quarter-acre small-plot urban farm in the back yard of their Victorian house in National City, Calif.

And a boon to the couple’s growing business was Norton’s experience with V-WISE (Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship), a program operated by the Institute of Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at Syracuse University.

“I’m sitting in an IV chair, not doing anything, I have this education from V-WISE, why not figure out how we can make a business out of this,” Norton said.

Healthy eating leads to business

Norton came home from her Coast Guard Reserve deployment ill with what was finally diagnosed as Lyme disease.

“Once I started treatment, the doctor told me to eat clean and healthy, which means your husband eats clean and healthy too,” Norton said. “What we found out at that point was that we were in a food desert.”

“There’s no access to fresh fruits and veggies that are organic and the other thing that the doctor recommended: not only do organic but also go non-GMO," Lesley said. "So for us, as we started looking around, we realized, forget just outside of our town, San Diego as a whole was really hard to find (that food).”

While the couple had checked out crimes rates and freeway access before buying the Wallace D. Dickinson home in 2012, there wasn’t time to check out grocery stores in the South Bay region of San Diego County as Norton was in the midst of pre-deployment.

Facing at least two years of treatment for the disease, and unwilling to give up what was to be their forever home, Norton started a garden.

“So we started with just a couple of raised garden beds and Stepheni was able to get her hands in the mix and it was keeping her moving, and as long as she was moving, she could keep moving — it’s when she stopped, she’d kind of freeze up,” Lesley said. “And so therapeutically it was good for her, because it kept her moving and it kept her mind off of what was going on. But for her health, it was also helping because all of a sudden she’s getting fresh fruits and vegetables that are organic and non-GMO.”

“We had an abundance, and we were giving it away. And then more and more, our neighbors were saying, ‘Well, can I buy it from you?’” Norton recalled.

That’s when her entrepreneurial experience kicked in.

Calling on experience

Before joining the Coast Guard Reserve, Norton owned a services firm, doing regulatory compliance for biotech and pharmaceutical companies worldwide. She ended up selling the company when her role in the Reserve ended up taking more of her time than she anticipated, with deployments to the Deepwater Horizon spill and later to Guantanamo Bay.

She also is co-owner with her father, Stephen Norton, of Tradesmen, an 1886 Victorian divided into small office spaces for young businesses.

“That property, we started knowing that we wanted to do something after my mom (Beverley) died in 2010; we kind of wanted to carry on her charitable works and her vision of being a light to help people when they just need a little bit of extra,” Norton said. “We knew we wanted a space where people could congregate, we wanted a way that people in my age group could realize they could give back and make a difference, and that ended up coming to fruition in Tradesmen.

"The idea for that is, businesses are kind of in that three-to-five-year mark, so they’re big enough to be out of the house and out of the coffee shop but not quite big enough to sign a major commercial lease and they need rents accordingly. So our rents are about two-thirds what they are in the rest of downtown San Diego.”

“I spent the better part of 30 years just being the gruff sailor and the gruff Navy chief and my wife handled all the do-good aspects of our life,” said Stephen Norton, a member of Post 146 in Oceanside, Calif. “Now this just gives me a chance to give back.”

‘Perfect scenario’

“When my orders were coming to an end, in my heart I’m still an entrepreneur, in my heart I still want to do good by the world and be the person that takes that by the reins and makes that happen. But I had been so engulfed in what I was doing that I kind of felt like maybe my imagination was gone,” Stepheni said.

Then she heard about V-WISE. The program, funded in part through a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Small Business Administration, provides women veterans, active-duty servicewomen, and women military spouses and partners with training to help them become successful entrepreneurs.

The program holds training events across the country; Norton graduated from the Denver course in 2013.

She said it was “the perfect scenario.”

“My fear was, if I go back to school, and I’m surrounded by 18-year-olds that don’t understand where any of us (veterans) have been or even what’s been going on, I don’t know if I’m going to be comfortable with that,” Norton said. “So with V-WISE, you’re surrounded by your fellow servicewomen, your sisters-in-arms, spouses that are very much supportive of the military and everything that we all have to give for it, and then I would get that, for me, a refresher training on entrepreneurship.”

But it wasn’t just a refresher course. The training took Norton beyond her service-oriented background to recognize the needs that stem from having inventory and overhead with a product-based business.

That learning came in handy when the couple decided to turn the garden into a farm.

“So I did all the research; at the same time, after my treatment in the evenings, we had some garden companies come and help us figure out what we could grow here, and I would do some of the work, my husband, my dad would do some of the work in the evenings, and then after about 18 months, we got all our licenses taken care of and ready to sell,” Norton said.

Getting her tribe back

Beyond simply the education provided by V-WISE, Norton and her family recognize the camaraderie the program provided her.

“When Steph got back from deployment, I could tell something was missing,” Lesley said. “Myself as a vet, her dad as a vet, her cousin that she’s really close with, a vet, all of us were like, ‘Hey, how can we be here for you?’ but something’s just not clicking. Even though we’ve all had our different experiences, by serving, you could tell she was missing her tribe. She would talk to people from her deployment on — initially, I wouldn’t even say a daily basis, almost an hourly basis via text. And realize she’s missing that connection, she’s missing that tribe.

“So when she found out about V-WISE, it was like the flip of a switch. She walked in and met all these wonderful people that had very similar experiences to her, and obviously as a female she’s going to have a very different experience than me as a male, no matter what day and age it is. And so, here’s all these other successful women that have shared similar experiences, and absolutely are OK with talking about their successes as well as where they’ve stumbled and how to overcome those. It was really the boost that she needed to integrate back into civilian life.”

V-WISE Program Manager Kimberly Krula said that many graduates share that they no longer feel alone after attending the program.

“For many, V-WISE is their first step towards entrepreneurship; some haven’t even shared with their families that they would like to start a business, but they return home empowered and excited to do so — and believe me, their families take note of the change,” Krula said. “Connecting to other like-minded women and the team of staff, speakers, and instructors who are all committed to their success breaks down that feeling of isolation. …

“So many think that they have to leave their military selves behind to achieve success as an entrepreneur — or even, to be honest, as civilians. At V-WISE, we encourage them to embrace their veteran and spouse identities.”

Krula noted that qualities that draw people to serve in the military, such as passion, perseverance and leadership, are also the same traits that predict success in an entrepreneur.

“In fact, the success rate of veteran owned-business startup is almost twice that of other business startups,” Krula said.

“To have a group that you can get all those resources, you can get all that knowledge, you can get that education, and also have that camaraderie that you had with your crew … we have tribes when we’re there, and a lot of times when you come back, you don’t,” Norton said. “V-WISE gives you your tribe back. And then all the other things that you need to be successful in business. So it’s an amazing group to be a part of.”

Krula emphasized that the sense of community created by the program is “absolutely intentional. An entrepreneur’s network is equally important to their education, and that’s something we stress throughout all three phases of the program. While students are conducting a feasibility analysis on their business idea during the online course, part of their homework is to reach out to meet their local SBA supports and start a conversation with a potential mentor or business counselor.

"We also work to foster engaging discussions among the class participants through the use of discussion boards online to develop their peer support network well before these ladies ever meet each other on site.”

And speakers and instructors at the V-WISE conferences offer mentorship and follow-up advice to the graduates, she said.

IVMF will host its 17th V-WISE training Jan. 27-29 in Phoenix and is working to plan the next 2017 location for this summer, Krula said.

“Additionally, the IVMF launched a new program at the end of 2016 for aspiring women veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs called IGNITE by V-WISE. While V-WISE is a deep dive into small business management designed for women who plan to start a business in the next few years, or who have already launched, IGNITE is designed as an introduction to entrepreneurship for ladies who are just starting to consider business ownership as a career path,” Krula said, adding that they expect to offer a second IGNITE event this spring.

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