• Andy Proffet

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 ou