Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price met with Dawn McDaniel, Founder of Bravo Delta Consulting, LLC, who has made it her mission to spread the word that veteran and military spouse workforce development can be an effective and worthwhile investment for many types of companies.
McDaniel has more than 20 years’ of experience in the private, public, and government sectors and has written two books about veteran workforce development, Secret Weapon: Five Keys to Leveraging Your Veteran Workforce and Retention After Hire: A Look At Military Transition Challenges Beyond the Résumé
PRICE: How did you come up with the business concept?
McDANIEL: I’m a U.S. Army veteran, I’m married to a U.S. Army veteran who also currently serves in the reserves. Both of my parents were Vietnam and Vietnam-era veterans and my brother is a veteran, so it’s kind of our family business.
In my childhood I noticed the transition challenges my parents faced after they separated from service. It took them a little while to make the transition back into civilian life. Even decades later, although they were moderately successful, they still struggled with figuring out how to fit in and how to find the right community.
In 2000, when I left the service, I had a similar experience. I had a Bachelor’s degree and half a Master’s degree and couldn’t find work other than receptionist jobs. I didn’t want to do that, so I started my own business, which was a dance studio for military children. It was geared toward people who couldn’t get off the Army base or couldn’t afford to go to the local dance company. So that’s where my entrepreneurial spirit came from.
I dabbled in a variety of different things before I started Bravo Delta. I became a lobbyist and I went to work at a Carrier. Then I became the public information officer for the State of Connecticut’s insurance department.
I always had a side business in the creative space, for example I sold Creative Memories scrapbooking products. But these projects weren’t successful because my passion wasn’t in it and I worked a full-time job, had two small children, and my husband was in the military, so there just wasn’t enough time to really dedicate to it.
I eventually left the State of Connecticut’s insurance department because I couldn’t adapt to the labor union environment. It was then I started thinking: What do I want to do?
Around that time I went to the Entrepreneur Bootcamp for Veterans with Disabilities (EBV) at Syracuse University. I first got involved with them through Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE), an initiative from Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management. V-WISE is an entrepreneurial training program for female veterans.
I have to say, the EBV program was instrumental in helping me get established and just giving me the confidence to do it. And Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) has continued to be a support system for me. They have a tremendous support structure with any transition assistance program. So, for example, when I’m looking into hiring people in the future I contact someone at the EBV and they well help direct me.
PRICE: So you knew you had an entrepreneurial drive but you were trying to shape it?
McDANIEL: Right. I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was getting my coaching certification at the time, and my original idea was to help coach veterans through transition. I thought it would work because I’ve been there, I have this unique skill set, and I’m getting trained as a professional coach so I’d be able to help them.
Then I went to a mastermind group I found through a connection at the EBV. The group put me in the hot seat and asked: How are you going to make money doing that? And if you can’t make money because you’re not going to charge the veterans, where you going to get the money? And, if you’re going to charge the veterans, how are they going to pay for it? They emphasized that it would be difficult to make money because this is a business, not just volunteer work because and told me I would not be able to sustain that.
I had these pie-in-the-sky dreams that I could just come in and run it. So the group helped me understand what it takes to develop a business plan. I have an MBA, so I know how to interpret a business plan, but I didn’t know how to write one.
So my first year with Bravo Delta was very difficult to navigate because everybody had an opinion about my business. Also I was asking everybody about my business and what they thought of the market.
PRICE: But as an entrepreneur, you want people to poke holes in your ideas because you don’t want to fail, you’d rather have that advice come from them.
McDANIEL: Absolutely. And what I found was everybody had a different opinion of which approach I should take. So it was very challenging for me to synthesize all that data and decide what I wanted to do.
As a result, in years two and three I tried to boil the ocean and do everything. This year I’m realizing that approach is not going to work and I really need to focus on one or two key objectives for the year.
PRICE: How did you become involved with the Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) Institute for Technology & Business Development (ITBD) incubator?
McDANIEL: The EBV encouraged me. I started looking for an incubator and a couple of years ago, but I didn’t feel like my business was really ready. I needed to hone my focus and get a little bit more serious about my business.
I was trying to do the good things, working in my business instead of on my business. Making that transition was a big thing I did last year. And when I did that, I knew I needed some outside space, day-to-day support, and interaction with other entrepreneurs. That’s really what led me to the CCSU ITBD Incubator.
PRICE: Let’s talk specifically about your business. What products services do you offer?
McDANIEL: Bravo Delta Consulting helps companies build and leverage their veteran workforce. We focus on military cultural competency education and consult companies about their veteran hiring initiatives.
I worked with 36 companies in 10 states last year. That became a very difficult model to sustain. I was looking at ways to scale. So this year I’m launching a product that includes a workbook, a DVD, and a copy of my book that will help people to at least start thinking if they have no idea about how to start a veteran initiative.
I find that a lot of companies kind of hide behind the excuse of “we can’t translate military skills.” And in my opinion, what they need to do—and what I help them do—is to learn how to translate those skills.
People are very familiar with the difference between a community college degree, an Associate’s degree, a Bachelor’s degree, a Master’s degree, or a PhD. They understand that because they are connected with that context. But military is largely secretive and, because of operation security, people become don’t necessarily know how to communicate.
What ends up happening is that companies don’t realize veterans enjoy teamwork and focus on their strong leadership skills. People think military and leadership are synonymous. Companies tend to hire officers and academy graduates, because again they have a college degree, and then officers and senior enlisted tend to have really good networking and communication skills simply because they’ve had to do that in their career.
People who have spent 10 years or less in the military tend to not have those same skill sets. But I think there’s also a misunderstanding about education. Sometimes companies think people don’t have education if they are enlisted, because it’s not required as part of their military service. That’s not exactly true. Often service members have more credits than it would take to get a Bachelor’s degree, they’ve taken courses all over the world and they end up with a lot of credits, but because credits don’t transfer, they end up with a lot of knowledge and no degree.
PRICE: So how does Bravo Delta Consulting help with that?
McDANIEL: I work with hiring companies to help them understand how to interpret those skills and determine what kinds of questions to ask veterans. I also help companies with the compliance piece. There are a lot of compliance rules companies don’t always know about, so I make them aware of those rules, help them navigate them, and point them to the right places.
PRICE: How are you marketing?
McDANIEL: A lot of it is word-of-mouth. I have a Facebook page and I use LinkedIn. I also volunteer for a lot of different committees and I’m on the Military Veterans Board Coalition, so those kinds of things gives me some exposure.
I need to do more marketing, I’m hoping I can get to a point soon where I can hire an intern or get somebody to help with that. One of the challenging pieces of entrepreneurship is chasing business, building business, and delivering services when you are one person.
PRICE: Let’s talk a little about the future of the business. You mentioned you would like to have a staff at some point.
McDANIEL: Absolutely. I need raise my revenue. I’ve been traveling a lot and I’m working with companies, but unfortunately that doesn’t translate into enough revenue to hire someone.
That’s one of the reasons I’m launching the product, because it will be affordable and readily available to companies that want to start veterans initiatives but aren’t really sure where to begin. It’s really for those companies that are interested in getting started. And then once they get started, they end up having more questions, which will lead to more consulting—that’s the plan for this year.
PRICE: Do you have any advice for other startups or entrepreneurs?
McDANIEL: Go for it! I love this lifestyle, so I think it’s a great pool that everyone should jump into.
As far as advice, getting support is probably number one, and then trying to figure out how to navigate knowing what you’re getting into.
PRICE: And it’s important to be able to pivot and try to make your company meet consumers’ needs. It sounds like that was a key thing for you.
McDANIEL: Right. It’s challenging when you try to offer something that nobody needs or wants. You’re trying to sell ice to an Eskimo and you end up just spinning your wheels.
The other things that are important for entrepreneurs are stamina and resilience. Those are skills I developed in the military. I’ve leaned on those tremendously because you’re not always going to be liked and there’s not always going to be good days.
I often explain entrepreneurship to my friends who aren’t entrepreneurs or don’t own their own businesses. It’s a roller coaster with really high highs and really low lows. It’s thrilling when you have those great opportunities to work with big companies or to get big sales or to have your business propelled. I get really excited about the potential and the opportunity. But there are other times when you’re constantly hit with rejection. So how do you overcome that?
That’s where having mentors and other entrepreneurs my life has been very helpful. Let’s face it I’m a woman veteran entrepreneur, there’s not a lot of me at my kids’ Parent Teacher Organization. So in my neighborhood, in my circles, there just aren’t a lot of people who I can relate to. Even with entrepreneurs in general, there are not a lot of people I can relate to within my own community. Trying to build that community outside has been really instrumental for me.