Thank you all for that warm welcome. I’m honored to be here—it’s great to be with you today. President Coolidge once said that, “the business of America is business.” Well, we are here to talk about the business of America. I know that we have a large number of Veteran small business owners present. Every Veteran in this room has served to defend our way of life and provided the rest of us the freedom to choose our life’s work, whether in government or in the for profit or non-profit sectors. We, in Veterans Affairs (VA), have the responsibility of enabling you to serve this country, once again, as successful, entrepreneurs in private enterprise.
Your leadership was essential in the military to successfully deliver the most difficult missions facing our country. Just as you distinguished yourselves in uniform, your leadership is essential now, here, in business. You are impact players on our economy.
Following World War II, returning Veterans were able to leverage educational opportunity, in the form of the first G.I. Bill, into sustained economic growth for the Nation, catapulting the United States to the world’s largest economy and, in time, its leadership of the free world. In less than two weeks, VA will begin implementing the post 9/11 new G.I. Bill, which has all the potential to impact the country the same way the old G.I. Bill did. And your presence in business, today, positions you to be part of that heritage of Veteran-owned, small businesses providing the leadership and stability to generate much needed growth and development in the country, indeed the world, today.
No question, we are in tough economic times—the worst in my lifetime. Yet, small business remains one of our best hopes for a return to economic prosperity, and you, as Veterans, can provide the leadership that’s essential for all of us. You’ve lived tougher times. There were missions in uniform where the risks and uncertainty were far greater than even today’s economic environment. What carried you on those tough missions is what’ll carry you now.
Veterans in business have responded to the Nation in time of need—to the attacks of 11 September, 2001, to the tragedy of the Columbia Space Shuttle, and to all our named disasters, especially the one named Katrina—all with the same determination, teamwork, and selflessness that distinguished their military service.
There was virtually no service, no supply, no training, and no product that wasn’t offered up by Veterans to help out during these national crises. On behalf of everyone at the Department of Veterans Affairs, thank you. It’s time for you to provide that kind of leadership again.
President Obama has charged me with transforming VA into a 21st century organization. I intend to do that. Our intent is for the VA to adopt advocacy on behalf of Veterans, as both our culture and our overarching philosophy.
In the six months since assuming my duties, we have begun to set priorities and fight for resources to enable the achievement of the president’s charge. We intend to be more Veteran-centric, results-driven, and forward-looking; and that is why I am excited to be here today, because Veterans in small business share these same goals.
Veterans hire Veterans because they know what they’re getting. They know what it takes to operate during the most dangerous, frightening, and painful moments in battle, when the risks are high and uncertainty reigns. They know what it takes to seize an objective at 2:00 in the morning in the driving rain. They know who’s negotiating the security environment with tribal sheiks in today’s ongoing operations—young people in uniform, who will be returning to join our Veteran ranks.
On operations, we valued bold, tough, clear-headed, risk-taking leaders, who never misread the situation or overreached an opportunity, and who remained calm and innovative in the midst of crisis. We need that kind of leadership from you today to help lead us out of the current situation.
Veterans deliver; they are results-driven, not clock watchers. They focus on solving their customers’ problems and providing them goods and services which work—on time. Clients and partners value their skills, knowledge, and attributes and are eager to work with them again.
And Veterans in business are forward-looking. Not only are they focused on developing new products and services for existing customers, they are also leaders in their communities, focused on trends that will keep our Nation prosperous and competitive in the global marketplace.
Just last fall, in a survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management, over 90 percent of employers said they valued Veterans’ skills—in particular, their strong sense of responsibility and teamwork.
VA will begin putting Veterans first—fully first—in our contracting efforts because we recognize the on-time, on-budget, quality solutions that you offer to meet our contracting needs. In fiscal year 2008, the “Veterans First” buying initiative resulted in VA’s spending more than $2 billion dollars on Veteran-owned small businesses—representing 15% of our procurement dollars, up 5% from the previous year. Of that $2 billion dollars, $1.6 billion was spent with Service-Disabled Veteran-owned businesses—12% of our procurement dollars. We intend to improve these numbers, but there are rules. If you abide by them, you have my unwavering support. If you don’t—I’ll find you.
Veterans have a reputation for getting the most out of every dollar invested in them. Investments in Veteran-owned businesses have high likelihood for creating new jobs, developing new products and services, and building prosperity. It’s where the creative energies reside in American business.
Many Americans, including Veterans, are suffering financially because of the economic downturn. Veterans lead the Nation in homelessness and rank right up there in joblessness. So, increasing employment opportunities for Veterans is crucial right now. There is much for me to do about this, but I need your help to be aggressive in competing for contracts and then hiring Veterans to help turn these economic challenges around. We all have a role in helping to restore America’s prosperity; policies alone are not enough. We need your leadership.
This conference demonstrates what can happen when like-minded people commit themselves to a common cause, like promoting contracting opportunities for Veterans. Our programs, achievements, and partnerships have grown in size, scope, quality and number since the first conference in 2005. We have come a long ways; but we have more work to do.
I am glad to see so many large prime contractors at this event, many of whom do business with VA. In a few short years, we have exceeded our prime contracting goals—but we have fallen miserably short of our subcontracting goals. VA’s subcontracting goal for service-disabled Veteran-owned small business is 3%, and we have yet to meet it. This is unacceptable, and it is going to change.
Just as VA leads the federal government in prime contract partnerships with Service-disabled Veteran-owned small businesses, I expect VA to lead the government in subcontracting opportunities. In these challenging economic times, all of us in government are looking to find the best and most cost effective ways to do business—and Veterans can help.
If you are a Service-disabled Veteran small business owner, who can deliver services and benefits at a good price, we want to hear from you. Consider how you might bolster your core competencies and meet proposal requirements.
We will do our part to help you succeed. At VA, we are going to raise our prime and subcontracting goals even higher than the targets we have today; and then we are going to exceed them. I don’t have all the answers yet, but VA is going to improve its support for Veteran owned small businesses.
To that end, we are launching a new federal contractor certification training program, designed to help Veteran business owners understand the very complicated world of federal contracting. After going through this program, a Veteran will better understand how to respond to federal solicitations and perform successfully once the contract is won.
We have also reorganized VA’s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization to enable us to establish stronger partnerships with our contractors. We expanded and increased the size and scope of the office and elevated the director to a Senior Executive Service-level position. Over the last six months, we have been going through a deliberate search process to find the right person to fill the director’s position in order to achieve our transformational goals for small business utilization even faster.
But policy changes and office reorganizations within VA will not get us where we want to be with radically increased Veteran-owned small business contracts. You have to meet the competencies required in the request for proposals. You must come prepared for hard competition; you must come to win, just as you did on every military operation you went on. If you do your part, I’ll try to get the rest of us firing up your tracers.
This spring we sent letters to other cabinet departments encouraging the active increase of contract opportunities for all Veteran-owned small businesses and service-disabled Veteran-owned small businesses. We will continue to remind that you’ve earned these opportunities.
As part of VA’s transformation, I have charged the staff from our Center for Veterans Enterprise and the Center for Small Business Utilization to develop a strategy for encouraging business ownership by more Veterans and enhancing support to those who are already in business. We will be setting new goals to increase subcontracting opportunities for Veterans.
I will also be seeking the support of the Small Business Administration to help me overhaul the process of adding Veteran-owned small businesses to the Federal Register before the end of this fiscal year, so that they will be highly competitive in fiscal year 2010.
Over the next three days, I hope that you will find the time to meet with my staff, who are here to share any good, specific ideas you may have about how we might enhance the Nation’s economic security with Veterans leading the way.
VA is here to help Veterans realize their dreams of owning and expanding their own businesses. If a Veteran tells us his or her definition of success, we’ll put our capabilities behind them. If you’re one of the younger Veterans, who hasn’t quite figured out your definition of success yet, we can help you decide how to frame that proposition.
I also need your help in carrying these program efforts forward into every state and municipality. Not all states have established, or have pending, Veterans programs for small business ownership. I’d like to acknowledge and thank John Garcia, New Mexico’s Secretary for Veterans Affairs, for his hard work to promote employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for Veterans. Just this spring, his department helped organize a free job fair for Veterans. More than 700 unemployed Veterans showed up for the job fair, and over 460 were invited to start the hiring process.
Now, that’s what I’m talking about. Since 2004, his office has assisted more than 125 Veterans to start, or expand, their businesses, resulting in millions of dollars in contracts being awarded to service-disabled Veteran-owned small businesses in New Mexico. He and his office are continuing to ensure that service-disabled Veteran-owned small businesses have equal access to government and business opportunities in the state.
We, at VA, intend to match his initiative all across the U.S. Thank you, Secretary Garcia, for your devotion and leadership to serving our Veterans in business.
As Veteran small business owners, you are already positively impacting your communities. Leverage that influence—encourage your state and local governments to enable Veterans to participate in all taxpayer-funded contracts, not just at the federal level, but at the state and local levels, as well.
And as you grow your own businesses, consider ways you might welcome and assist our men and women returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, particularly our severely service-disabled Veterans. Brave men and women serving today represent less than 1% of our population but have been shouldering the heaviest burden of our Nation’s security and safety for eight years now. They deserve our full measure of respect and devotion for their service and sacrifice—always. Helping them find meaningful work is one way we can show them—and their families—our respect and appreciation.
But we all have to lead this effort—Veterans hire veterans. We’ll do our part at VA, but we can’t do it all. America’s serving military needs to know that, when they are discharged, they will have an economic future—the opportunity to work, to support themselves and their families, and be productive members of their communities.
Certainly there could be no more understanding boss, for a severely disabled Veteran, than another Veteran. Having served America once, you will be serving her again. Thank you for your loyalty, your duty, your respect, your selfless service, your honor, integrity, and your personal courage. It’s all about values, and while these may not be exactly the ones you ascribe to, yours will be pretty close. And no matter the color of the uniforms you wore or the period in which you served, we can all agree with the promises being made today by young people to one another in one service:
We, at VA, will help you keep your promises, whatever they are. You help keep ours to care for those who have borne the risk of safeguarding this Nation.
God bless each of you; God bless our men and women in uniform; God bless our Veterans, and God bless our wonderful country.