Louisiana's mission

Louisiana's mission

Veteran-owned small businesses are eligible for a program that gives them an advantage in securing public work.

Brandon Dufrene spent some time after high school waiting tables and bartending. In 1999, not feeling ready for college but feeling the need for more responsibility, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

By 2003, Dufrene was a squad leader with an infantry battalion as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He suffered no serious physical injuries during his five years with the Marines, but he struggled with the transition to civilian life, where there isn't the possibility of being attacked at any moment.

"When I first got back, I slept with a shotgun beside the bed, just because of the constant feeling of, What's going to happen next?" he says. "It's sad, but when we come back, it's been driven into us, not only in combat, but in Marine Corps life. It's necessary to have over there, but when you come back and you try to adjust, it doesn't really work well."

Dufrene has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, he says, and he's had days when he didn't want to get out of bed. But with help from family members, friends and the local Veterans Affairs clinic, he emerged from depression and returned to school, attending Baton Rouge Community College before completing his business management degree at LSU.

As he says, once a Marine, always a Marine. But he also has a new calling: entrepreneur. He's the managing director and chief executive officer of IAO Partners, a small startup company that provides industrial products. The acronym is derived from the Marine Corps mantra: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

"The reason I started this business is I want to give back to veterans," Dufrene says.

As his business grows, he hopes to hire fellow veterans as well as mentor veterans who are interested in starting their own companies. And he's finding that men and women who have served their country, and want to start a business, have opportunities for a leg up.

"We owe these kids," says Lane Carson, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs.

Carson's department is in the midst of a public outreach campaign promoting LAVETBIZ. Created by the Legislature in 2009, the program mirrors the federal VETBIZ program and the state's Hudson Initiative, for which veteran-owned and nonveteran-owned small businesses are eligible. The U.S. government aims to award 3% of all contracts to veteran-owned businesses; LDVA has set a goal of 7% of state contracts being awarded to veteran-owned and disabled veteran-owned small businesses.

LAVETBIZ-certified businesses can receive a boost of up to 10% on their evaluation score when bidding on state RFPs, and can get help navigating the state procurement process.

Carson says Commissioner of Administration Paul Rainwater has set a goal of $5 million of state construction work and purchases going to veteran-owned businesses during this fiscal year. Gov. Bobby Jindal has issued an executive order directing agencies to seek out such businesses for small purchases under $15,000, which are not subject to the public bid process.

Carson's department is tasked with educating state agencies about the program, and he says the agencies will be required to report back to the Legislature on their progress implementing it.

"Not only are they good, competent, qualified, team-oriented and focused," Carson says, "but it's the right thing to do."

Giving veterans an advantage in securing public work is more than a way to say thanks. Many veterans put off their education or career to serve, Carson says, and creating programs such as LAVETBIZ, which can help them catch up, is only fair. Plus, the discipline and cooperation the military instills means veteran-owned businesses have a great chance to succeed, he adds, so helping them get there is a form of economic development.

About 130 veteran-owned businesses and about 70 businesses owned by disabled veterans have so far been certified through LAVETBIZ. More than 300,000 veterans live in Louisiana, Carson says. Many are retired or nearing retirement age, but more and more younger vets are coming home from the Middle East.

"They're the ones we are hoping to reinvigorate," he says, adding that it would behoove the state to give soldiers from out of state stationed at Fort Polk or Barksdale Air Force Base a reason to stay in Louisiana. "We see this as an indirect job-creation activity."

Chad Granger was a nuclear, biological and chemical specialist in the Army. He spent 4 years on active duty, including two tours in Iraq. Once the troops established that there were no weapons of mass destruction, he primarily served as a driver and gunner in his tank battalion, patrolling the streets and looking for improvised explosive devices.

"I've only been hit by two in my life," he says. "Luckily I walked away from them."

After his service, while attending BRCC on the GI Bill and working at the LDVA offices, Granger learned about LAVETBIZ and signed up. He's still a student, but he's also partnered with friends in two startups. He runs American Veteran Office Supply, which sells computers, printers and accessories; he's less involved in National Veterans Office Supply.

Like Dufrene, Granger has been diagnosed with PTSD, and he also says the state of constant readiness he internalized while in the military is difficult to turn off. But he feels he's finding ways to channel those anxieties into productive activities.

Granger has been studying liberal arts at BRCC; the plan is to eventually transfer, earn a degree in social work and counsel other soldiers who've dealt with similar issues.

He wants to be a guide for other veterans, helping them re-integrate into civilian life, and perhaps start their own businesses.

Says Granger, "I just don't want them to have to go through the things I went through."

ROADMAP TO SUCCESS 1. Getting started
Contact the Small Business Administration to receive a copy of the Small Business Resource Guide, which includes resources to write a business plan, secure financing, marketing support, laws and permits, and more. To receive a copy by mail, call (504) 589-6685; to download the online version, go to smallbusiness3.com/pdf/english/louisiana.pdf. 2. Get your EIN
In order to complete LAVETBIZ certification, an Employee Identification Number is necessary from the Internal Revenue Service. To apply by phone, call (800) 829-4933; to apply online, go to irs.gov. 3. Certify through LAVETBIZ
Follow the steps to become certified as a veteran-owned small business at ledsmallbiz.com. 4. Register as a vendor
Establish a business as a vendor on the Louisiana State Purchasing website as a veteran-owned small business as well as a small business. Enter an email address to receive notices for open bids. Go to doa.louisiana.gov/osp/osp.htm. 5. Marketing your business
For assistance with all phases of government contracting (federal, state and local), including help with marketing a business, contact the Louisiana Procurement Technical Assistance Program. To reach by phone, call (337) 482-6265; to reach online, go to la-ptac.louisiana.edu. 6. Contact procurement agents at each Louisiana state department to promote your business
A listing can be found at doa.louisiana.gov/osp/vendor_index.htm. State contracts can be secured in these ways:
• Executive order for small purchases or using an agency's discretionary funds means there are opportunities to be awarded a contract for up to $15,000 without having to go through a bid process.
• Direct purchases means the state can buy from any registered vendors that submit a bid for a state contract. 7. Submit your competitive bid and achieve success
LAVETBIZ certification provides several opportunities to maximize bidding power. A small business can earn up to 10 percentage evaluation points when it: Submits a bid on an RFP as LAVETBIZ certified. OR Markets its LAVETBIZ certification as subcontractors on other businesses' RFP bids. OR Includes other LAVETBIZ-certified businesses as subcontractors on RFP bids to maximize opportunities for securing the highest possible percentage points. SOURCE: Louisiana Department of Veterans Affairs

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