Before Daymond John was a celebrated investor and "the People's Shark" on the Disney (NYSE:DIS)-owned ABC hit reality series Shark Tank, he was an entrepreneur.
Now, the founder and CEO of hip-hop clothing company FUBU is putting his name behind the Heroes to CEOs competition, hosted by Bob Evans Farms, a subsidiary of Post Holdings (NYSE:POST). The contest invites military veterans to pitch their entrepreneurial idea or business. Three finalists will fly to New York City and refine their pitches with John. The winner will be awarded a $30,000 business grant and an additional two-hour mentoring session. The two runners-up will each receive $10,000 grants for their businesses.
Former U.S. Army Ranger Johnathan Norton was the winner of last year's contest, and used the grant money to ramp up development of functional, life-saving equipment for military, first-responders, and rope-access professionals.
I spoke with John recently about the unique challenges experienced by veteran entrepreneurs and what they bring to the table.
"This is my fourth year working with Bob Evans Farms and their commitment to supporting veteran entrepreneurship," John said. "Over that time, I have learned immensely from the veterans who have participated in this contest and truly feel like I am the winner by being able to work with them and mentor them as they take on the new challenges in their business lives."
A unique set of strengths
John says he believes that veterans bring a lot to the table, a fact that may not be fully appreciated by the business community. "They dedicated their lives to service," John said, "so they come with the perspective of, 'what can I do,' for this customer."
They're also no strangers to hard work, and are tenacious when it comes to completing a task. "They're never going to not finish a task," John said. "There's not [just] one way to complete a task in entrepreneurship and neither is there, I'm sure, when they're on the field serving ... and no matter what, [veterans] never quit."
"I also think they're problem-solvers," and are willing to seek help if they need it because they realize "they don't know everything, and they know they have to keep trying to figure out ways to solve [problems].
A distinct set of challenges
John said that some veterans are hesitant to mention their service, for fear there's a stigma attached to former members of the military. "I've heard from some of the veterans I've worked with, they didn't want to tell other people that they served their country," John said. "It's heartbreaking ... [they felt] it was more beneficial for them not to tell people."
Veterans also come to the table with a mindset of serving others, John says, but sometimes they need to think a little closer to home. They need to "provide the best they can for their customers, but they [also] have to place themselves and their business first."
Advice for any entrepreneur
Some of John's observations can be helpful to anyone looking to start a business.
One of the things John took away from the veterans he's worked with is the power of networks. "I've also learned that a lot of [veterans] have tapped into their existing base of people that they served with, who know and understand them," he said. "It made me say to myself, 'I also need to tap into the people that I know and go back into my community as well.'"
Another lesson budding entrepreneurs can take from veterans: "They do their research," John said. "They do their homework. They have a plan of action ... They over-educate themselves, so they know that anything that comes up, they're as prepared as they can be in that moment."
Veteran entrepreneurs can sign up for the Heroes to CEOs contest Feb. 18 through March 20 by submitting a video detailing their business plan and demonstrating a solid business concept to OurFarmSalutes.com.