Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce courts Madison
Even though veterans transitioning from the military and returning to civilian life face a challenging process, nearly 11 percent of Wisconsin businesses are owned by veterans and they generate roughly $20 billion in annual sales. That’s a testimony to the transferrable skills they bring to business enterprises, whether or not they give the orders or follow them.
Veterans who operate businesses have an ally in the four-year-old Wisconsin Veterans Chamber of Commerce, which not only supports veteran entrepreneurs with business training and mentorship, but it also assists all employers in developing veteran hiring initiatives. And now the chamber is extending its reach beyond its Milwaukee base, and Madison is one of the areas it wants to apply its resources to a greater extent.
Statewide membership has grown to 289 employers, but the organization only has 20 members in Greater Madison. Kit Amidzich, the organization’s membership director, is working to change that. The chamber is not opening an office here — when she’s in town, Amidzich can work and take meetings in the Bunker Labs suite in StartingBlock Madison — but it’s now large enough to start spreading its wings across the state.
“We actually are now creating a presence in the La Crosse area, as well as the Fox Valley and the Madison area,” she explains. “I was specifically hired to take over and expand across the entire state. We’ve now added a deputy membership director, as well, so the organization went from two or three people to seven — six full-timers and one part-timer.”
Amidzich, a survivor of military sexual trauma, which she speaks openly about, joined the Army in 2001 and served until 2004 without having been deployed to Iraq or other hot spots. “I did not get deployed,” she notes. “Unfortunately, I’m a survivor of military sexual trauma, which I speak to other people and organizations about, so that’s the reason I ended up getting out of the military.”
While not afraid to speak about what happened to disrupt her military service, she’s also fully committed to broadening the chamber’s horizons. It’s coming up on its fifth anniversary and has expanded to 28 programs that fall under three basic pillars: workforce development, business development, and community outreach.
As Amidzich explains, it’s not the Milwaukee Veterans Chamber of Commerce, it’s the Wisconsin Veteran’s Chamber of Commerce. “We’re not a normal chamber,” she states. “We have our coffee hours and we have our after-hour networking, but it’s truly to provide value to our membership base, as well as to increase the economic footprint in the state of Wisconsin as a whole by showcasing and highlighting the veterans community and its family members and its supporters.
“When you offer some type of discount or you show that you’re veteran-friendly, you have an outreach of six legs because you’re going to get the family members, the friends, the grandparents, and co-workers because they want to take part and support the veterans community,” she adds. “It’s exciting to be able to bring that into the Madison area by taking what we’re doing in the Milwaukee area and being able to expand it out.”
As a Madison chapter is established, Madison’s veteran-owned and veteran-friendly businesses will be hearing more about the chamber’s annual business conference and quarterly events. Chamber ambassadors, who are veterans themselves, are publicly showcasing their businesses, as well as what the Chamber can provide in terms of networking, programming, and resources.
The chamber has completed its 2020 planning, and during every quarter of the year, Amidzich says it will provide “some sort of platform for the Madison area to jump on board with.” Whether it’s Women Veterans in Action, a new series to raise awareness of women vets, or the “I Am Not Invisible” campaign, another public awareness campaign for women veterans that recently was unveiled at the state Capitol, a number of initiatives have been put in motion.
In addition, the chamber has connected with the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Heather Ferguson — part of the Small Business Development Center — to explore collaborations that promote veterans entrepreneurship.
“We’re in our infancy stage of expanding into Madison,” Amidzich notes. “I’m excited that we’re able to pull out exactly what Madison needs.”
One of its methods to gain this understanding is by hosting a “muster,” a military term for gathering, on Thursday, Dec. 17. It will be catered by Primal Cue’, a veteran owned business run by Andrew Bajakian, and hosted at Serendipity Labs, which is located at 525 Junction Road, Suite 6500, in Madison.
“As we build our membership base, we learn the demographic and exactly what Madison needs because we don’t treat it as a carbon copy. Nothing is a carbon copy. Everything is going to be about what this area needs. What do they want? And what do they want to see?”
So far, the biggest business-related snag they see in Greater Madison is related to the chamber’s workforce-development pillar, “so we’re hyper focused on that because of all the organizations that I’ve spoken with, that is their number-one hiccup,” she says. “You know, ‘I have 1,000 spots open’ or ‘I have 500 spots open,’ and they do understand the value of hiring veterans and their family members because of the certain skill sets they come with.”
Veteran-friendly vs. veteran-ready
Of all the internal discussions the chamber has had as the organization grows, perhaps the most important as far as the hiring of veterans is concerned is how to define two terms: veteran-friendly and veteran-ready. It actually was the subject of a breakout session at the chamber’s business conference this past May, and ultimately the chamber’s definitions carried different layers of commitment.
“Veteran-friendly is ‘we want to hire veterans and we’re excited to have them,’” Amidzich explains. “But veteran-ready means we’re ready to take on the little nuances that come with hiring an active-duty veteran, a reservist who can be activated and a member of the National Guard, and then somebody who is a veteran and their family members.”
Veteran-ready implies that employers go beyond requirements outlined in the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). Signed into law in 1994 by President Bill Clinton, it protects the civilian employment of active and reserve military personnel who are called to active duty. Among other things, USERRA requires employers to put individuals back to work in their civilian jobs after military service.
As Amidzich notes, the chamber considers USERRA compliance to be a very basic part of being veteran-ready. “USERRA is prevalent and everybody knows about it, but do they understand how to make sure that when a guard member or the reservist gets activated, are they really ready to take care of the family members once they leave? It’s only by law that they are required to hold the job. A lot of these organizations are stepping up and moving forward and going above and beyond to match the pay because sometimes a VP who goes into their lieutenant and captains positions is not making the same pay and the family takes the hit on that when they are activated.”
To that end, the chamber has created a five-star certification program called Invest in Vets. To qualify, employers must comply with 16 of 19 points, and there is a reason organization set the bar that high. It wants to showcase organizations across the state that truly are ready and that understand applicable laws such as USERRA, the Wounded Warrior Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
“It’s all of those tiny little things that people just don’t think of,” Amidzich explains, “even HR professionals coming to our courses during our workforce summit. We had 100 people there. We really went into deep dive on are you ready if somebody gets activated? Do you have things in place to make sure?”
Nick Gomez, center, was supported during his deployment by his employer, Baird, which continued to compensate him and made sure his wife and three children were taken care of.
Amidzich cited two Wisconsin employers that have made significant strides in these areas — Direct Supply, which sells medical supplies to senior living facilities, and Baird, the wealth-management firm. In a ceremony held at the Pentagon earlier this year, Direct Supply received the 2019 Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award, the highest honor the U.S. government awards to employers that support workers who serve in the guard and reserve armed forces, while Baird was recognized as the chamber’s Employer of the Year for going above and beyond legal compliance.
Baird financial analyst Nicholas Gomez is one veteran who can attest to how a veteran-ready organization operates. An Army National Guardsman, he was away from his family for a year to undergo training for and deployment to the Middle East, his second such deployment in the past five years. While he was away, his employer not only continued to compensate him, they made sure his wife and three children were taken care of with yard-care service and snow removal at their Greendale residence, plus child-care service and even Christmas gifts.
On top of Nick’s deployment, his wife, Faviola, was helping to care for an ailing father who was battling cancer. Without the company’s support, which included a pampering “massage package,” Faviola, a product manager at CNH Industrial in Racine, the family would have been a tough spot. In what Amidzich calls “retention at its best,” Baird simply took the veteran-friendly concept to another level, which makes Gomez not only appreciative, but even more devoted to his employer.
“So, all that coinciding with my deployment, and then three kids and then a career, right? It was the perfect combination of mess,” Gomez recalls. “Faviola ended up staying home for six or seven months while I was on deployment so she could take care of the kids. Without the support of Baird, I don’t think that would have been possible.”
Direct Supply is one of 10 private employers in the U.S. to be honored with a Freedom Award, which is issued by the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve. When it comes to employing and engaging veterans, Direct Supply does many of the things Baird does, and adds some unique touches. The company has built a highly supportive environment with personal cards and notes and bracelets made in support of deployed associates like Jason Miller, who nominated the company for the Freedom Award based in part on the support he felt from coworkers.
The company also has put together a document that it uses to recruit veterans and help them understand their value in the civilian workforce as it visits places such as Great Lakes Naval Base in North Chicago, Illinois. In that document, it outlines a variety of skills and tasks it has found that veterans excel at, including time management, project management, operational skills, leadership skills, integrity, honor and teamwork, and communication.
Direct Supply extends support to veterans as early as the filing of a job application, on which they can identify themselves as veterans. The company invites an existing employee who is a veteran to attend another veteran’s job interview to gain a better understanding of the veteran job candidate’s skill sets and how they fit open positions, so there is mentorship even before the hiring decision is made.
“The way we look at it is from a personal standpoint,” says Candi Olivo, manager of talent acquisition for Direct Supply. “What is going to make the most difference for that individual partner? There is the stress and strain of upholding their significant responsibility overseas or wherever they are deployed to serve, and the weight of having a team here if they are a leader, or a job they are responsible for, and so we try to understand their personal situation and what would make a difference to them.”
Are you ready?
On a quarterly basis, the chamber holds a Veterans Corporate Roundtable in which it invites employee resource groups to talk about their best practices and help others evaluate whether they are veteran-ready. It’s a test that even large, resourceful employers can fail. Amidzich once worked for Willis, Towers, Watson, a multinational risk-management, insurance brokerage, and advisory firm. While there, she helped build its ERG veteran and support groups. Even though the organization does business worldwide, she found that while people were excited and they wanted to check that particular veteran-ready box, “when we dug into it, people were not ready.”
A telling example is post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a condition that anyone can have, not only veterans. Understanding that those who suffer from it can be valuable employees, even though it carries a terrible stigma, is part of any effective human resources strategy. Amidzich, who has a traumatic brain injury and has written on the subject, acknowledges that businesses and their HR staffs must be brought up to speed and understand the available resources, including government grants and tax breaks, to help employees cope.
“I have a traumatic brain injury and I’m still succeeding as a civilian, but there are hiccups and you learn to work around it,” states Amidzich. “It’s about educating your HR staff, as well as letting your veteran know that it’s OK that these things are happening and that you’re not going to hold it against them because you’re taking the time to understand what they need and the hiccups they are going to have.”
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