So, how is it possible for a business model based on flip-flops to gain traction in conflict zones where billion-dollar government aid programs have failed?
The answer, according to Nick Kesler, the founder of VetImpact, a nonprofit consulting firm that provides internships with veteran businesses for transitioning military members with an interest in entrepreneurship, begins with first accepting mistakes made and then having the courage to invest in innovative grassroots solutions.
“I witnessed the utter lack of a comprehensive strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide the basic elements of a civil society,” says Kesler, a Navy Reserve lieutenant commander and former rotary pilot who deployed in support of the global war on terrorism three times from 2006 to 2013. “Now we are witnessing what happens when we [continue to] think there is a military solution to a [complex] problem that really requires a ‘whole nation’ approach,” he says, referring to the use and advancement of public and private partnerships “whereby military actions work in concert with development activities over the long term to provide economic and social empowerment.”
Kesler laments that the majority of development contracts issued by the U.S. government are doled out to large firms with little governmental oversight. “No one wants to play with the small kid in the market. They want to go after the Walmarts of the world,” he explains. “The government gives out these multimillion[-dollar] contracts, but how much of it gets to the people who need it?”
Kesler started VetImpact in 2015 to “repurpose veterans’ skills and relationships to help them search and find international market opportunities and eventually serve as a clearing house for veteran volunteers that want to help rebuild post-conflict countries.” To put it simply, VetImpact facilitates mentorships and internships for veterans with companies like Combat Flip Flops, Rumi Spice, and Flying Scarfs, which are working to rebuild conflict zones through free trade. Although VetImpact remains a small start-up, Kesler envisions the company evolving into an international business consultancy specializing in post-conflict regions.
Unlike traditional development aid programs, VetImpact is built on the “trade as aid” model, which aims to foster economic development through international trade, capital markets, and foreign direct investment (FDI). According to Kesler, merely injecting international donor funds into a country or market does not produce growth. He insists capital must be paired with market forces, particularly profit-driven businesses, to generate incentives for businesses to grow and innovate, which in turn spurs increases in employment.
Kesler believes that, after years of combat operations and sacrifices, veterans are motivated by knowing that “their deployments and efforts meant something.” And by partnering with veteran-owned businesses, VetImpact strives to “build and grow businesses in nasty places.”
“For large companies, the bottom line is to make money,” Kesler says. “But when you’re bootstrapping it like us, it’s about helping each other out — so you both make it out.”