A Chicago program that started as a way to help high school students create their own jobs is now assisting thousands of veterans to start businesses and gain access to government contracts worth millions. Young Entrepreneurs of the Universe, or YEU, is the brainchild of Paralyzed Veterans of America member Babette Peyton, whose optimism, determination and drive—qualities that earned five gold medals in the recent National Wheelchair Games (see sidebar)—have made YEU a program that other groups look to emulate.
Babette Peyton—and her five National Veterans Wheelchair Games gold medals—with VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and representatives from Tridec Technologies, LLC, a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business, during the National Veterans Small Business Conference
By 2005, a long-term service injury finally left Peyton paralyzed on one side. The obstacles she encountered just getting through each day made her focus on how to assist veterans with limited mobility and medical challenges that stopped them from working full or even part-time jobs. “I wanted to combat the ‘hero to zero’ effect,” Peyton says, “especially for service-disabled veterans.”
She decided to build on YEU’s existing structure, turning it into an organization dedicated to putting veterans—especially veterans with disabilities—to work. “There’s a terrific need,” she notes, pointing to a recent Department of Labor report that showed returning veterans have a two-thirds higher unemployment rate than the regular population.
“When you go to job fairs, they tell you to go to Internet and file your résumé, but you get no result,” she says. “For a regular person, this is devastating. For someone with disabilities, they just give up. We don’t work that way.”
YEU uses group meetings and social media to get the word to veterans at home and in hospitals about how to do business with the federal government and create jobs for themselves and others. “There are contracts out there worth $3,000 to $5 million,” Peyton says. “Veterans should be able to benefit from them,” either through their own small businesses, by partnering with nonveteran businesses or by sharing positions with others.
Entrepreneur and veterans’ advocate Babette Peyton sees a definite connection between her job outreach efforts and the five gold medals—in archery, table tennis, slalom obstacle course, wheelchair rally and bowling—she brought home from the 2011 National Wheelchair Games this past August. She recalls one moment especially, as she looked at all the participants, thinking how her involvement in adaptive sports had shown her new possibilities for her life: “I thought, if I can shoot a bow with my mouth, I know we [YEU] can do anything. We can get these businesses going; we can put veterans to work. We are going to get this done!”
Now home in Chicago, she applies the same focus to expanding YEU’s outreach: “Working with groups like Paralyzed Veterans of America, putting our heads together, I know that, just like me with that bow, we will come up with new ways to get veterans back to work.”
Although a small organization, YEU leverages its relationships with the Departments of Veterans Affairs, Defense, Labor and Education and the Small Business Administration and other federal agencies, as well as veterans service organizations and local businesses, to access information, expertise and technology. The group also works with Paralyzed Veterans’ Operation: PAVE (Paving Access to Veterans Employment) to identify issues and opportunities. At the request of company commanders in the Great Lakes area, it has also provided counseling on how vets can diversify talents and create jobs for themselves.
Most recently, YEU participated in the National Veterans Small Business Conference in New Orleans. “We identified $250 million in contracts,” Peyton exults. “Now we just have to help veterans in business to get those contracts and create those jobs!”
Lee Fleming is a writer based in Washington, DC, whose articles appear in national publications and on the Web.