The National Capital Area is home to over 1.2 million veterans. Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the national unemployment rate for veterans increased to 6.5% in 2020. In Prince George’s County, the Veterans Services Office at Prince George’s Community College (PGCC) works to provide comprehensive educational and support services to veterans, active duty and reserve military members and their families.
Over time, the office has evolved to holistically aid veterans and their families with transitioning to a lifestyle that they need or want to have. The team at the Veterans Services Office provides veterans assistance with filing for educational benefits, tutoring, academic and career counseling financial workshops (in partnership with United Way of the National Capital Area’s Financial Empowerment Centers), wellness tools such as TalkSpace, and additional support for those struggling in other areas.
“The goal is for veterans to know they’re not forgotten and can lead a lifestyle that is a representation of their sacrifices,” shares Arthur Toole, director of Veterans Services at PGCC.
With 75% of their staff comprised of veterans, PGCC’s Veterans Services Office helps create a community for veterans and their families. “It’s so important to have a physical place that you feel is specifically for veterans [and] know that these individuals who are working here understand veterans, have experience with veterans and know how to integrate and assist [them] and their families with their needs,” shares Dena Wilson, assistant director of development at PGCC.
Like most places across the country, COVID-19 made a significant impact on the operations of the office. The team quickly pivoted from in-person interactions to moving everything virtually—webinars, workshops, one-on-one communications with veterans, etc. While the shift was needed, there was a drop in participation, largely because some veterans have a lack of access to at-home Wi-Fi and/or technology. The Veterans Services Office team identified this need and responded by providing laptop loaners and/or Wi-Fi hotspots for them.
As the pandemic continued, so did the need to support veterans in different ways. In partnership with PGCC and United Way NCA, the Veterans Services Office launched their very first Shark Tank Pitch Competition in 2021. The goal of the competition is to provide education, training and the funding so that veterans can avoid incurring debt while making their dreams of becoming business owners, a reality.
The inspiration for the competition was a personal one. Toole and his wife, both veterans themselves, participated in a pitch competition in 2019 (and won!). Unfortunately, their experience ended in never getting paid by the competition’s organizers and they found that there are a lot of instances of competitions that would prioritize earning publicity instead of paying the winners. Many veterans experience being taken advantage of and find it hard to know who to trust. And, for those with entrepreneurial dreams, funding can be a huge challenge.
The Shark Tank Competition serves as an opportunity for veterans to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges and win the opportunity to get the training and resources they need to start their own businesses. For semi-finalists, they also can participate in PGCC’s Innovation Hub where they are able to develop their prototype, build customer-service training and other services.
With a seed funding award provided by United Way NCA to start their company, participants have a real chance to make their dreams come true. “They could still be talking about the idea, rather than having it actually come true and making it happen,” shares Toole.
“It makes me proud to say that I’ve worked with United Way NCA and leverage the funding they’ve given us to support veterans and the military that have done so much for us to sit here, come to work every day and give back. It’s a full-circle moment,” adds Wilson.
Toole and his team look forward to continuing the Shark Tank Pitch Competition in the new year. Applications are slated to open in March 2022 and the final competition is currently planned for June. Their hope is to find more partners to provide further support services for the winners and expand the opportunities for participants, such as more business training. “You can do something fast if you do it alone, but you can do more if you do it together,” says Toole. “The desire and drive are not enough; it requires partnerships, like with United Way NCA,” he adds.
PGCC’s Veterans Service Office is focused on the future ahead, cultivating relationships and partnerships to make growth happen and expand opportunities for the veterans in their community. “Allowing us to bring veterans together in a world where we feel we’re on our own, is a blessing that can’t be measured,” shares Toole.
To learn more about United Way NCA’s economic opportunity work, visit unitedwaynca.org/economic-opportunity
When none are ignored, all will thrive.