Born in Vietnam, but raised in Missouri, Valerie Lavin, owner and founder of Luminary Global and retired U.S. Army First Sergeant, took an indirect route into the world of small business ownership. After a year of college, she took some time off to work and earn additional money to pay for her schooling. While contemplating her next move, she made a decision in the spring of 1993 that was completely out of left field and one that neither she nor her family saw coming.
"I decided to join the Army," she said. "I don't really know why this idea came to me nor why I joined. Even though my dad served in Vietnam, enlisting was unexpected , and everyone that knew me was quite surprised. My dad was always very quiet about his service and didn't influence my decision at all."
What started as a casual decision turned into a 21 year career serving her country and developing a skill set that would eventually serve her well in the staffing industry. A few years prior to retiring from the Army, Lavin's plan was to use her GI Bill to become a Physical Therapist Assistant. She had an interest in health and wellness and wanted to provide pain relief for geriatrics. Things changed when she attended the Transition Assistance Program, which is intended to prepare military personnel to leave the service, and she became more involved with the Veteran community. She realized just how many Veterans struggled with transition from military service to the civilian community. She wanted to help. A fellow veteran reached out months before regarding an opportunity with his Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business.
"Paul Huszar, CEO and President of VetCor Services, recruited me to be their Business Development Manager," she said. "I wasn't there long, but I'm grateful to Paul for the opportunity and allowing me to help him draw attention to the challenges faced by veterans re-entering the workforce. In the short time working at VetCor, I also discovered my natural skill set for business, which is relationship building and talent discovery, not closing the sale."
Around this time, Lavin's husband, Jeremy, saw a flyer for a set of entrepreneurial training courses that included things like small business management, accounting, finance and entrepreneurship 101. Lavin didn't hesitate to dive in and, with her new training and newfound love and appreciation for all things entrepreneurship, she fell in love with the idea of starting her own business to help fellow veterans. With encouragement from her husband and professional guidance from her mentor, Betsy Irizarry, she started her first business, a veteran focused talent acquisition company called Veterans2Corporate. Lavin explained the challenges and what came next.
"My first business was challenging, partly because I selected a for profit model hoping civilian employers would understand I was working for them and not just trying to put a veteran into a job," she said. "I was focused on looking for veteran talent that would contribute and assimilate well into the company. For the veterans, I was doing more along the lines of helping them with self-discovery. Most would say, 'I'll do anything', but that approach isn't good for anyone. Eventually I realized the model wouldn't succeed. My number one competitors were nonprofits and the majority of the veteran hiring efforts were going to them. Also, many employers want to hire someone who can immediately make an impact to the bottom line. Sometimes, hiring a veteran may require extra training. Nevertheless, I used that experience as a platform to advocate for veteran employment and to give the community an opportunity to interact with veterans in hopes to eliminate fears of PTSD and other stereotypes about military veterans."
Along the way, Lavin got involved with several entrepreneurial organizations including Veterans Florida, where she served for a short time as Program Manager, overseeing the Hillsborough Community College Grant. She later became a facilitator of The Ice House Entrepreneurship Program and CO.STARTERS. In the spring of 2018, she was approached by a couple of veterans about creating Action Zone, where she currently serves as Deputy Executive Director. Action Zone is a Florida non-profit corporation created to provide education and training in entrepreneurship and business development skills to Active Duty Military Service members, Reservists, National Guard, Veterans, spouses and dependents, and the civilian business partners with whom they collaborate to develop, launch and/or grow a business. For Lavin, getting involved was the perfect way to give back and to broaden her advocacy base. It also set the stage for her newest endeavor.
"Not knowing if the Veterans Florida grant would be re-awarded to Hillsborough Community College after its first year and having identified an opportunity to start a new business, my husband and I said, 'If we're going to do it, we have to do it now'," she said. "In June of 2016, we launched Luminary Global, a Minority, Women-Owned, Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business focused on healthcare staffing for the government."
Lavin shared that, as far as Luminary Global is concerned, the initial challenge was determining what exactly they were going to focus on and finding the right teaming partners. With the sales cycle being as slow as it is, making sure they were going after proposals where they could contribute their skills set was critical. The initial focus, on talent acquisition, shifted to healthcare staffing and the brokering of healthcare products. Lavin explained that decision and how they've grown the business.
"A company that knew about my husband’s, medical staffing background, got awarded a huge contract through the VA and Army Medical Command," she said. "We ran the numbers and it seemed like a great opportunity. We revamped our business model and re-branded going from an organization that did program and project management, training and talent acquisition to one focused primarily on healthcare staffing. In terms of growth, it really comes down to networking. In this industry, it's a lot of who you know. We focused on getting out there and finding other companies where we complement one another."
Though the business relationship didn’t work out, it was to her surprise how much she would come to enjoy her company’s new focus on healthcare staffing. She's grateful to be in a position to be able to select providers who want to serve patients. Looking ahead, Lavin and her husband are focused on growing the company to the point where they're consistently awarded the 'prime' government contract as part of a defense health services contract with the military and an entity like Veteran Affairs. Once growth reaches a certain level, Lavin would like to start a foundation to help fund nonprofits that are focused on helping other veterans start their own businesses. She's passionate about helping veterans and their family members through economic transitions and giving providers the opportunity to work in environments where they excel most.
What advice does Lavin have for aspiring entrepreneurs? "My first advice is to get a job or keep your current job," she said. "Having a steady source of income will allow you to breathe a little while you massage your entrepreneurial aspirations. Also, look into the Ice House Entrepreneurial Mindset training to understand the type of person you are. In the workforce you're either an employee or an intrapreneur or maybe you’ll discover you do have the entrepreneurial spirit. This can be really eye-opening. It's also important to be open-minded and be willing to let go of your idea if you need to pivot in a completely different direction because it’s about your business not your hobby. Lastly, do your industry research and network as much as possible."