Colonel Jeff Cantor, U.S. Army (retired), the founder of the NJ State Veterans Chamber of Commerce, started the inaugural event with a soldier’s story.
Every soldier has one.
For him, it was it was in 2003, when he was serving as the civil affairs commander for the city of Kirkuk, one of Iraq’s biggest municipalities.
“When we got there, when we got rid of Saddam Hussein, there was no central government, there was no provincial government, there was no local government,” he told the overflow crowd at the Pines Manor in Edison on Thursday. “There was pretty much just chaos.
“There was no sense of order and there was a lot of unemployment. People were just staying at home. And you know what happens when you have idle hands who are not making money: They join the insurgency.”
Cantor and others helped find a solution, turning a local Ba’ath party headquarters into a job training center, teaching men — and women — a wide variety of workforce skills, such as computer operations, welding and automotive repair, he said.
“We were able to employ 8,500 people in the city of Kirkuk and we prevented an insurgency from taking hold,” he said.
There was just one problem he couldn’t solve — a problem he said every retired military member often faces: “How do you put that on a resume?”
The question became his challenge and then his mission.
The result is the NJ State Veterans Chamber of Commerce, which officially launched Thursday.
The Veterans Chamber is a standalone entity, though Cantor acknowledged it could not have got started without assistance and guidance from the New Jersey State Chamber of Commerce.
Cantor also thanked the chamber’s top sponsors, Wells Fargo and Prudential as well as numerous individuals, including Luis De La Hoz of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey and Shyeka Hopkins of America’s SBDC New Jersey.
The effort, Cantor said, was worth it.
Cantor said he used the skills he learned in the military. And he said he’s confident those skills will help the more than 400,000 veterans across the state.
“Those skillsets make you an absolutely outstanding critical thinker and outstanding entrepreneur,” he said. “And that’s why you’re here today. You will succeed because of the way you’ve been taught, because of your work ethic. And because of the value that you bring to other companies that are here, you’re going to be successful and you’re going to make other people successful.”
More than 60 companies came to the inaugural expo, looking for ways to connect with veterans.
Cantor said the Veterans Chamber will be about helping forge those connections.
He laid out the chamber’s initial goals.
The biggest involves bill A976.
“This is from 2015,” he said. “This was the first and only set-aside program for disabled veteran-owned businesses in New Jersey. It is the only set-aside program in the state of New Jersey. This allots 3 percent of all government contracts to disabled veteran-owned businesses.
“This became public law in 2015. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars that’s been set aside for disabled veteran-owned businesses. So, for the past three years that this was public law, not $1 has been awarded to a disabled veteran-owned business.
“We’re here to fix this. We’ve been speaking to state government officials. The governor’s office is aware of this. Here’s something that needs to get fixed and we will fix it as a group.”
Other top priorities (with Cantor’s comments) include:
Passage of A3162: This is a new program for veteran businesses, persons with disabilities and LGBT companies to have special incentives and set-aside programs for them.
Removal of registration fees: Right now, we’re the only state that charges veteran-owned businesses a fee to register in the state. We need to eradicate this.
Universal registration for New Jersey: When you become a business in New Jersey, you have to register with the VA, the state of New Jersey, the department of transportation — you may have to register with the Port Authority and property management and construction. All of these different registration portals have some costs and fees. Why don’t we have one universal registration for all businesses across the state?
Subcontracting goals: To help veteran- and disabled veteran-owned businesses get work.
Online listings: One portal, where all veteran- and disabled veteran-businesses are listed.
A conduit for business opportunity: I hear this from businesses all the time: “I have this contract and I need steel workers, I need painters, I need office supply people.” We will blast that out to the group as a conduit.
Buy veterans: We need to implement a campaign.
A veteran-friendly municipality program: This is how we get contracting goals at the municipal level so that every single veteran-owned business and disabled-veteran business can compete at that level.
Mentorship program: Veteran businesses have to crack the code in both the federal side, the state side and the local side. They need to help others who are coming along.
Cantor announced the chamber’s 10-member executive board.
He then announced it is looking for 10 other members to form its hierarchy, filling the positions of president, secretary, director of communications as well as seven vice presidents, filling roles such as training and education, procurement activities, veterans jobs, vets in tech program, fundraising, special events, membership, and directory.
“We’re planning on doing a lot,” he said. “We’re all about education, we’re all about making things happen, we’re all about events that can get all of you, business. And we’re looking for partners to work with to help support this initiative.
“We have over 400,000 veterans in the state of New Jersey and they’re all diverse. All different backgrounds, different faiths, different ethnicities, different sexual preferences, different skin colors, different everything. But we’re all united because we all raised our hands and took that oath.”
Cantor is confident the skills the veterans learned after taking that oath will make the chamber successful.
The chamber’s motto, he said, is simple: I will find a way, or I will make one.
“And that’s really what it comes down to for each and every veteran as they come back and reintegrate into society,” he said. “You will find a way or you’re going to make one. And you will be successful, because that’s what veterans do.”
Companies participating in the expo:
AT&T, Avis, Breeze-Eastern, CBS, Cohen Seglias, Crowne Plaza Edison, Daiichi-Sankyo, Division of Purchase & Property and Division of Revenue & Enterprise Services Treasury; Eastern American, EE Cruz, Elite Access, Essex County, Event Advisors, FAA, FDU, FEMA, Ferreira Construction, First Date, GSA, Hudson County Office of Business Opportunity, Hudson County EDC; Infomatic Tech, Ipsen Biopharma, Joint Base MDL, Jersey City – Office of Diversity & Inclusion, Jobs4Bidder, J&J, JP Morgan Chase, Kiewit, Monmouth University; National Veterans Business Development Center, New Bridge Medical Center, Newark Housing Authority, NJ Community Capital, NJ Department of Property Management & Construction; NJ EDA, NJ Chamber of Commerce, NJ Treasury, NJ Turnpike Authority, NJBIA, NJIT Procurement Technical Assistance Council, Novartis, National Veteran Business Development Center; Port Authority of NY & NJ, Prudential, PSEG, Rutgers – Supplier Diversity, Sanofi, SBA, Schiavone, Supplier Diversity Development Council, Skanska, South Jersey Industries, Syracuse; TD Bank, The Eagle Force, T-Mobile, TransAmerica Logistics, Turner Construction, University Hospital, Verizon, Walmart, Wells Fargo, WorleyParsons.
For more information, reach the NJ State Veterans Chamber of Commerce here.