Jody Nelson

Jody Nelson, owner of The Spice & Tea Exchange in Brownwood, makes sure her shelves are stocked and looking good on Wednesday. Nelson is among the hundreds of veterans who own small businesses in The Villages.

THE VILLAGES — If only she’d had access to the Boots to Business program a year or so ago.

That was the first thought retired Army Col. Jody Nelson voiced when she learned about the free, two-day business-training program the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Service Corps of Retired Executives chapter in The Villages are sponsoring Wednesday and Thursday at The Villages Public Library at Pinellas Plaza.

“It would have been beyond invaluable,” Nelson said about the impact of such a program if she and her husband, Rob, had known about it prior to starting their business, The Spice & Tea Exchange at Brownwood. “I had to go out and find all the information myself. Nobody helped us to write a profit-and-loss statement or how to do market research. My husband and I did this whole business on our own.”

Once again, the vitality of the community’s veteran population is putting The Villages on the national map.

The Villages training program is the first of 38 Boots to Business seminars the SBA is sponsoring this year throughout the country for veterans of the U.S. armed forces and their spouses.

And the SBA picked the Pinellas Plaza library for a training program because of the enthusiasm of the volunteers in The Villages with the Mid-Florida Chapter of SCORE, said Natalie Hall, the SBA’s economic development specialist and veterans representative in Jacksonville.

“It worked out because SCORE was happy to participate, and they were engaged from day one,” Hall said. “It was an opportunity for them, and they just jumped onboard, which is great for us when a resource partner is willing to support it.”

There’s no question about the potential for veteran-owned business growth in The Villages.

The community has the highest percentage of veterans per population count than either Lake or Marion counties, Florida or the U.S.

In 2015, nearly 20,000 veterans lived in The Villages metropolitan statistical area, a region that encompasses all of Sumter but not Lake or Marion, according to the latest five-year Census count. That’s a 15 percent increase over the number of veterans recorded as living here in 2010.

Nearly 2 in 10 businesses in Sumter County is owned by a veteran, compared with 1 in 10 nationally, according to the latest available U.S. Census data.

“So you can feel my excitement about this program is rising now,” said Joe Elias, volunteer chairman of the Mid-Florida Chapter of SCORE.

The SCORE volunteers expect up to 50 veterans and their spouses from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day at the library in The Villages Sumter County Service Center, he said.

Participants who complete the two-day program are eligible to participate in an eight-week online Foundations of Entrepreneurship course instructed by a consortium of professors and practitioners with the Institute for Veterans & Military Families at New York’s Syracuse University, said Elias, of the Village of Gilchrist.

“We’re really excited about this program, because it’s going to benefit a lot of people,” Elias said. “This is going to be really great for all the veterans here. It’s a big deal here.”

It’s also a big deal for every resident of the community, said David Booth, president and CEO of Combat Veterans to Careers, a registered 501(c)(3) charity in The Villages that helps provide job opportunities for post-9/11 veterans.

“I get that question a lot because we deal with post-9/11 veterans — Why are you in The Villages?” he said. “I reply that this is a great community with all these small businesses growing here. And these businesses support the residents so they can enjoy the quality of life here.”

No better challenge exists than encouraging and motiving veterans to form their own small businesses because of their experience serving the country, Booth said.

“There are so many career opportunities here,” he said. “Any business you can think of is here supporting this community. So there are great opportunities for our veterans to get the training they need to start their own businesses, because veterans make good business owners.”

Nelson and her husband, a retired Army chief warrant officer, prove that statement.

Just within their first year in business, the couple has produced a profit.

They attribute that success to their nearly three decades of service to this country.

“We understood enough to write in-depth plans for the military for 28 years,” Nelson said. “We had an understanding about writing military contracts for money.”

But the couple pretty much learned everything about opening and operating a business from scratch, she said.

“I still don’t know about all the resources available to me out there,” Nelson said. “And you’ve got to understand the pros and cons to have a full picture. Starting any business is going to take an investment of time, money and energy. It’s never easy.”

That investment of resources does not diminish over time, either, which explains why Nelson is so interested in the Boots to Business training program.

“You never stop learning. You can’t in this business,” she said. “No matter what business you choose, you cannot stop learning, because complacency leads to stagnancy and failure.”

David R. Corder is a senior writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 9066, or david.corder@thevillagesmedia.com.