Here’s how the invitation read:
You are invited to the following event:
We come together to celebrate veterans. All branches are welcome. The New York State Veteran Chamber of Commerce wants you to know that we remember you. Not just on the days we are supposed to celebrate veterans but active duty as well. We will take this opportunity to network, brainstorm, and promote our businesses and branches. There is a $25 charge for a premium cigar and tasting of Johnny Walker 18. Please remember to take care of the hostess, suggested is $10, but feel free to give more.
The invitation landed in my inbox yesterday. It left me scratching my head for several reasons.
This feels like such a private-club-only message. Cigars and scotch? Really? All branches may be welcome, but the implicit message is not all genders.
As a lifetime athlete, I neither drink nor smoke, and cigar smoke in particular is abhorrent to me. Most of the women I know, including many female veterans, feel precisely the same way. Why on earth would we dress up in a nice business outfit only to walk out reeking? It’s impossible to breathe in an environment like that. Not only that, most of the younger male vets I know eschew alcohol and smoking for good reason.
Low-light steak houses
The invite might as well have screamed MEN ONLY. This reminds me of every dark, red-upholstered, low-light New York City steakhouse I’ve ever walked into- restaurants largely created for men to make deals. Women allowed as servers only or arm candy. That’s the impression. While the organizers may argue with me, I can’t think of any female veteran business owners who would feel attracted to this event. I’m sure some occasionally smoke cigars and toss back scotch. However that is most definitely not the norm, and that’s the whole point.
As someone who has been training veterans how to sell to the Fortune 500 for almost twenty years, the kinds of events that work most efficiently are environments where a combination of training and application are involved. Workshops and networking events (without booze and cigars, thank you) where vets can learn strategies, seek mentors, and explore their many options. They make friends, find comrades and create opportunities.
The Forgotten Female Veteran
As a decorated, disabled Vietnam Era veteran, I’ve been in this game a long time. Many women have served before me, from the Revolution to present day. However this country still does not see us in our entirety. Memes on Facebook that show soldiers from Vietnam are universally male. It’s as though we never existed. Even today, as women come home missing limbs from IED blasts and have the battle scars that proved their valor, most of our reference points are the male soldiers. While things are changing slowly, the battle for proper health care from the VA and assistance with coming back to civilian life has led to a rising tide of female veteran suicides, double the rate for men. We are still the forgotten, not to our friends and family, but to the nation at large which still has a terrible time understanding that women are also warriors.
Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-IL, is currently among the most visible of our female veterans, an Iraq war vet who lost both her legs and damaged an arm. Most of us disappear into the woodwork, and we struggle for our rights as vets- even to be recognized as among America’s heroes.
A Long History
The first well-documented woman to fight for her country was Deborah Sampson, of Massachusetts. She taped her chest and headed off to enlist. She took cannon fire and refused treatment so that she could continue to serve. She was afraid her sex would be discovered. She removed one cannon ball from her leg and sewed it up herself. The other stayed there and never healed. She was honorably discharged at West Point in 1783. Sampson, after serving for seventeen months, repeatedly petitioned Congress for the military invalid pension that was due her. She even had to enlist the help of Paul Revere to intervene. He wrote letters to Congress demanding she be paid. She was living in abject poverty, and never fully received the military benefits she had earned in service to her country. That’s the level of denial that Congress suffered.
Only one of the up to 750 women who disguised themselves to fight in the Civil War was paid a pension by Congress (https://www.civilwar.org/learn/articles/female-soldiers-civil-war). Sarah Edmonds Seelye fought as Franklin Flint Thompson of the 2nd Michigan Infantry. She had no interest in staying home in tears. Yet all of her sisters who fought suffered equal privations, wounds and injuries, and never got paid their fair share.
Not much has changed. Ask any female veteran what it’s like to battle the VA for care and to deal with mostly male doctors who are clueless.
Deal -Making Culture
I have spent time in New York City as well as Washington D.C. The deal-making culture is driven by access and inclusion, and there is a long tradition of how and where connections are developed and deals are made. In certain circles, this is done in private clubs, thick with cigar smoke, replete with the clinking of glasses full of scotch. While this is steadily changing, in some places- as this invitation makes eminently clear- some traditions haven’t changed at all.
This isn’t to say this is wrong. What I am saying is that to state that veterans are welcome, and then to create this kind of environment where most women wouldn’t want to show up, is a lie. If you want top-notch, well-trained, powerful women vets to engage, create a venue which feels inclusive. We run businesses too. If anything, women vets (as do women in general) have a far harder time getting funding, so access to friends, advice and collaboration are keys to success. Just as it is for male veterans, but more so. A lot more so.
The Right to Recognition
We women warriors have served. We pay the same price the men have paid, especially today as women find their ways right to the front lines. In some ways we have paid far more horrendous prices through military sexual trauma. We didn’t sign up for that, but that’s the system. Like it or not, we’re here. And in every single way we deserve the same respect, the same quality of health care, the recognition that we earned serving our country. After we’ve served, we deserve an equal shot at employment and entrepreneurship. Just like the men. As someone who has contributed regularly to Vetrepreneur Magazine about doing business with America’s largest companies, I see success stories about vetrepreneurs that make me justifiably proud. Just not enough about women.
This kind of invitation reminds me of why that’s still the case.
So if you’re going to send out an invitation that says veterans and all branches, then you are speaking to us, too. To all the women who have served. We also need connections and mentors and collaborators. It might serve to make that event a bit more user-friendly for every single one of us who have earned the right to be called a veteran, and who are eager to continue serving our country as business people.