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Veterans make great business owners

Advice and inspiration from the 2018 Entrepreneur of the Year

Heidi and her husband at their Pinot’s Pallette Studio in South Hill, Puyallup. Courtesy photo

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Many veterans are pursuing second careers post separation from the military. Many out of necessity, of course, as there are bills to pay and children to feed. Yet how many are pursuing their dream careers or passionately starting their own businesses? For Maj. Heidi Leonard, it was worth the hard work, sacrifice and determination it took to open (soon to be two) Pinot's Pallete Paint and Sip Studios.

Heidi began her career with the National Guard when she was just 17, enlisting as an Intelligence Analyst and making E5 at only 21 years old. While admirable, Heidi faced discrimination in a difficult environment, although it taught her how to redefine her success and evolve her goals.  She was awarded a scholarship to the University of Washington in the Simultaneous Membership Program; a program in which a cadet participates in both the Guard and the ROTC program over a two-year course and upon graduation receives commission as a second lieutenant. From there, Heidi was trained to fly the CH-47 Chinook Helicopter, and the UH-60 Blackhawk in preparation for deployment. Between June 2007 and February 2009, she deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

She redeployed home to Washington state to work full time for the Washington Military Department, and has since fulfilled multiple leadership and staff positions, including Company Commander for HHC 66th Theater Aviation Command, the first, and so far, only female commander for Bravo Company, 1-168th General Support Aviation Battalion, Deputy Operations Officer for the FEMA Region X Homeland Response Force and Logistics Officer for Joint Forces Headquarters. Heidi wouldn't be who she is today if it weren't for her experiences: "Military service has helped me learn how to manage my expectations (for myself and of others) ... helps with achieving personal satisfaction."

Heidi encourages veterans to take advantage of their unique military experiences. "Do it," she says. "Veterans have the basic skills, fortitude and resilience that it takes to be successful business owners. Being a business owner is a powerful platform for positive change." While she had her doubts, her husband, also a veteran, convinced her that the risks were worth it, and together they opened their first Pinot's Pallette Studio at South Hill in Puyallup. Heidi admits there was a big learning curve as they encountered commercial leases, contracts, and specific licenses for health, building and liquor, but again her skills and experiences in the military, such as critical thinking, problem solving and knowing how to be flexible and adapt, served her well.

Now Heidi and her husband plan to open another location in Federal Way, and she still learns and reflects daily. She suggests to "manage your expectations -- if you have employees, the best thing you can do is communicate your standards (and follow through), set the example and continually strive to do better at whatever you decide your business is. People respond to the values the military is rooted in and takes for granted. Many civilian managers do not have half of the life experience that a veteran has at the same age."

Recently, the Puyallup-Sumner Chamber of Commerce announced Heidi as the 2018 Entrepreneur of the Year. She was recognized for her outstanding contributions to the community as a small business owner. This is the first year this award has been offered, and Heidi sees it as a big win for the veteran community. She hopes that other veterans will see her experience and realize that they also have much to offer, and have the abilities to achieve their own entrepreneurial goals.

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