The VA Accelerator Program assists disabled veterans in establishing their own company or to grow their existing business. The program supported veteran Dawn Marie Westmoreland in transforming her background into her own company.
On top of a 20-year enlistment in the Air Force, Westmoreland studied subjects including business management, horticulture, and human resources. Because of her experience, Westmoreland says she began to notice nepotism, the hiring of family and friends, in the office she worked for after retiring from the military.
“It really disturbed me because I noticed a lot of people like myself who are well educated or maybe have a lot of experience, and we were all being overlooked on purpose while there was the promotion and hiring of family and friends,” she explained.
Westmoreland felt she needed to take action.
“I spoke up and spoke out and reported it to Office of Special Counsel in Washington D.C. who reviews prohibited personnel practices,” she said. “I received retaliation from reporting my management.”
An 80 percent disabled veteran, Westmoreland said she felt discriminated against for her disability from then on. Her employer refused to acknowledge the requirements of the American Disability Act, a U.S. labor law that prohibits discrimination and insures reasonable and accessible accommodations in a disabled employee’s work environment, she explained.
“For two years I was bullied and mistreated,” she said. “I’m a very strong woman, I spent 20 years in the Air Force. I learned a lot about leadership skills and about being strong and vigilant.”
Westmoreland filed a claim with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) for disability discrimination. The stress of her situation became so overwhelming that she was hospitalized twice.
“I looked into the mirror and I didn’t recognize myself…from long-term stress. Something happened, call it magical or divine but I had an epiphany and I realized that the worst bully was me,” she said. “I realized I did have the power to stand up to it. I already had been.”
In March 2014, two days before her hearing with the EEOC, Westmoreland and her attorney settled with her employer. Westmoreland refused a gag order that would prohibit her from speaking about her case in the public.
Westmoreland quickly realized her experiences could help others.
“Many people found out about my story,” she said. “People wanted to know how I stood up to my employer after going through such severe harassment.”
After settling, Westmoreland began a two-year certification process through iPEC, a program that offers education and tools needed to become a certified professional life coach. She also began speaking to several different audiences about her experiences, and wrote her first book, The Empowered Whistleblower: A Practical and Spiritual to Personal Power and co-authored the anthology book, The Strength of My Soul.
Westmoreland turned her name and background into her very own small business. Dawn Marie Westmoreland is currently registered as an LLC, a company that offers one-on-one HR consultations and assistance with workplace discrimination and bullying. You can find a list of the services she provides on her website, www.dawnmariewestmoreland.com.
“I decided to make a business out of it,” she said. “I realized there was a real need for people to get help and support, but it wasn’t out there.”
The VA Accelerator Program (www.vaaccelerator.com) is the Department of Veteran Affairs innovation to help veterans in all phases of entrepreneurship from initial self-assessment and business plan preparation through the launch and growth of successful businesses. The program helped Westmoreland, including assistance with a business plan, and the construction of a new website.
Westmoreland also studied courses provided by the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program, including website development, branding and marketing. There, disabled veterans “receive services to help with job training, employment accommodations, resume development, and job-seeking skills coaching,” according to the program’s website.
Today, Westmoreland is working on her third book, Solutions to Workplace Discrimination. On top of speaking engagements and making frequent posts to her blog and social media platforms, she will also visit state and federal agencies and the academic community as a subject matter expert on workplace bullying for the Federal Leadership Institute.
Over everything, Westmoreland is looking forward to expanding her business.
“I don’t want to take (what I know) with me when I leave this earth,” she said. “I really do want to educate people.”