Colombian immigrant Liseth Velez used her military experience to build a fast-growing government contracting firm
A proud immigrant from Colombia, Liseth Velez grew up in the blue collar city of Lowell, Massachusetts, filled with pride and love for her adopted homeland. She also had deep respect for the military and was determined to join the United States Air Force.
While in high school in Lowell, she enrolled in the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), setting her on a path toward achieving her goal of joining the military. After graduation, she joined the U.S. Air National Guard and was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where she began taking classes, thanks to reduced tuition rates offered through the military.
She made several deployments overseas, including in Africa, while serving as an HVAC technician in the Air National Guard’s 102nd Civil Engineering Squadron. It was there, working in remote areas on tight military budgets and with limited resources, that she learned how to manage complicated construction projects, often under strict deadlines.
She learned to build responsible and accurate budgets, navigate complicated procurement rules, comply with government regulations, and maintain vitally important schedules. She also made invaluable connections with contractors while learning risk management and best practices in hiring and operations—all of which would serve her well in her post-military career.
“In the military, I was able to see construction done in a different way and that allowed me to be more creative,” Velez explains. “When you lack resources, you’re in survival mode.”
She received an Associate’s Degree in 2015 from Northern Essex Community College in Massachusetts. She worked in the beverage industry for several years and dabbled in real estate development before launching her own construction management firm, LJV Development, in 2018.
“I didn’t feel like I was fulfilling my life and doors kept getting closed,” she recalls. “I watched federal contracting and how it impacted the military. I was receptive to hearing from other people, going to programs, and being more open to gaining knowledge from other people.”
Based just outside of Boston, LJV focused on institutional and commercial clients, as well as federally-contracted projects, realizing the great opportunities available because the company is woman- and veteran-owned.
“I did it very unconventionally,” she says of building the business. “My construction experience came from the military which is very different than the private sector. I jumped into it. I had never started a business in my life.”
“I had a ton of leadership knowledge and skills,” she continues. “But the biggest things were not having the network in the industry, not understanding the issues around compliance, and a lack of working capital.”
The ICIC Effect
In 2019, she took a major step toward figuring out the capital piece of her business thanks to her participation in ICIC’s Inner City Capital Connections (ICCC) program. She also continued her schooling while building the company, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in 2021 from Webster University in St. Louis. She also participated in ICIC’s Building for Growth (BFG) program.
“That was a great program,” she says. “They brought in a lot of construction experts. We saw how some of the construction managers were going through scenarios, finding resolutions, mitigating risk. It’s also helped me expand my network significantly. The big thing with ICIC is they’re nationwide. Connecting with other business owners is a big help.”
LJV is now at 15 employees, many of whom are also veterans. The firm has negotiated multiple contracts with federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, the Veterans Administration, the General Services Administration, and the Federal Aviation Administration, among others. She’s also contracted with colleges and institutions on renovation and construction projects, including Wellesley College and Harvard Business School.
In 2023, the federal Small Business Administration named LJV Development the Massachusetts Veteran Business of the Year.
“The biggest ‘a-ha’ moment for me and my business was really understanding the opportunity and how to connect with the people that will give you that opportunity,” she says. “For me that’s been my big motivation is the fact that I know my position—as a veteran, a woman, and a person of color—that I have access to opportunities and that I play a role in the grand scheme of economic growth and creating jobs.”
As an immigrant, a veteran and a woman, she’s faced her share of challenges, but has relied on lessons learned through her schooling, military experience and her work with ICIC. Chief among them, she says are the importance of building a “solid team” and to “have a plan.”
“A lot of business owners are visionary and we have great ideas, but if you don’t have plans, and strategies and metrics, and you just keep on thinking you’re going to be able to grow without a plan, that is a recipe for disaster,” she says. “That plan is your compass. If you don’t have a clear direction of where you’re going, you’re never going to get there.”
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