Rapaport Magazine

Stepping Up For Veterans

Jewelers for Veterans Foundation Chairman Ralph Destino talks about the launch of the new charitable organization, and what it means for the industry.

By Ricci Dipshan

At a veterans job fair on Veterans Day 2011, held on the decommissioned USS Intrepid in New York City, Ralph Destino, former chairman of Cartier and the Gemological Institute of America (GIA), unveiled the jewelry and diamond industry’s plan to lend a helping hand to the nation’s servicemen and women in the form of a new organization, Jewelers for Veterans Foundation.

The nonprofit organization, which will be run by industry executives, is designed to recruit, train and place returning military veterans in jewelry- and diamond-related jobs. Although it had not yet officially launched at press time, the Jewelers for Veterans Foundation has secured the backing of many major players in the diamond and jewelry world, as well as a commitment of financing from the federal government.

“When the day our official launch happens,” Destino adds, “I want to be in business the next morning, with everything running and with money in the bank.”

Jewelers for Veterans was created, explains Destino, to deal with “an issue that everyone ought to be concerned with — the issue of having hundreds of thousands of returning veterans coming back to this country who are not able to find a job. These are volunteers — we do not have a draft — and they deserve priority. So it was decided that, as an industry, we should be doing something about this.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate at the end of 2011 for veterans who served in the post-9/11 Iraq or Afghanistan conflicts was 13.1 percent, up from 11.7 percent a year earlier, and far above the national average of 8.3 percent.

In response to the difficulty veterans are facing in finding post-military employment, in November 2011, President Obama and the U.S. Congress adopted The Veterans Opportunity to Work (VOW) to Hire Heroes Act of 2011. The act includes provisions to extend the G.I. Bill benefits for an extra year and to allow service members to begin the federal government employment application process prior to discharge. It also contains a $5,600 tax credit for businesses that hire veterans who have been unemployed for six months or longer and a $9,600 tax credit for businesses that hire disabled veterans. Though the bill was a good start at lowering the veteran unemployment rate, much of the burden of helping returning service members falls to private sector business.

Jewelers for Veterans was the brainchild of Todd Wolleman, president of New York–based jewelry manufacturer Leo Wolleman Inc., and John Politi, Jr., former director of business development at the American Gem Society (AGS) Laboratories. “The concept was born in the summer of 2011 principally by Todd and John,” says Destino, who was approached by both men to help them “bring jewelers together to find jobs for our veterans.”

Politi will serve as Jewelers for Veterans’ executive director, Wolleman as president and Destino as chairman. The executive committee has expanded to include other New York City–based members of the jewelry and diamond industry, including Richard Greenwood, president of gemstone wholesaler A.F. Greenwood Co.; Michael Toback, president of jewelry supplier Myron Toback, Inc. and Steven Grauer, owner of jewelry retailer Gold Art 18KT.

In order to best work with, and be visible to, jewelry and diamond companies, Jewelers for Veterans plans to open an office in the heart of New York’s diamond district. “The World Diamond Tower at 580 Fifth Avenue has provided us with an office and furniture at a reduced rate,” says Destino. The foundation also has put in place the legal framework for its operations, arranged designation as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit and tax deductible charitable foundation and acquired a New York license to solicit contributions.   

Training is at the heart of the Jewelers for Veterans mission. “If any returning veteran has any interest in any facet of the jewelry and diamond industry, we will provide them with training,” vows Destino. The organization will work to develop a training network from among the 136 schools across the U.S. that already offer programs in jewelry- and diamond-related studies. And while “we are not going to reach out to all 136 schools,” says Destino, “we still will have a huge roster of schools to connect with.” Among the schools contacted so far are: Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), GIA and the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in New York City. Jewelers for Veterans also has reached out to companies that fund schools that teach industry-related skills, such as the Rolex Corporation, which funds watchmaking schools throughout the country.

Though the G.I. Bill ensures veterans federal funding for the cost of many programs and schools, Jewelers for Veterans has committed to cover any costs associated with training that fall outside the scope of the bill. “No veteran will have to pay even 10 cents to learn about our industry,” declares Destino.

After training, the second priority for Jewelers for Veterans is finding jobs for these servicemen and servicewomen. The organization already has contacted major industry employers, including Zale Corporation, Jewelers of America (JA) and Manufacturing Jewelers & Suppliers of America (MJSA). Not only did all of them pledge their desire to employ veterans, but they also lauded Jewelers for Veterans for its initiative. “I haven’t talked to a single person who hasn’t been absolutely enthusiastic about this effort,” states Destino.

The support and aid have come in a variety of ways. Zales, for example, donated funds to the organization, while MJSA President and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) David Cochran invited Destino to speak at the MJSA Expo New York show in March 2012. Many industry executives, including Matt Runci, president and CEO of JA, wrote statements of support for Jewelers for Veterans that will be featured in its promotional material.

“By channeling our industry’s efforts to facilitate the postwar training and job placement of veterans, Jewelers for Veterans symbolizes our gratitude to those who have sacrificed for our nation, while helping to insure a stream of proven talent for the industry in the future,” Runci wrote. “As CEO of JA, I am proud to support this initiative.” 

The federal government and its many veteran-related grants and funding programs are expected to provide the bulk of the money needed to launch the effort. Destino has personally solicited the political support of David Cicilline, Rhode Island’s Democratic congressman and former mayor of Providence. Cicilline is a staunch advocate of veteran rights and writer of the “Make it in America Block Grant Act of 2011,” a proposed law that frees up federal grants for organizations supporting U.S. manufacturing. “He just exploded with enthusiasm,” recalls Destino, adding that Cicilline advised him that Jewelers for Veterans could get grants “through the Department of Labor, Department of Commerce and the Department of Veteran Affairs.”

To begin the fund application process, Politi has drafted detailed proposals on how Jewelers for Veterans intends to spend federal dollars in its efforts to arrange training and secure employment for veterans.

With the organizational framework and funding sources in place, Jewelers for Veterans will turn to the task of launching its organization through promotions and marketing. “If this were a commercial venture, we would call this part ‘brand building,’” explains Destino. So far, brochures, counter signs and a website, www.J4V.org, are on the drawing board.

The brochures will be placed in jewelry and diamond stores and businesses across the nation, along with a counter sign saying “We support Jewelers for Veterans, ask us.” They also will be distributed directly to returning servicemen and women. “The Department of Veteran Affairs is going to help us distribute this brochure,” says Destino, adding that the goal is to “get linked to the actual military discharge program,” so that soon-to-be veterans can start thinking about a jewelry- and diamond-related career before officially leaving the armed forces.

A crucial part of the promotions and marketing, of course, will be the website. Initial plans are for the site to include videos of industry members speaking on the merits of the organization, as well as program and contact information for interested veterans. “We are also going to buy a lot of advertising online to drive traffic to our website,” adds Destino.

Looking forward, Destino hopes that Jewelers for Veterans will be a starting point not only for getting the jewelry and diamond industry to lend a helping hand to the nation’s veterans, but also as a call to arms for many other industries to participate as well. “One of the things I said from the beginning,” sums up Destino, “is that this is our industry stepping up — but ultimately, we encourage, and would like to see, other industries stepping up as well.”

Article from the Rapaport Magazine - March 2012. To subscribe click here.

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