Being a Military spouse isn’t easy. Between dealing with frequent deployments, job changes and cross-country moves, you’re holding together the family on the home front and trying to keep your own identity. So about 6 years ago when Lakesha Cole, a Marine Corps spouse and mother of two, was faced with the family’s fifth deployment, she decided to create something she could take with her. Cole launched She Swank | Too, a curated shop for women and girls, with only $500. Today the She Swank | Too brand has grown through three deployments, traveled to customers in 50 states and four countries and is located in a brick and mortar pop-up shop in Okinawa, Japan. For Cole’s work as a military spouse turned entrepreneur, she was selected into the Military Entrepreneur Program by Inc. magazine, named 2014 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year by Military Spouse magazine, and featured on The Today Show with Kathie Lee & Hoda. Additionally, Cole serves as a volunteer advisor to the Military Spouse Business Association and serves on the board of theÂ Military Spouse Behavioral Health Clinician.
“It’s important to maintain your own identity,” said Cole. “Continue to nurture your skillset. Don’t give up on who you are. Remain flexible and open to change. Choose a winning attitude. Your attitude is what will ultimately determine your outlook on military life. There isn’t a manual on how to succeed as a military spouse. You have to define that for yourself. Familiarize yourself with the resources that are readily available and connect with the organizations that provide the support you are seeking. Go out of your way to make new friends. Volunteering is great way to make new friends when you first move to a base.”
Currently, as the founder of Milspousepreneur.com, an online hub designed to inform, inspire and celebrate military spouse entrepreneurs, Cole is dedicated to helping other military spouses turn their vision into reality. BlackEnterprise.com caught up with the trailblazer to learn more about her journey and a few tips for budding entrepreneurs.
BlackEnterprise.com: Why was it necessary to create Milspousepreneur?
Cole: Relocating my business to Okinawa, Japan was one of the hardest business decisions I’ve ever had to make. Moving my store, She Swank | Too, to another country was never part of the plan. Business as I knew it no longer existed.Â I had to learn how to operate within unfavorable on-base regulations, Japan business laws, Customs procedures and adjusting to a completely different market with less disposable income. Not to mention the language barrier. There was no “how toâ€ guide on how to successfully relocate my entire life, family and business overseas. The networking opportunities to connect and build enduring, mutually beneficial relationships didn’t exist. I quickly learned my local community lacked the resources needed to overcome these hurdles. I wanted to create a learn-by-doing environment that not only provided valuable tools on how to start a business but also celebrated entrepreneurial activity and provided opportunities for military spouses to implement what they’re learning through a series of live events. So I did.
Milspousepreneur started in July 2014 as a local Facebook group of military spouses aimed to foster an entrepreneurial culture in Okinawa, Japan, despite the heavy restrictions that come along with living overseas. We now serve as a free community resource for all military spouses stationed overseas who want to turn their ideas into a successful business within regulation and provide tools and opportunities to help make those ideas happen. Despite distance, we’re pursuing our dreams. Milspousepreneur provides unparalleled support for a community whose love of entrepreneurship is rivaled only by our love for spouse and country.
Why do you think there is a need for organizations to provide support services for military spouses?
Military spouses are resilient, educated, tenacious, highly skilled, resourceful, and very loyal. We are often perceived to be uneducated, unskilled workers who lack stability. Military spouses make the best employees and will provide a solid return on investment for any employer. Companies and organizations need to provide support services to ensure service members, veterans, and their families have the opportunities, resources, and support they have earned. There are no disadvantages of creating military-friendly workplaces.
Describe some of the challenges and benefits of being a military spouse?
There’s no question that the toughest part of being a military spouse is the uncertainty of deployments. The emotional cycle of deployment before, during and after war is draining. There’s a range of intense emotions and feelings–anger, fear, loneliness, sadness, overwhelmed helplessness–while taking care of the home front.
Frequent moves also tops my list, making it hard for military spouses to pursue a single career or accumulate the desired experience employer’s want. I was luckier than most. I was fortunate and strategic enough to develop my own career path and hold a variety of mid-level positions, even through five relocations.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a military spouse?
My biggest challenge was maintaining my own identity. Don’t let your title as a military spouse become your entire identity. It’s only part of who you are, not the totality. It’s very easy to give up your hobbies, career, and old friends. Don’t. I overcame this by continuing to nurture the parts of me that I think make me a better person. I’m always looking to learn new things. Saying “I did it” gives me a huge boost of confidence that carries over into my other roles.
As a mentor and business coach for budding military spouse entrepreneurs, what are some of the services you provide?
I have a passion for retail. As The Milspouse Retail Coach, I help military spouses develop business confidence and understand their business style; gain insight into how to ensure their independent retail start-up is a success; optimize how to present their product to the market; work on how to make a positive impact quickly; and integrate a range of business start-up tools into your business.
Did you always have a desire to pursue entrepreneurship or did the role fall into your lap?
Yes, I did. I always knew entrepreneurship would be my career path. Early on I simply didn’t have the resources or confidence to take that leap. So I worked full-time the first three years while building and running my business. I didn’t make the transition from employee to employer until I moved to Japan.
Think back to when you first launched your business, if you knew then what you knew today, what things would you do differently?
I would make every decision with growth in mind. I would hire an accountant and bookkeeper on day one. You will thank yourself later. Get by with the bare minimum for as long as you can. Establish your presence, gain customers and cash flow and then expand cautiously.
Editors’ Note: This story was originally published on July 6, 2015.