Lifestyle Entrepreneurs

Military Spouses Start Firms That Transfer Well

By Mark Henricks • Nov 11, 2015 Originally published Jul 7, 2003

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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Deborah Weinhauer didn't expect that marrying an Air Force officer would ground her career. But when her husband was transferred to New Jersey, she learned differently. That move required her to quit a management job in a major retailer's jewelry department. "My choices in employment were pretty limited once they found out my husband was in the military," she says. "Legally, they couldn't say that, but it was obvious. If you're in a profession where you have a fast track to success, that will be halted immediately upon marriage to a member of the military."

Ms. Weinhauer, a degreed gemologist, eventually got work at a department store chain. But in 2001 she left that job for a new gig as owner of Deborah Weinhauer Fine Jewelry, operating from base housing at her husband's current station, Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, N.M. As a business owner, Ms. Weinhauer is better able to handle the frequent moves, remote locations and other challenges of earning a living as a military spouse. In fact, being a military-spouse entrepreneur is an advantage, she says, as she's able to bring high-quality jewelry and gemstones to poorly served markets, and her military connection promotes automatic trust in the base-dependent areas where she works.

Difficulty finding a job is a familiar problem among the estimated 765,000 spouses of active-duty U.S. military service people. For military spouses, unemployment tends to be much higher than for the general population. One 1995 study at a Texas air base found 16% of spouses were unemployed, four times the then-national rate of 4%. Other recent estimates place the current unemployment rate among military spouses at 25% overall and as high as 65% at some bases.

Portability Improves Retention

The Department of Defense regards military-spouse unemployment as an obstacle to retention, and has gone so far as to offer spouses free career training and even a pilot project at a California Marine Corps camp that attempted to teach military spouses to start their own businesses. That project was short-lived, but military spouses are still starting their own businesses as a way to cope with the lifestyle demands of marriage to a member of the military.

Today the DOD pays an organization called Staffcentrix to give three-day on-base seminars about self-employment as so-called "virtual assistants." Michael Haaren, an Army veteran who co-founded Staffcentrix, says his Woodstock, Conn., organization has trained more than 1,500 military spouses as virtual assistants, who solicit work as administrative assistants, graphic designers, legal researchers, database managers and other positions through personal networking and via a Web site.

With the help of the Web, e-mail, fax and phone, virtual assistants can work with attorneys, real-estate brokers and other businesses anywhere, says Mr. Haaren. Being able to work outside the base area means they can command a higher wage than if they sought local employment. "In Clovis, N.M., the going rate for administrative support is in the neighborhood of $7 or $8 an hour," he says. "Sixty-nine percent of the folks we've trained in Clovis are charging $19 an hour and more for their work."

Jerry Horne, a retired Air Force crew chief married to an Air Force officer, started working as a self-employed virtual assistant in April, and by June was commanding an average of $30 an hour for a combination of computer systems support, data entry and transcription services. His clients came from Falcon, Colo., where Peterson Air Force Base is located, as well as New Jersey, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

The geographic spread of his customers reassures Mr. Horne that when his wife inevitably is transferred to a new station, he'll be able to take his business with him. "In a nutshell, it's having a mobile business," says Mr. Horne. "Having the ability to pick up and take your job with you is something everybody desires."

Better Than Alpaca Breeding

Business ownership also provides entrepreneurs with the opportunity to find interesting, engaging work even in the frequently economically depressed areas where bases are located. Rosemary Metcalf left her home and a high-paying job as a police officer in England when she married a member of the U.S. Air Force and moved to Clovis 11 years ago. After spending several years working in the office of a local dairy, she started a sideline breeding alpacas.

Tending to live births of the longhaired relatives of the llama provided a nice change of pace. But Ms. Metcalf wanted more and decided to take the virtual-assistant training when it was offered at the local base two years ago. Now she works with several realtors, entering property descriptions into Web sites, recording voice descriptions and performing other tasks. "It's been a great success," she says. "People who knew me in my previous job and see me now are pleased with the changes. I'm happier and look a lot better."

Business ownership doesn't solve all military-spouse challenges. Business activities on base are heavily regulated and entrepreneurs must secure permission to start their enterprises. Operations that generate significant traffic onto the base are likely to be prohibited. Ms. Weinhauer must subcontract out the soldering of her designs because she can't bring explosive welding gases on base. And each time she relocates to another state--something that's happened four times since 1997--she finds it necessary to dissolve and reincorporate her business under the laws of the new state.

But as business owners, she and other military-spouse entrepreneurs report they're the happy beneficiaries of the new wave of patriotism. Many customers seek to patronize military-connected businesses in order to express support for the armed services, they say. And word-of-mouth among customers within the highly mobile military community gives them unexpected marketing exposure. "When I got into this I thought it was going to be difficult," says Ms. Weinhauer. "How are you going to develop a reputation when you're moving every two or three years? But it's the opposite. Your reputation precedes you, and I've been contacted by people from areas I didn't even know about."

Copyright © 2003 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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