Female entrepreneurship is the new ‘thing’, and I love it. After years of fighting for equality in the workforce and struggling for equal pay (spoiler alert, we aren’t there yet – check out this) women are making great progress and some of it has been fuelled by a recent explosion of female lead businesses.
I am one of these new generation of female entrepreneurs, but not the only one in my family. While my dad went out to work at his ‘real’ job in a ‘real’ company (you know the one with a canteen, Christmas party and a pension scheme?) my amazing mum was running her own design business and acing it!
Fast forward 30 years and I also find myself married and running my own creative business, Design Jessica. Yet, despite being in the 21st century I find myself feeling more than ever the housewife.
You see I didn’t marry an ordinary man who has a ‘real’ job in a ‘real’ company. My husband is a pilot in her majesties Royal Air Force. Amazing you say! And yes, the uniform does have a certain appeal, but the reality of being a military spouse is very different to what you see in an Officer and a Gentleman.
The military spouse is a glorious thing. Urban dictionary (font of all knowledge) wonderfully describes us as ‘a hard working spouse of a military member, who keeps things safe at the home front where civilian wives would normally fail’. Now, the world is made of many different people, life is tough to all of us and I still am a civilian despite what Urban Dictionary says. I know that my husband’s job doesn’t define me and my ‘home front’ is normally a shambles. I am a pretty rubbish house wife. But what I do know is that as a business owner and wife of my RAF husband I chose to relocate ever couple of years as his job dictates. I had become what is known as ‘the trailing spouse’.
Choosing this life was hard. In all honestly, I never actually wanted to run my own business. You might find this hard to believe if you’ve ever met me at a networking event, or at a coffee morning. If you have met me then there’s no doubt that we’ve probably talked about my business. It is after all my specialist subject.
Back in 2012, after finishing my degree 6 years earlier, I was designing stationery and children’s books for Disney, and was moving up the ladder in the company. I knew that in a couple of years’ time I would be the studio manager, with a whole team of designers under my wing. What I had was an amazing life. I lived in beautiful Bath, was working in my dream job and had found the man I was planning to marry. Life was great!
Then RAF Lyneham closed, and the C-130 Hercules fleet, along with my husband were moved to RAF Brize Norton. For a whole year my boyfriend (now husband) commuted from our home in Bath to Brize Norton adding three hours to his already long day. By the time he’d become second in command of the squadron, and had experienced one long snowy winter of dangerous travel on the M4, including three short notice trips to med-evac from Germany and Herrick, he was at breaking point. This is the moment that one of us had to choose between their careers and our lives together.
In August 2012 resigned from my job, and a week later I left what was my home for 10 years and moved into a private rental near RAF Brize Norton. Initially it went well, I spent my time exploring the local area and networking, but as we moved into winter and my boyfriend’s work become even more operational I spent more and more time alone.
Apart from doing the big shop, going to coffee mornings and the odd monthly networking group I barely spoke to anyone. Joining a local hockey team and Military Wives Choir certainly helped, and although the wives at Brize Norton were initially a bit hostile to me – one even said ‘you shouldn’t really be here, as you aren’t even a wife – I did manage to find a few who were and are still brilliant friends. I attempted to get a job at two local, and very well-known book publishers but as soon as they’d worked out I was a military spouse I was told that my application was no longer needed. One reply was ‘Oh, my dad was in the Navy, you’ll be gone in a few years, so we can’t really employ you’. I was completely miserable. I had lost my place in the world and was no longer getting the consistent work that I had initially, as my clients in Bath started to forget me. In 2014 we were married and moved into SFA, but nothing really changed. I went to the local HIVE for support but sadly, despite mentioning my qualifications,§ all they could suggest was volunteering at the local Blue Cross.
In the November of 2015, I finally broke. My husband and I were taking a well needed holiday to Antigua, to get to know each other again, and one day, after a few too many cocktails I finally told him how very miserable I was and how lost I felt. Together we realised that it was my business, Design Jessica that could pull me out of the slump. I’d spotted an advert for a business course online and together we decided that I should go for it. I spent all of the money I had made on my business on the £1,000 course, and it was completely life changing. I now had monthly business building challenges to complete. It encouraged me to go networking, to build my email list and to start finding new clients in a virtual way, rather than relying on clients who needed me ‘in-house’. Although the first few months were financially challenging, by the summer of 2016 and our new posting to Northwood HQ I finally had a business and a client base that I could take with me anywhere.
What I realised at this point is that I couldn’t be the only one who felt this way. I couldn’t be the only spouse who was lonely and longing to create a new and transient business. And so, with the support of the owners of FEN I launched the Forces Enterprise Network Business Community, a community that you could access anywhere in the world you are posted. A place where we wouldn’t just sell our own businesses but a place that we could support each other and build our businesses into something amazing. There are now over 270 members in the community, all achieving some amazing things and it is a real privilege to have connected them. I love that community, and I love the fact that when we are posted in August I’ll still have a group of people I can turn to, to help me with my business.
And this is also why the podcast exists. I have met so many inspirational spouse business owners who are creating amazing businesses from the ‘magnolia walled life’ that I knew that their voice needed to be heard. I want to showcase the wins that these fantastic business leaders are making despite the pressures of modern military life. I feel that we have a valid voice and it’s time it was heard. The podcast launches on the 2nd July, just after Armed Forces Day on the 30th, and the first episode features the amazing Heledd Kendrick, Founder and CEO at Recruit for Spouses. It’s completely wonderful and I cannot wait for you all to hear it. You can subscribe here.