While necessity is the mother of invention; it’s often the ‘fathers of invention’ who receive the most support, recognition and investment in their ideas. But to change the world… innovation must come from everywhere and everyone. So when we hear about great women stepping forward to change a paradigm…we celebrate. Today we cheer on the brilliant Michelle Penczak and her company Squared Away; a startup helping to connect skilled military spouses with companies who need extra, flexible support.
While military spouses can be just as educated, experienced and prepared as any good employee; once their military spouse status creeps into an interview it can stop an opportunity cold. According to a comprehensive 2017 study conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, there were nearly 650,000 American military spouses worldwide; with 87 percent civilian. And these spouses (92 percent female) have the credentials to work… with 49 percent holding college degrees and/or additional advanced degress and 39 percent having had some college experience. But a requirement of military employment is the flexibility to move; sometimes with less than a month’s notice. For 34 percent of those surveyed, this has meant four or more moves during their spouse’s career.
After Michelle graduated from college with a degree in political science and history, she began working as a personal assistant to a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. While considering law school, Michelle enjoyed the pace and the variety of what she was doing; an experience that would later define the company she created. That said, the true definining moment was falling in love and marrying her, now husband, Sean.
We had a chance to catch up with Michelle and she told us more about her business Squared Away; how it all started and where she is today:
Life drastically changed when I became a military spouse. We moved from Corpus Christi, Texas to Jacksonville, North Carolina. You would think that with my background and the fact that we lived in a military town, a job would be easy to come by. It wasn’t. No one wanted to hire me because I would “only be here for a few years”.
I felt I had to hide my marital status and not mention my husband or I would no longer be considered. It wasn’t fair. Spouses were celebrated for being great volunteers, or having babies, NOT for being successful in their own careers.
That’s when I started looking for remote work. I started working at a virtual assistant company and was with them for two years before they went bankrupt overnight. I then branched out on my own as an independent contractor. When we PCS’d [‘Permanent Change of Station’] from North Carolina to Hawaii in 2016, I didn’t lose a single client.
Shane Mac, one of my clients at the time, told me that I needed to expand my business because he wanted more support from me. This meant adding members that were very high quality and dedicated – military spouses were the first group that jumped to mind.
According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce study, the problem that Michelle faced personally — and then saw the opportunity to positively exploit — is a serious challenge for the military. The unemployment rate for military spouses is 16 percent; a staggering four times the national average for adult women. Even more discouraging, of those surveyed, more than 70 percent said that they don’t believe their past education or experience is being utilized in their current employment; and 63 percent held jobs previously that required more skill.
As part of this educated and frustrated cohort of military spouses, Michelle knew that she could connect a very large, hungry pool of talent with companies she knew needed the help…
I started small by adding one team member at a time. I trained them all myself and taught them everything I knew. My first assistant Kelsey, who is now the Director of Operations, was key to scaling Squared Away. We built systems and processes… from training new team members to templates for research. Scaling has been our biggest challenge.
We are strictly a word of mouth/referral company and, as a result, we have grown very slowly. However, that is one of the greatest things about the business: we are very dedicated to our clients and our clients love our model & love sharing us with the world. Our referral program is also robust for clients who refer business to us.
We now have around 80 assistants and over 100 clients worldwide. Our goal for the future is always to employ as many military spouses as possible while providing the highest of support services in any capacity imaginable.
The sky is the limit!
Michelle and her team do not consider themselves ‘virtual assistants’, but instead, trusted team members that can anticipate all of their clients needs. All of the team are located in the US and are trained in high growth businesses that demand flexibility.
Squared Away specializes in many areas specific to high growth businesses and venture capital, including: funding round systems and checklists; M&A transactions; due-diligence and recruiting processes; podcast producing and social media management; contact management; office moves; and the support of all employees, not just execs.
And as an employer, Squared Away also works with the non-profit Hire Heroes; which helps military members, veterans and military spouses find meaningful employment.