Entrepreneurship is Helping this Military Spouse Move Forward

How Entrepreneurship is Helping Me Move Forward

By Alice Duehring

May is finally here, and spring is in the air. But at Dog Tag Inc., we’re celebrating more than flowers blooming after a long winter snooze––it’s Military Spouse Appreciation Month! Did you know there are as many as 641,000 spouses of active duty service members in the United States? Military spouses have always been an important part of the Dog Tag Fellowship; an innovative five-month program provides a transition program that fosters their innate entrepreneurial mindset and lays the foundation for personal and professional success.

Unfortunately, the necessity of providing a transition program for military spouses has become abundantly clear, as they often face steep barriers to meaningful employment. Due to a cycle of frequent moves, finding a career to match the transient military lifestyle can be challenging. Self-employment––in the form of business ownership or entrepreneurial ventures ––can provide something that most traditional jobs cannot: the flexibility to move place-to-place and the security of maintaining a career that moves with you.

Dog Tag Inc. has partnered with the U.S Small Business Administration to highlight military spouse entrepreneurs during the month of May. They’ve asked me, a Navy spouse and current Dog Tag Fellow, to discuss my story and how becoming an entrepreneur is helping my transition as a military spouse. I love baking, and am currently developing my business plan to start my own cake decorating business.

Cake brought me to Dog Tag Bakery. I started cake decorating six years ago, all thanks to my six year old son. He came to me, asking for my help to design an entry for the cake auction at his very first Cub Scout “Blue and Gold” ceremony. Up to that point, I’d never given much thought to cake decorating; but as a generally crafty person, I thought it could be fun. My son gave me a crayon drawing resembling a scene out of the Jurassic period––complete with dinosaurs, a volcano spewing molten lava, and a river running through the middle with trees and rocks scattered about. It was a very specific drawing, and I did not want to disappoint him while bringing his cake dreams to life.

I made the cake from a box mix. I went online to find out how to make marshmallow fondant for the decorations––which was a total disaster the first few times I mixed it together. With multiple starts and restarts, somehow I eventually made it work. My son and I set out to recreate his drawing on the cake. We used stick pretzels for tree trunks, green Airhead strips for leaves, and rice crispy treat balls covered with fondant for the volcano. I bought $30 dollars worth of candy––including an assortment of different colored tubes of icing (blue to make the river, red for the molten lava coming down the volcano, and green to add accents around the trees). When complete, it was lumpy in different spots; Fondant tore along its sides and edges. It wasn’t the prettiest cake. But we were finally done, and it had all the requirements my son wanted; He thought it was the best cake he’d ever seen. More importantly, we had fun collaborating and designing the cake together. He was happy it sold for $25 dollars at the auction. However, he was disappointed he didn’t win the auction for his own cake.  

I have been a stay-at-home military spouse for the past 14 years. I am now finally at a place in my life where I want to rejoin the workforce doing something I enjoy. Since that first lumpy cake that brought my son’s drawing to life, I’ve baked and decorated dozens of cakes. Impressed with my work, friends and family tell me I should do cake decorating for a living. But how do I––a military spouse and self-taught baker, who holds an art history degree and moves every two to three years––successfully do that? That’s what I’m finding out as a Dog Tag Fellow. Because let’s face it; Even though all I want to do is bake and create, a business is more than just baking––and my art history degree didn’t prepare me for the logistics of running my own bakery. While being a part of Dog Tag’s fellowship program, I’m learning exactly what it takes to start and manage a small business. It’s A LOT!

As my graduation from the Dog Tag Fellowship draws near, my plans for opening a home-based custom cake shop in North Arlington get closer to becoming a reality. While I put the final touches on my business plan at Dog Tag, the bigger picture of what is required to run a small business becomes clearer. There is much to be done and all of it requires time, money, and strategic planning. There are necessary fees for permits, licensing, and inspections, as well as equipment costs and a million little details that need to be in place before I can open my cake shop.

But I am hopeful that I will be open within the year. And when I do, I will start small. As my business and expertise expands, I’ll explore other growth opportunities-––such as designing wedding cakes and offering cake decorating classes. For now, I’m excited to see where my business takes me.

Are you a military spouse who wants to become an entrepreneur just like me, but have no idea where to begin? No worries! Dog Tag Inc. accepts applications to their five-month Fellowship program on a rolling basis, and can help you on your entrepreneurial journey. From training courses and business mentors to loan assistance and referrals, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) can also support you as you navigate the flexible landscape of self-employment. Here are a few steps you can take to get the ball rolling:

1. Brainstorm and conduct basic market research. What are you passionate about? Is there a way to turn your passion into a viable business? Does your business concept fill a gap that currently exists in the marketplace? Go out in your community or conduct research online to see if there’s a market for the business you want to start.

2. Connect with your local Veterans Business Outreach Center (VBOC), the “one-stop shop” for entrepreneurial services. VBOCs host business training and workshops on a variety of topics, and also have business counselors on standby for any other advice you may need. You can receive one-on-one guidance and also referrals to other programs within the SBA network.

3. Take an entrepreneurial training course to learn the basics of business ownership. Courses like Boots to Business Reboot equip you with basic business knowledge, including how to conduct market research, the basics of building your own business plan, and mapping out other resources for you to use throughout your journey.

4. Build your professional network. Veterans Service Organizations (VSOs), military spouse organizations, business incubators, and more host networking events throughout the year – both in-person and online. Attend these professional events to meet other military spouses who share the same interest and entrepreneurial vision that you do. Plus, you can learn from other military spouses who have already launched their own businesses.

Regardless of where you are in your entrepreneurial journey – whether you’re thinking of starting, purchasing, or growing a business – you never have to navigate the landscape alone. From joining forces with other military spouses, to connecting with an SBA resource, to applying for the Dog Tag Fellowship, you can create a career that fits your unique military lifestyle. For more information, visit dogtaginc.org and sba.gov/milspouse – or join the conversation using #MyMilspoBiz on Twitter and Facebook.