It's an act of heroism joining the military to defend the country. Serving the country garners low wages and an incredible amount of time away from family members. Roughly 52% of the 1.3 million active-duty personnel are married. The Blue Star Families 2019 Military Family Lifestyle report found that 48% of military spouses are concerned with or have difficulty finding employment, and 76% of spouses are unemployed. A large part of the unemployment rate is because of how often military families move and relocate.
Michelle Penczak, military spouse and founder of Squared Away, employs and empowers military spouses to build their own careers.
Squared Away, a full-service virtual executive assistant company, allows its employees to work from anywhere in the world while still servicing its clients. Employees handle everything from project management to chief of staff roles. The company just reported annual recurring revenue of over $3.1 million.
"When I met my husband, who is a Marine, I thought I would have no problem finding a job," Penczak states. "That actually wasn't the case. When we made a move to North Carolina, I literally sent out hundreds of applications, and no one wanted to hire me for the simple fact that I was a military spouse moving around so much. It was ironic to me because I honestly tried to sell it to a few different companies as 'I promise, for the three or four years I would be there that I would dig in and do my very best work.' They were not interested, which was totally the opposite of everything that I heard about being super supportive of military spouses and veterans. It was mind-blowing, to be honest."
Penczak began her career as an assistant working in Washington, D.C., before meeting her husband. Once married and after a year of job searching, she signed up with a virtual assistant agency where she was employed for 24 months. Without warning, the company went bankrupt.
Three months pregnant with her husband deployed, Penczak decided to call her client and explain what happened. He told her that he wanted to continue to work with her. A couple of other clients followed suit. Six months before delivering her son, she has built a solid client roster.
In 2016, her husband had to relocate to Hawaii. Penczak explains, "I was like, 'I built this. There's no way I'm going to let it falter just because we're moving six time zones behind eastern standard time.' We moved to Hawaii. I told my clients I was taking a week off to move and got back to work after a week of being on the island. I literally started at 9am eastern standard time. So, I was waking up at 3am in Hawaii."
In four years, Penczak has grown her team to over 150 military spouses working in six countries. With all employees being military spouses, they support each other through the predeployment process, adjusting their families to the new base, state or country and taking time off for special events. She went from being a virtual assistant to running her own company helping other military spouses build a career.
"Thousands of us travel all over the world with our service members every single year," Penczak explains. "Some countries, it's easy to find a job. Some it's not. It's hard if you have kids and getting them situated in their schools while your spouse is traveling. It's a crazy lifestyle. As spouses, I feel like a lot of us felt we were going to lose our identity that wasn't tied to being a military spouse. That's one thing that I love for my team is they actually have Squared Away as their own career."
As Penczak transitions her company and remains on track to expand the team to 500 virtual assistants in the next two years, she focuses on the following essential steps:
"I never saw myself as a CEO ever, in a million years," Penczak concludes. "I didn't even know exactly everything that went into that. I have always been a very blunt, very open person...I wanted to be completely transparent with everything that was going on, good or bad. That way, everybody is always on the same page."