As MadSkills Co-founder, Erica McMannes walked to the podium to give her pitch at the V-WISE Innovation Cup final, she looked poised and determined. She almost didn't even apply for the pitch competition with prize money totaling $30,000. Running a growing business, TDY trips for her active duty husband, the challenges of organizing childcare for their two children and a heavy dose of fear was enough.
"We almost let it go," she said.
In fact, it was only when the deadline was extended by organizers at the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) that she felt like she had to go for it. "That was meant for me and now I have to do it," she said.
Doing "it" meant creating an executive summary to the specifications of IVMF which was a challenging task even with already established business planning documentation. So, too, was creating and recording the 90 second pitch video that was a required part of the competition.
McMannes describes that process as a "highly entertaining process," so much so that she published some outtakes on the brand's social media channels. "It took us 3 hours to get 90 seconds," she said with a laugh.
The 68 entries to the Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (V-WISE) competition were whittled down to just six. It was once McMannes and her business partner, Liza Rodewald, were notified that they had made the final, the real challenge began: how to make this trip work for their families and MadSkills.
"It took a lot of support to get me there -- family support is key." Like any military family, and especially where a business is involved, nothing is easy. McMannes' sister flew in to pinch hit on the childcare front. She tag-teamed with her husband to make sure that everything else was taken care of. Her business partner, Liza, kept everything flowing with MadSkills.
When McMannes and MadSkills were announced as receiving the second place award of $10,000, there was relief as much as excitement.
But, McMannes says, it was the coaching and the camaraderie with the other finalists that made all the difference.
"We spent six hours the day before with the coach, Isisara Bey. It was intense, but it left me feeling confident, and I knew any butterflies left were normal," she said.
Once she was done with the pitch, McMannes says she and Rodewald were left feeling "thankful and grateful for where we are" regardless of the result.
Most of all, she was pleasantly surprised and encouraged by the experience.
"We went in as competitors, but came out as cheerleaders," she said.
The other finalists included overall winner, Kathryn Thomas of Yoga 4 Change; fan favorite award recipient, Avis Boyd of NaomiWear; and third place awardee, Marcella Eubanks, CEO of Bravery Kids Gym.
The Innovation Cup and V-WISE, McMannes said, "is a unique opportunity for a group of women."
The V-WISE program has built momentum over the last few years with companies like MadSkills being part of a groundswell of military veteran and military spouse owned companies.
"With over 2,400 graduates over the eighteen programs with its five-year history, V-WISE graduate stories of budding and blossoming success span the nation," said Misty Stutsman, Director of Entrepreneurship at IVMF. "The program is known for its innovative model, a three-phase approach of free online learning, on-site education, and post-program support tailored to the development of educated and well-supported women veteran and military spouse entrepreneurs who are successfully impacting the business climate in the U.S. on a significant level representing over $40 million in revenue from their businesses."
Entrepreneurs getting their start by serving in the military (or looking to build a company as a military spouse) is not a new phenomenon: companies like FedEx, Nike and GoDaddy were all started by veterans. What is different is the leveraging of technology by military veterans and military spouses to grow companies that can invest in communities and move with them as they move around the country.
Elizabeth O'Brien, Director Military Spouse Program, for Hiring Our Heroes provides some perspective as to need. "Military spouses currently live in a state of recession, 16 percent of military spouses are currently unemployed compared to 5.1 percent of veterans. Solving military spouse unemployment and underemployment requires a multi-pronged approach from the public, private and nonprofit sectors."
McMannes said this innovation is about harnessing the skills from within the military community that are otherwise underutilized.
"MadSkills has been an evolution from vision to where we are now. Outsourcing is not new. Staffing is not new, marrying it with the remote capability and the untapped community. You have something unique," she said.
One year on from their founding, McMannes is adamant about making sure people understand that MadSkills is not just another support organization.
"We are a military spouse owned company. We are creating remote jobs for military spouses," she said.
O'Brien, whose responsibilities include an employment support program, In Gear Career for Military Spouses, concurs.
"MadSkills has created a platform to serve a very specific need for military spouses; remote work opportunities that allow our military spouses in economically challenged areas to find meaningful employment," she said.
McMannes asserts that she is part of a larger team, which includes her business partner and fellow military spouse, Liza Rodewald. Talking about what she and Rodewald call their "Business Marriage," McMannes said, "We have very different skillsets but the vulnerability and respect to make the business successful."
It is likely that you will hear more from MadSkills, as well as McMannes and Rodewald. They have some big goals for changing the face of military spouse employment prospects and realities. The Innovation Cup is just the beginning.
Anna Blanch Rabe is an Australian-born writer and advocate, and a USAF military spouse. Her writing has been published by Huffington Post, NextGen Milspouse, MOAA, Military One Click, MSJDN Blog, and Military Kids Life, among others. She is also the founder of Anna Blanch Rabe & Associates, serving law firms, social enterprises, and nonprofit organizations with strategic, digital, and narrative content. You can read more of her writing on her website, and connect with her on Facebook, and Instagram.