“I don’t volunteer as much anymore. My time belongs to my family.”
My two-hour phone chat with Lakesha Cole, 2014 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year, successful serial entrepreneur, and mom of three started with an open and candid dose of tired momma woes. As a Navy veteran and retired military spouse, I wanted to pull the curtains back and see how life beyond the military was for Cole and her young family. It’s a conversation very few circles are having, and a conversation she was all too open to sharing.
We immediately jumped into how, as military spouses, we tend to overcommit. That usually means volunteering countless hours to causes that directly and indirectly feed the mission-first mentality.
“Don’t get me wrong; volunteering gives a sense of gratitude that is unmatched. We need volunteers. However, for the first time in my adult life, I’m giving myself permission to focus on Lakesha outside of military life. I’ve earned this time to hit pause, take inventory of my life, and explore new things and other ways to give. Anything that takes me away from my loved ones, my goals, and business, I’m unable to make space for it at this time,” Cole said.
For many, this may sound selfish. Cole is unapologetic about her newfound, maybe unpopular, lease on life. She encourages others to do the same.
“Saying no is a form of self-love and self-care,” she said. “I used to feel this overwhelming sense of guilt until I eventually overcommitted myself and the stress trickled down to my family. Not anymore.”
Cole’s new season of retired spouse life is nestled in the Tampa Bay suburbs with her husband and three children. While retirement was guaranteed to bring a new set of challenges, Cole had to adjust to living in a new city and managing her brick-and-click retail business remotely from another state. “Being 600 miles away and not being involved in the day-to-day operations proved to be an unfamiliar and unexpected mental struggle,” she explained.
And, she admits, it was difficult in the beginning.
“I’m sure I fired and rehired my husband at least three times a week for undue reasons,” she laughed. “I’m very particular about my personal space too. My world revolves around schedules and routines. He took a professional gap year and I had to factor in having him home all day, every day. Eventually we sat down and came up with a work-from-home schedule that was a better fit for our new life together.
Then Hurricane Florence hit the Carolinas hard, and Cole found herself watching from afar until it was safe to travel and reenter the city.
“We put so much effort into ensuring our company is “PCS-proof” and less into thinking about having a business continuity/disaster plan,” Cole said.
After the recovery, she implemented a much needed 90-day mental health break to find harmony in her new normal. “I needed to figure out how I wanted my next chapter to read,” Cole said. “All of the warning signs were there: businesses were closing, change in the local consumer behavior, no room for expansion, and lackluster plans to revitalize the city. There were zero growth opportunities for me and the business in the area. I made a promise to myself years ago that I wouldn’t get so married to an idea to that point where I’m unwilling to recognize when it’s time to pivot.”
Some of the best advice I’ve ever received is to “know when it’s time to PCS out of your business, and I’ve decided the time is now.”
So how does the next chapter read for Lakesha Cole?
A: Do less, teach more, and make more. I’m very disciplined about where I give my time and energy. This is particularly the hardest for me because I’ve had to say no to people I care about and hope they understand. A lot of times, when you say no to things, you end up feeling guilty. You try to convince yourself that every opportunity is a good one, even when you know every opportunity isn’t for you. My 10 years of business experience have garnered real results, and I’m finally at a place where I’m confident my experience can help other entrepreneurs.
If I can be frank here, I have to keep checking myself at times. I hate to say it, but I’m going to say it anyway. There are a lot of people in this community who romanticize their skills. They create a social page, post pretty graphics and become a self-proclaimed expert overnight without any real proof or experience. Slow down. The internet isn’t going anywhere. Build and build again. There is an advantage to being green and not pretending to have it all figured out. Don’t take shortcuts. Do the work and the results will follow.
Would you mind sharing a little about the new projects you’re working on?
A: Most don’t know my formal education is in journalism and public relations. In 2017, I started taking clients on a contract basis to build my roster and credentials. Now is the first time I’ve taken the opportunity to pursue business opportunities in my field full-time. I’m excited to announce my newly-launched boutique agency, she PR. We nurture brands from the female perspective and help women-led companies accelerate through strategy and media. I founded she PR at the intersection of my media and advocacy work, and new life as a retired military spouse. As a longtime volunteer and mentor to help women and moms discover how to convert their interests and skills into a profitable business, I realized that I could focus my skills and experience specifically on the rising influence of women.
Dee, we’ve talked privately about access over the years. I’ve learned how to give intelligently, build authentic relationships and leverage my platform to position myself in a non-braggadocios way that allows me to have a seat at some very important tables. Now I get to reciprocate and ensure those who want a seat get one.
What’s the biggest misconception about you?
That somehow, my quiet demeanor equates to a lack of intelligence. I choose to lead in silence. I am often the quietest person in the room on purpose. I view it as a strength and having the ability to listen and hear the discussion at hand. It’s more about giving everyone a chance to contribute, share in the conversation, and have ownership in the result while showing that each suggestion is valued, considered, and respected.
With any level of success comes scrutiny. How do you handle naysayers and negativity?
A. I don’t. Next question.
What are you most excited about in 2020?
A: My new business endeavors, of course. But without a doubt, the MakeHER Milspouse Retreat. Our inaugural event last fall in Charleston, South Carolina, exceeded everyone’s expectations. I knew we were going to knock it out of the park because we had tapped into a fresh new way to deliver business lessons that was equal part education and relaxation. MakeHer was definitely a next-level experience. This year we’re expanding into three new markets: Tribeca, New York, Silicon Valley, California, and the third one remains a secret for now. What makeHer attendees are saying:
“It fit the audience rather than the audience having to fit the conference. There was a perfect mix of learning, networking, downtime, peer connection.”
“Oh, the list! #1) Women-led, women attended. 2) Personal connections 3) Led by women of color 4) Truly relevant information 5) Inclusivity.”
[Don't get makeHer FOMO. Space is limited. Tickets are available at milspouseretreat.com]
With all of the amazing things you have going on post-retirement, how do you recharge?
A: Now that we’re no longer chasing life, there’s no sense of urgency to do anything. It’s kind of nice too. I get eight hours of sleep every night. Sleep is non-negotiable. I will cancel plans, slide out of events early, or do whatever is necessary to ensure I get my proper rest. Other than that, I enjoy my standing spa time. I also enjoy shopping at estate sales and just lounging around the house with my family. I’m actually rather boring. I’m an introvert in the purest form.
What’s your word for 2020?
A. Consistency because it’s all about getting measurable results. Until you have tried something new over time and in a consistent manner, you can’t honestly decide if it works or not. For me, it’s about creating accountability and starting from the bottom to establish my reputation in a new industry. There will be no shortcuts or handouts over here.
When asked for last thoughts, the retailer-turned-publicist says, “Do the business. Be the business. Mind my business.”
“I’ll end the same way I started. This moment is mine with no regrets. While our service members will certainly have challenges to overcome and new norms to define, post-retirement for the military spouse is indeed, as Aladdin describes in the hit Disney movie, “A whole new world, a new fantastic point of view. No one to tell us no, or where to go, or say we’re only dreaming.””Read comments