By Leah Evans
Eligible family members (EFMs) often face the challenge of finding meaningful employment while posted abroad. Challenges can include lack of a bilateral work agreement, limited number of available embassy jobs, and difficulty finding employment in a preferred area or field. As a result, some EFMs start their own business instead. Home-based businesses can provide personal identity, career continuity, opportunity to pursue passions, and flexibility in where and when the business owner works. Current EFM home-based business owners often continue working during relocations, home leave, evacuations, and orders to shelter in place. Some EFM home-based businesses provide valuable services in areas including education, therapy, and coaching. Other EFM business owners teach cooking courses, offer fitness classes, or serve as virtual assistants, consultants, and organizers. Athough there are many exciting current businesses in the family member community, EFMs look for openings and find ways to fill them while also helping to support their families.
Currently, approximately 500 family members have identified themselves as home-based business owners, according to the Bureau of Human Resources’ Family Liaison Office “Family Member Employment Report.” In addition, the American Association for Foreign Service Workers (AAFSW) EFM Business Owner Facebook page, which was created to form a community for EFMs looking for opportunities to help support their families overseas, has more than 900 members. Other groups are popping up at posts around the world, and advertising for products and services offered by family members has increased on social media and in print publications.
Jodi Harris, an EFM currently posted in Brussels, started World Tree Coaching approximately five years ago. As a clinical social worker, she found it challenging to navigate the licensure and legal aspects of practicing as a therapist overseas—especially in hardship postings with limited local resources for support.
In her career, Harris had always focused on supporting people at the intersection of life transitions and complex cultural situations. With more than two decades of experience in teaching and training, she made the shift to combine these experiences under the umbrella of her coaching practice.
“Shifting to work as a coach enabled me to step out of the field of mental health treatment into something more sustainable and adaptable to the Foreign Service lifestyle,” said Harris.
Another EFM who successfully created a home business while serving with his family overseas is Benjamin Bynum, a consultant who is traveling to Kyrgyzstan next summer for his third overseas post. After earning a master’s degree in leadership and organizational development, Bynum started his business to help people improve their leadership and management skills, often working with diplomats and other professionals who face management challenges in leadership roles.
“I am surprised that more EFMs are not taking the consulting route,” said Bynum. “It’s not that difficult to start a business, even in the Foreign Service life. I am always meeting EFMs who are considered ‘highly qualified’ in their field and can be big assets to the local communities wherever they’re posted, including the U.S. agencies there too. I love recommending other great EFM businesses to people.”
Bynum shared that the most significant benefit in starting his business, other than the flexibility to work when he wants to, is helping others respond to major leadership or organizational issues, which shows him the value of his skills.
Other EFMs find that offering their skills to their local community can help fill a need. Elisa Sanwick, owner of The Trailing Apron, teaches housekeepers and nannies how to cook healthy American meals, comfort foods, and tasty cuisines from around the world. She also gives personalized and interactive cooking lessons to the embassy community, including kids and family members at post.
Sanwick’s idea for her company came about while she was living in Jordan, where her nanny cooked delicious Sri Lankan food but her family missed more familiar dishes. With two young kids, a baby on the way, and working full time at the embassy, Sanwick decided to teach her nanny her favorite recipes. At the same time, she was able to save money and provide her nanny with valuable cooking skills to enhance her resume. Ultimately, Sanwick started her business, and has since taught cooking classes in Jordan, Argentina, and Mexico.
Sanwick also serves as a mentor for people looking to start their own home-based businesses. She works closely with the entrepreneur group at her current post in Mexico City and speaks about the importance of passion champions—supporters who provide encouragement, ideas, and help in promoting your business.
“We all need someone championing and cheering us on from the sidelines,” says Sanwick. “Finding that person who wants to tell the world about you and how awesome your product or service is can be the best feeling.”
Marcelle Yeager, an EFM posted in Washington, D.C., started Career Valet in 2012. She empowers mid- to executive-level professionals from diverse industries to reach the next level of their careers by strengthening narratives through resumes, cover letters, and LinkedIn profiles and offers advice on job-search strategy. While most of Yeager’s clients are not in the Foreign Service or military, she is committed to providing portable employment opportunities for these communities, and her team is comprised solely of both Foreign Service and military family members. She has made a specific effort to employ other EFMs because she understands that the specific skills and experiences they bring to the table can translate into effective and efficient employees.
“Explore the idea of creating a portable business. Think about what you have done in the past or currently do for free,” said Yeager acknowledging that maintaining a business on the move can be difficult. “What do people seek you out for? Is that something you would want to turn into a business?”
Building a network can be an important step in starting a home-based business. “Go to expat, industry/field-specific, and/or hobby-related gatherings,” said Yeager. “Tell everyone you meet what you do and what your goals are.”
While starting a home-based business is not for everyone, it can be an attractive option for family members facing transition and uncertain job prospects at post. A home-based business can provide continuity, consistency, and the ability to work in a chosen field. By nature of the Foreign Service lifestyle, EFMs often are experts in flexibility, openness, and logistical planning—valuable skills when starting a business. EFMs can parlay those skills and their previous work experience into a successful home-based business.
For more information about starting a business as an EFM, join the AAFSW EFM Business Owners Facebook page, the EFM Entrepreneur Facebook page, or consult guidance provided by the Family Liaison Office and the Foreign Service Institute Transition Center.
Leah Evans is an eligible family member posted in Mexico City and a home-based business owner.
Family Liaison Office Self-Employment Resources
The Family Liaison Office’s (FLO) Global Employment Initiative (GEI) helps family members explore employment and professional development options. Currently, a network of 20 Global Employment Advisors (GEAs) covers more than 200 posts. These employment transition professionals understand the challenges of working overseas and provide on-site and virtual employment coaching sessions, training workshops, and employment development services at no cost to eligible family members and members of household. GEAs cover a variety of topics at posts, including self-employment, via webinars and one-on-one meetings both in person and remotely. FLO’s GEI hosted a four-part Entrepreneurship Series designed to help aspiring family member entrepreneurs learn from other family members who are successfully self-employed in a variety of businesses. Visit FLO’s YouTube channel to view the four-part GEI Entrepreneurship Series and learn more about pursuing self-employment.