The Most AUSAme Experience

I think this is going to be one of the most difficult blogs to write. How do you sum up a life-changing experience into a few hundred words? How do you put into the words the feelings of excitement that words don’t justify? Here’s my best shot:

Right after I completed the application for consideration for the Military Spouse CEO Experience (http://militaryspouseceo.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/MilitarySpouseCEO) I knew in my stomach that it was going to be a game changer. I will probably use the phrase “game changer” several times throughout this blog, because few other words are as appropriate. We, at Daddy’s Deployed, are still a relatively small venture, but I’m so proud of what our products have become that I knew I had to be selected as one of the Top 10. I started planning the layout of my booth, started pricing out swag (do you have any ideas how many options there are for personalized pens?!), mentally packing my suitcases with non-iron Brooks Brothers shirts and pencil skirts, wrap dresses, and heels (terrible choice for a 10 hour day, future CEOs!).

On the day that the results were to be released I was a hot mess. I mean nerves to the extreme. The baby knew I was on edge, so she was on edge; the dog knew we were both testy, so she started losing her mind…and when my husband returned from work that night he later told me he was afraid to make any sudden movements. I had every single MilSpouse CEO page open: website, facebook, twitter…and I was refreshing about every minute. Craig took Charlotte outside to play so I could run and burn off some of my anxiousness. When the results posted, we were finishing up dinner and all I could muster was “Got it.” in a voice just above a whisper. We celebrated for a few minutes, and I immediately went into overdrive: called my mom, booked her flight out to stay with the baby, made hotel reservations, ordered my loot, ordered extra copies of Daddy’s Deployed and Mommy’s Deployed books, ordered business cards, networking cards, and my amazing sign (http://www.undercoverprinter.com/). I felt like I was on top of the world.

I started researching all the other winners’ businesses, as well as the organizers, and was completely blown away. We’re talking BIG business here (see bottom for their information). I started stalking them out on Facebook (don’t judge, you know you do it too!) and began to worry I didn’t really belong. We are a young business, a great one, but not nearly as established as some of our fellow selectees. I knew that if I worked my tail off this could be “it.” The big “it” that everyone talks about. I woke up the next morning early for a 10k, feeling so incredibly lucky and confident in my place as an exhibitor.

The drive to DC from NC was five hours of me getting so excited that I had to peel my clenched fists from the steering wheel when I finally arrived. I didn’t even care the dumpy inn & suites at the base I was staying at had no heat, no TV, and wallpaper drooping down from the moldy ceiling.

I got lost finding the MilSpouse CEO booth in the main hall of the AUSA convention at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center and I think my jaw hit the floor more a few times: seeing employees rolling out plush carpeting, actual conference rooms being constructed on the floor (I later asked a nearby booth what it took to get a meeting in one of the conference rooms and he said, “a $5 million dollar contract to start.”), tanks and HUGE helicopters being wheeled in through open hangar doors.

After I set up my booth I went and picked up groceries, then went back to my spectacular suite and started filling out promotion codes on my networking cards. Everything was as it should be: perfectly organized and put together. If you know me you know I might be the poster child for organization, and I didn’t come up short here. I looked around and burst into tears. I can only describe the feeling well to those that have been through a deployment: you know the days right before your spouse returns and you feel amazingly excited yet completely and utterly terrified at the same time? That’s how I felt.

Early Monday morning I got up and turned on my running playlist while I got ready: I encourage you to try getting ready to your work out music. It’s so motivating. I left early, battled DC traffic, and arrived early. I knew where I was parking, which streets I needed to follow to get to the center, and practiced my pitch in my head as I walked. I proudly wore my yellow exhibitor page and was thrilled to reach the booth and introduce myself to the other featured companies. The diversity of the group was astounding (I tried to summarize here, but didn’t do anyone justice…please scroll down to read all summaries and links to pages at the bottom here) and I stood proud to be among this group of spouses.

One of the most amazing feelings was being surrounded by like-minded business people who were also military spouses AND have started their own companies. The organizers moved about swiftly and seamlessly, ensuring that everyone was set up, happy, fed, and motivated. When the announcers came on to say that the convention was officially starting, my heart fluttered with anticipation…but only for a minute…

Once the convention started it was as if someone had opened the floodgates. I began explaining our products and received the most amazing feedback. Over the next three days I would personally meet thousands of people and sell many books (not on the floor of course, but we did offer sample illustrations and those were a big hit!). I remember one of the organizers saying something about us never knowing who we could be talking to, so to (figuratively) sell our business no matter who was at our booths. I was speaking with one really nice gentleman who told me to get into contact with his wife…a GM for Delta Airlines…and gave me her personal email address! :) Another person I spoke with was a grandmother who was helping raise her grandchildren while mommy is deployed and daddy gears up to deploy in a few months. A few LARGE corporations were really excited about our books and asked to take a sample to show to their bosses and have since contacted me about potential sponsorship opportunities; I was happy that I ordered a few extra copies!

The organizers arranged really fantastic meet and greets with higher ups in the Army and AUSA organization; authors to come and sign free copies of their books, including the likes of Jason Anderson (Active-Duty Entrepreneur) and Jacey Eckhart (I Married a Spartan) among many others, and there were publishers there to meet with us that gave great advice. One of the highlights for me was meeting the Sergeant Major of the Army, SMA Chandler, and him really liking our book and what we do at DD/MD. When I tweeted a photo of that, it was retweeted by several large organizations, including the AUSA handle.

Above all else, I was most excited to meet the ladies who created and run Inc. magazine’s military entrepreneur program. My older brother, an HBS alumni, is a brilliant entrepreneur and gifted me a subscription to Inc. magazine the Christmas after I started DD/MD. It started this love affair for both my husband and I: our copies of Inc. are almost immediately dog-eared and highlighted throughout. I had missed the deadline for applying for the Inc. 500/5000 military experience and was crushed over it. Natalie and Courtney were truly two of the most inspiring people I have ever met. Incredibly knowledgeable and quick witted (two of my favorite characteristics). As Natalie and I were finishing up our conversation, she invited me to meet them for drinks afterwards and I pinched the inside of my folded hand to keep from smiling like a five-year-old. This doesn’t happen in real life.

The final day we were invited to be guests at the Sustaining Members’ Luncheon and the reception preceding it. One of my new friends (fellow CEO selectee) and I decided that we would use this opportunity to network the heck out of our businesses and connected with some great people in powerful positions. Sitting next to a table of retired Army generals, all I could think was how thankful I was to be there. As a Marine Corps spouse, I was surprised by how warmly welcomed I was into this Army family.

That evening we packed up our booths and rushed back to our rooms to get ready for the Marshall Dinner, a black tie event, that closes the convention. I have been to countless military dinners, birthday balls, dining out, etc…but there was something about this room that took my breath away. As they were retiring the colors every service-member in there, including the hundreds of retired men in their tuxedos with decorations, stood at attention and the tears flooded my eyes. I can’t tell you why, but it was so touching, to be apart of this intimate event. I knew that I belonged there all along.

I’ve had a few people ask me if it was worth it. Was it worth it to leave my daughter for the first time? That was beyond difficult, but yes. Was it worth it to spend quite a bit of money getting materials and heading out to DC? Yes. Was the overall experience worth it? Absolutely. If you are thinking about applying next year I want you to know that the networking alone is worth every cent it takes to get there. The people that are in one room, the people you’ve been trying to get an email address for, the people you know would make amazing friends and potential partners, the people whose careers you’ve followed and admired as a fellow spouse…they are all there. The friendships you will form with the other selected CEOs and organizers will last a lifetime. It’s always been very difficult for me to open up and allow people to become good friends (stems back to mean girls in grade school; they once glued my desk shut when I was absent), and I can honestly say that I have become close, real friends with the majority of the other CEOs from this event, as well as the amazing organizers. I can’t wait to see them all again, and I know I will.

If you’re thinking about applying for this event in the future and have any questions, don’t hesitate to email me: Bridget@daddysdeployed.com

In the meantime, please take a few minutes to read through the organizers’ businesses as well as the other businesses that were selected (in random order) as the Top 13 CEOs:

Avening Tech
http://www.aveningtech.com/
AveningTech is a woman-owned/veteran owned small business focused on providing strategic management and technical support services to Federal Government organizations. Our expertise includes requirements development, acquisition support, web and software development services and subject matter expertise in information, network and systems security.

InGear Career
http://www.ingearcareer.org/
In Gear Career is a nonprofit organization created by Military Spouses for Military Spouses past and present. We provide a free forum for professional development, community support, information sharing, and networking to address the unique challenges faced by the career-minded Military Spouses.

The Rosie Network
http://therosienetwork.org/
A nonprofit organization founded by military spouses with one mission – to promote veteran and military spouse-owned businesses to the public. Our search tool allows online shoppers to locate products and services anywhere in the country provided by our members. Every military family-owned business is verified by id.me and receives a free profile page. Move over Angie – Rosie is in town!

Women Veteran Interactive
http://www.womenveteransinteractive.org/
Women Veterans Interactive is a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to meeting women veterans at their points of need through Advocacy Empowerment Interaction Outreach and Unification. WVI offers a wide range of support for women veterans to include health and wellness, financial literacy, networking opportunities, peer to peer support groups and employment and housing assistance.

Powerhouse Planning
http://www.powerhouseplanning.com/
At Powerhouse we work with small to growing companies that can’t necessarily afford full-time staff members (marketing director, business developers, etc.) We work their projects by using a pool of freelancers (primarily military spouses) to complete rock solid HIGHLY impactful products and services. We save companies a ton of time and money…and we support our military community.

R. Riveter
http://www.rriveter.com/
R. Riveter is a company born out of a sense of military community. As military spouses, there is a pride and a passion that gives our company a unique identity. Our handbags are inspired by a unique lifestyle that brings both challenges and opportunities. The company goes far beyond the creation of unique, handmade purses. R. Riveter was founded on providing inspiration and opportunity to other military wives. Using up-cycled military materials, our handbags bring together elegance and history in a product entirely made by hand. With classic simplicity, rugged design, and modern styling, our military inspired handbags fit any occasion.

It is our mission at R. Riveter to inspire pride and patriotism into the hearts of each customer. We delight in the fact that we are completely ‘homegrown’ and produce high quality, well crafted items. Our collection of handbags will build the foundation of a company dedicated to serving the spouses of our service members.

We are inspired by the challenges of our day and innovations that evolve as a result. Old military materials like duffle bags, wool blankets, and shelter halves are up-cycled with a modern aesthetic producing a kind of character that is totally unique and full of history.

Lock-N-Load Java
http://www.locknloadjava.com/
Lock-N-Load Java is premium coffee and cocoa company that sells over the internet and ships directly to consumers. We donate $1 to military charities for every order we ship.

Trajectory Communications
http://trajectorycommunications.com/
Trajectory Communications takes your brand and message to the military community: 30 million customers with $1 trillion in purchasing power.

Military Spouse Education Initiative
http://www.milspouseeducation.org/
The Military Spouse Education Initiative was created to support all spouses of all ranks and education levels on their pursuit of graduation day. Through advocacy, support programming, and the voice of military spouses, we are working to impact policy to work with the obstacles of military life rather than against them.

DumBell Fitness
http://dumbellfitness.com/
DumBell Fitness is a veteran and military spouse owned company that provides physical fitness for other military spouses and active duty personnel on military installations; while providing free childcare for all participants. We are also launching an online fitness program in January 2014 to reach worldwide! You’ll never regret starting today!

The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round…

It’s no big secret that my daughter hasn’t exactly been the easiest baby in the world to raise. I will precursor with that I know I am extraordinarily blessed to have a healthy, happy, busy baby, and I wouldn’t trade her for anything in the world. With that being said, however, since she is almost twenty-months-old and has never slept through the night, it would be a lie if I said that I wasn’t flailing at times. I have done all the things that exhausted parents do: refrigerated items in the pantry, pantry items in the refrigerator, forgetting about laundry, messing up dates, etc. So when my daughter dropped her PM nap as well, I found myself grasping at straws.

This is another one of those areas that everyone has an opinion, and several of those opinions included: scheduling play dates, swim lessons, dance lessons, gymnastics, and most commonly among my friends out here: preschool. BC (before children, when I would judge how other parents parented their children), I never would have even thought about sending my future child/ren to preschool at such a young age. I never went to preschool, and, possibly as a result, I was so attached to my mother that my second grade teacher once yelled at her to just leave when I was screaming for her. Yup, I said second grade. Apparently apples really don’t fall far from the trees. ;)

My husband, seeing how haggard and emotionally and physically worn down I was, was all about preschool. He thought it would be the answer to any problem we might have: she would have friends, she would be so tired she would take a nap, AND maybe, just maybe she would sleep through the night! Ahhh…this idea of preschool began to spin into motion: teachers singing and dancing with the kids, Charlotte happily playing babies with her new little friends, eating cut up fruit at snack time, and then gleefully running into my arms when I went to pick her up.

When we went to the open house, Charlotte was the only one there at the time. She was thrilled to see her future teachers, play with a whole bunch of “new” toys, and smiled ear-to-ear as we ran around on the pint-sized playground outside.

That dream of preschool was shattered almost instantaneously on the first day. I walked her to her classroom, singing a song I heard on Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood that goes something like, “When we do something new, let’s talk about what we’ll do…” and then I would explain to her that she would get to play and have tons of fun. I knew three of the other (six) moms and their children, so I felt pretty confident that this was going to go well.

When I went back to pick her up, one of the teachers was holding her, and her face was all (what I call) hived out. Charlotte has extremely sensitive skin, and when she cries, her face breaks out into this crazy splotch hives right away. Her puffy eyes showed me that she did not enjoy preschool, or being away from mommy, that day. I spoke with the teachers, the center director, and my friends, all of whom told me that it can take a month for them to like it, so I committed to a month.

The one thing that I knew she loved was the outside time. The last day of the month, I went to pick her up and her class was outside. All the children were playing and running happily around, except for mine. One of the teachers was holding her, and she was still screaming and crying. The teacher, understandably, had to put her down to go help another child, and Charlotte face-planted into the wood chips, crying so hard she could barely breathe. My heart shattered into a million pieces and I immediately felt like the worst mother in the world. Not only was she not at all happy, but she wasn’t interacting with the children, she wasn’t playing with the toys, she was crying and (probably) thought that I had been abandoning her for a month. I ran to get her and had a talk with her teacher. Before I had even picked her up I had already decided that this experiment was a failed one, and over. I told my husband (who was gone on a training exercise) and he seemed disappointed, but understood.

Once word got out that I had pulled her from preschool, again everyone began offering up their opinions, and I really did appreciate their thoughts, but I (would like to) believe that they would have all reacted the same way that I did. I know that pulling her out was what was right for her, and right for our family. I love the school, and the teachers, so we will try again next year, but I will do the same thing: one month and if she still hates it, she won’t go.

What are your thoughts on preschool at such a young age? I think it all depends on the child: some are ready, some can emotionally handle it, but others can not. Would you have done things differently if you were me?