Interviews with purpose-driven business leaders who are dedicated to helping others and making a positive impact in the world.
TELL US, WHO ARE YOU AND WHAT DO YOU DO?
My name is Michelle Penczak and I’m the CEO and founder of Squared Away. We are a remote assistant company with assistants everywhere across the globe, from Japan to Poland. We give people their time back.
HOW DID YOU GET HERE?
I came into the military spouse role when I married my husband in 2013. I believed that because I had all this great work experience, I could essentially find a job anywhere. And that, unfortunately, was not what happened. I had a lot of great interviews, but nobody ever called me back. The common denominator was always that as soon as they found out I was a military spouse, they didn’t want to hire me because I would only be there temporarily. I got frustrated, I started looking for remote jobs and worked as a manager for a virtual assistant company in 2013. Then in 2015, I was part of the virtual implosion where we were all basically jobless overnight. My husband had just deployed two weeks before that happened and I was pregnant with our first baby. I called one of my clients to let him know what was going on and he said he’d find some clients for me and I would be able to do it on my own. I took two weeks off to have my baby, Sawyer, and then I went back to work.
Two months after that, my husband came home and said, “Guess what, we have orders to go to Hawaii.” I basically made the resolution that I wasn’t going to let a timezone stop me. I told my clients I was taking a week off to move (I didn’t tell them where), and I started working from 3 a.m. to 11 a.m., Hawaii time, to work with my clients on the east coast. I think I told my husband pretty much weekly, “I am going to die, this is not going to work.” But it did work and after about six months I realized that I had a really good routine and I had the whole afternoon with our son.
Soon after, my client called me and said, “You need to clone yourself, my company’s scaling, and I need you to scale with me.” I was excited for him but didn’t know how I would be able to do that. He told me to think about it. A few days later, I realized I could make it happen with military spouses. That’s how the idea was born. None of my friends as military spouses really had the jobs that could travel with them unless they had the “safe job” of being a nurse or a teacher, and they didn’t have the flexibility even then because schedules are so unpredictable and most families need that flexibility for childcare. So that’s what Squared Away is able to provide to those families and how we got started in 2017.
WHAT DO YOU STAND FOR? WHY IS THIS WORK IMPORTANT TO YOU?
I feel like military spouses’ careers are the underdog that never gets talked about. Most people hear about veterans’ jobs and supporting veterans’ careers, but you never really hear about active-duty military spouses being employed. They’re traveling the globe with their partners and being a wife, mom, husband, teacher, nurse, all roles to their families. One of the things I hear from pretty much every person on our team is, “I love my job as a spouse, I love my role as a parent, but I want something that is just for me, that I can be proud of and have a career for me. I can and want to work and provide and support and contribute to our household as well.” So that’s what I stand for.
WHAT IMPACT ARE YOU MAKING?
There’s a worldwide military spousal unemployment rate of 24%. That’s massive. Squared Away is just a trickle in the bucket right now but we have 170 spouses that are employed and are able to contribute to their families. They’re working towards something that is making them feel fulfilled and that’s huge. I’ve been there. Being a wife and a parent is amazing, and those are some of the best roles in the world. But working towards something that you can be proud of, is so powerful. We see our husbands’ achievements all the time. Every time we move, they get reward plaques, they get achievements, they get ribbons. Spouses don’t get any of that for any of our achievements. If that’s what Squared Away can provide, opportunities for our spouses to have a career of their own, then I think that’s hugely impactful.
WHAT (OR WHO) INSPIRES YOU TO DO THIS WORK?
Number one, first and foremost, my boys. I want them to grow up with a really awesome work ethic and to always fight for the things that mean something to them, even if it means not making the most money in the world. I want them to have an impact on people because being able to help people is one of the most important things we can do. That’s the type of children I want to raise. I want them to see that helping people is always going to be the center of their world, or it always should be the center of their world, and I want them to see that helping military spouses is how I’m doing that. I hope that when they grow up, they’ll appreciate all the massive hard work and tears, and lots of caffeine that went into the building of Squared Away.
Second, I’m inspired by the military spouses that are my sisters and brothers in this crazy lifestyle. Because there is nothing like being without family 3,000 miles from the closest person you know and having nothing but military spouses’ to support you. You’re literally walking the same walk every day. There is no community like military spouses. You learn to grow those relationships quicker because you need those people and you need that support.
WHAT’S YOUR VISION, YOUR BIG DREAM FOR THE IMPACT YOU WANT TO MAKE?
I would love for Squared Away to be around for years and years to come and to have as many gainfully employed military spouses as possible.
WHAT CHALLENGES ARE YOU FACING?
The biggest challenge is just in telling people about us. Many people think what we’re doing is a great idea but they’ve never heard of us before, and we’ve been around for almost four years. So I would say that the biggest challenge right now is letting people know that we exist.
WHAT’S ONE THING YOU WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT YOUR CAUSE AND/OR THE WORK YOU’RE DOING?
I think the one thing I want to leave people with is that everybody can always use more time in their day and our team of military spouses can absolutely provide that in one way, shape, or form.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE QUOTE OR WORDS OF INSPIRATION TO SHARE?
It’s actually from one of our clients. She was my inspiration before she ever became a client, but Reshma Saujani said, “Be brave, not perfect.” It’s okay to fail, but you never know unless you try.
HOW CAN OTHERS SUPPORT YOU OR YOUR CAUSE?
Tell people about Squared Away. Tell people about our mission. And if they know anybody who is a military spouse, send them our way.
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