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Interview with Rebecca Grappo, FS Spouse Entrepreneur

FS Spouse and Educational Consultant

From Global Link, March 2011 issue. Interviewed by Kelly Bembry Midura.

How long have you been in the Foreign Service, and where have you been posted?

“We’ve” been in the FS almost 26 years now. I say “we” because as you know, this is a family affair! Our first assignment was Nicaragua, then Portugal, Washington, Jordan, Oman, Washington, then my husband did two years unaccompanied in Saudi Arabia, then we went back to Oman, then he went to Baghdad and I went to Dubai, and now we are in Jerusalem.
During that time, we raised three children who are now in their twenties. So we, too, have had our share of adventures and seen the benefits of raising Third Culture Kids. However, we have also faced many of the same challenges that other FS families face: dealing with learning differences; finding the right international school; whether to send a child to boarding school; applying to college from overseas; and lots of transitions and separations.

What inspired you to start your business, and what were the first steps that you took toward establishing yourself as a consultant?

When I worked as the Education and Youth officer in the Family Liaison Office at State, I thought I had the best job in the world. However, I knew that one day, we would go overseas, and no one would ever hire me again to do that unique job again. So if I wanted to do the work I loved, then I’d have to recreate it myself. I was inspired by the educational consultants I had met through school tours and conferences. I thought: if they can do it, I can do it!

So I started thinking about how I would develop my business. I didn’t have a physical hometown like all of my colleagues who are in private practice. But, though I may not have the traditional hometown practice, I do have a “hometown.” It’s just spread out all over the world! I took a disadvantage, and turned that into a major advantage by specializing in the expatriate community.

In designing my practice, I started thinking about what made my phone ring and my inbox overflow at the Family Liaison Office: parents needing guidance on how to navigate their way through the challenges of raising and educating children overseas. And I saw a common theme: how can we help ALL our children – high-achieving and under-achieving – to reach their potential in this highly mobile international lifestyle?

I also decided that if I was going to do this, I was going to do it correctly by getting my credentials (certifications, training, and professional memberships) in place before launching. I got my teacher training through FAST TRAIN when it was a pilot program between the Office of Overseas Schools and George Mason University. It took me over a year to lay the foundation. But it was worth it because it has helped me to grow a huge and wonderful network, and one opportunity or contact just keeps leading to another.

I have a very versatile portfolio, and many times there is cross-over between the students. I’m prepared to handle any challenge. Some families come to me for special needs school placement, others for boarding school advice, still others for college, and sometimes all three over the course of a few years. I work hard to be informed in all areas, and last year visited almost 80 boarding schools, therapeutic programs, and colleges. I have a full roster of students in each category. I love it all.

How, practically speaking, does your virtual business work? For example, how do you primarily communicate with clients? How do you manage during transitional periods, e.g. home leave and transfers?

One of the people who inspired me was Thomas Friedman in his book The World is Flat. He talked about virtual communication anywhere in the world at a time (just a few years ago) that people were starting to imagine the possibilities. I had built a strong rapport with my families around the world while working in Washington DC, so I knew that I could do that again by using all the same means of electronic communication – and it was primitive even 4-5 years ago compared to today.

I keep in touch with students, families and other clients via email, online video conferencing through tools like Skype, Google Chat, iChat, GotoMeeting, etc. I also meet kids on their terms – that includes using BBM (Blackberry Messenger), SMS (texting), on line chats, or even the old-fashioned telephone! As long as I have a wireless connection, my laptop or iPad, and my Blackberry, I’m available to my clients, no matter where they or I might be. I also keep appointments on a calendar, and I treat an appointment via Skype as seriously as I would if we were meeting in person. I also have some clients that I meet up with in New York, Washington, or elsewhere. And I even have some clients who walk through the door and meet me in my office!

Keeping in touch with everyone during a Foreign Service transition is absolutely workable. I try not to ever let on what is going on in my personal life. People don’t want excuses – they want results. I’ve moved internationally 3 times since I started my practice, and I travel a lot. The good news is that I can, and do, work wherever I am. (The bad news is that I have to work wherever I am!)

How (if at all) has the State Department supported your venture, and what do you think would be the best or simplest ways that State could support entrepreneurs such as yourself?

I am grateful for several very important stepping stones of support that I have had along the way. Back when I was in graduate school, AAFSW had a low-interest loan for FS spouses. I used that to finish my degree, and I was able to pay it back when I got my first paycheck upon being employed overseas. It wasn’t a massive amount, but my husband was an entry-level officer at the time and I was a stay-at-home mom with three small children, so it really made a difference.

The second thing that really helped me was attending an e-entrepreneur class offered by FLO. I don’t remember the details of the class, except for the trainer saying that having your own business is like giving birth to a baby. It can take over your life. She was right! And taking the class made me more confident that I could do this.

Thirdly, I received a Cox Foundation grant after I launched. One has to demonstrate a serious plan and put in 25% of their own funds in order to receive a grant, which I think is fair. That grant helped me to pay for online courses.

Lastly, I will always be grateful to the mentoring, cheerleading, and support I received from all of my dear friends and colleagues from my time in FLO!

What do I think FLO could do to support other spouses?

I think that the landscape is always evolving, and what works for one does not always work for another. But I really love the concept of the Cox Foundation grants – show a serious plan, invest in it yourself, and then some financial support can come your way. To me, it’s equitable – no matter where you are in the world, the chance to get assistance is based on the spouse’s own initiative.

I would also like to see a change in transportation allowances so that there could be a professional weight allowance for spouses. Having a portable career can be heavy, and no one should have to choose between shipping household and family essentials and the tools necessary to sustain one’s professional career. This would be very real and tangible support that any professional spouse could benefit from.

What advice would you give other FS spouses who want to set themselves up professionally as consultants of one kind or another?

Here are my tips for launching your own business, whatever it is:

Find your passion. I know that sounds cliche, but you will probably work harder than you ever have in your life. If you love it, it won’t feel so much like work.

Prepare yourself and be as professional and thorough as possible when laying the foundation for what you want to do.

Find your own cheerleaders and mentors who will encourage you and support you.

Be courageous. This is not always easy, but you can’t doubt yourself. If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will, either.

Network like crazy. Not only do you need to learn from others who are more experienced, but you need that professional contact in your field. And through my networks, I have an entire new group of friends, too, who support me personally and professionally. So even though I may move, my support network remains stable.

Commit to yourself and realize that you will have to be the toughest boss you have ever had. There are going to be some things you’ll have to say no to because you have to work. Not everyone will understand that, but you will need to hang tough.

Check your ego at the door. You will make mistakes. Some people won’t like you or will be critical. Not everyone will buy your product or service. You just can’t take it personally (easier said than done!)

That said, put yourself out there all the time. If you don’t promote yourself, don’t expect it to happen by itself.

Be sure you have your spouse’s and family’s, support. That instructor was right – this is like having another child in the family. I always say when my youngest left home for college, I had another baby: my business. My children were awesome in encouraging me, and I’m grateful to them. But I never, ever, could have done this without the constant support, patience, and understanding of my husband. I can’t even begin to describe how incredible he has been.

Would I do it all again? Absolutely, in a heartbeat. I’m living the dream. I get to work with families around the world doing something I love, have personal freedom, financial remuneration, and the satisfaction of serving others while seeing my “baby” grow.

Finally, If you could change one thing about the current system of educational support at State to make it more workable for families, what would it be?

If there is one change I would like to see, it would be an addition to the supplemental educational allowance. This would be for post-secondary counseling services for both college bound and non-college bound students if there are no quality American post-secondary counseling services at the school. This is a service normally offered in an American public school, but students who are in places like Canada or Australia, or in other international schools that are not American, often do not have access. I believe it is critical for all students to have professional guidance when forming post-secondary vocational or educational plans.

Rebecca Grappo is the founder of RNG International Educational Consultants, LLC, and has helped hundreds of students find the right boarding school, therapeutic school, or university. She has given numerous presentations on TCKs for groups around the United States and abroad, and contributed articles to publications and websites. Her own website, www.rebeccagrappo.com, has a wonderful resource list if you would like to read more about Third Culture Kids, or find out if she can help you and your family.

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