FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Interviewed by: Bonnie Miller
Initial interview date: April 22, 2022
Copyright 2022 Una Chapman Cox Foundation and the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide
Q: Today is April 29, 2022. I’m Bonnie Miller, and I am interviewing Melissa Mathews. Welcome Melissa and thank you for doing this interview.
MATHEWS: Thank you so much for having me!
Q: So, tell me about your background and your career, and what it is that you do.
MATHEWS: I started my career as a journalist, and I was part of a training program that CNN used to have, where they basically just train people from the ground up as journalists. Most of us had relevant backgrounds, but you could be very experienced or not very experienced at all. So, I got hired into that program. And on my very first night, I was introduced to the person who was going to train me, and that person ended up being my husband! We were both journalists at the time, and we ended up moving from Atlanta to DC, and I decided I was ready to do something a little bit different. So, I switched over to the PR communication side, and I was working for NASA. Meanwhile, my husband was still a journalist, and he ended up in Iraq, where he met a bunch of Foreign Service officers who convinced him to take the Foreign Service test. The rest is sort of history.
When he finally joined the Foreign Service, I had just had a baby, and so I was ready to do something a bit different anyway. So, I decided I was just going to take time off; we were going to go to our first post, and I was going to focus on being a mom. Then I started picking up some freelance work from my former boss. And then, another former colleague, who was in a similar position in life, and I started trading assignments, like, “Oh, I’ve got this great freelance job, but I can’t do it, you do it,” kind of thing. I started saying, “This would be a great way to have a portable business,” where it’s people like us who, for whatever reason, don’t want to be in an office from 9:00 to 5:00, whether we have young children or are traveling or whatever. You could maybe have an actual PR agency on that model. And this was thirteen, fourteen years ago, before remote work was what it is today.
It just sort of blossomed from there. And then I started the company. My former boss was my first client and is still a client. You’re talking to me when I’m on a business trip to Austin, Texas, and that’s who I’m here to meet with. So, he’s been a great supporter of my work and my lifestyle. So that’s where it all originated.
Q: Okay can you tell us where you have been posted? Foreign posts and Washington, DC.
MATHEWS: Our first posting was to Guatemala, and I had a second baby there. Then my husband did an unaccompanied tour, so we went back to DC for language training, and then he went to Pakistan. From there, we went to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; back to DC; then to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia; and then to Amman, Jordan; and we are going to Vienna next. Vienna, Austria, not Vienna, Virginia.
Q: So, you have really been all over. With your business at your foreign postings, did you work in person locally or was everything remote?
MATHEWS: Everything has always been remote. For a lot of complicated reasons, in terms of legal issues and conflicts of interest and things, I’ve stayed away from working locally. But all of my clients are either corporate or university or nonprofit clients in the U.S. We are an agency, and it’s bigger than just me at this point. We have about nine people. I have a business partner who’s based in the U.S., and we have a couple of other State Department spouses whom we work with. They are both currently in the U.S., but obviously they can work remotely as well when they’re at post.
Q: What kinds of platforms do you use to communicate with your clients, like email or FaceTime or Zoom or WhatsApp?
MATHEWS: Right now, we use Teams as a company to communicate with each other, so that’s the Microsoft collaboration platform. Some of my clients use other platforms like Zoom or things like that. Obviously, email continues to be big, even though everyone hates it. It still serves a purpose, and we still use it. Definitely one of the things that has really come along in the last 15 years is just the quality and the capabilities of collaboration platforms remotely. That was something that we struggled with more early on, but now there are really good products out there.
Q: So, you have a business. What are you selling?
MATHEWS: We are a full-service PR and communications agency, so we are a services-based business. We provide advice and counsel to clients on communications issues and reputational issues. We do a lot of communications projects for people, whether it’s PR campaigns, social media, employee communications in larger organizations, crisis communications, things like that.
Q: So, you’re selling services and consulting. It seems like you’ve been able to grow your company and take it wherever you are, and so it doesn’t matter where you’re physically living.
MATHEWS: Yes. There are some parameters that we as a family have put on things, like that we’ve primarily worked in the Middle East, and that’s in large part because of where my husband’s interests are, but it’s also because I don’t want to go any further east than that because then time zones get really difficult. And you’re up all night to try to telecommute with the U.S., so we’ve kind of put a line in the sand in terms of how far east will go.
My work is, is part of our bidding criteria, how good is the internet at that post. That’s becoming less and less of a concern as the world gets more robust connectivity, but over time it has been a big issue. How quickly can we get it turned on? We usually send my husband to a new post ahead of the kids and me by as much as a month to make sure he can get the internet turned on at our house and get some other things done, so that when I arrive, I can work. So, it’s definitely a consideration, and where we serve is fully portable in that way.
Q: That’s interesting. So, you have a home office, and you can work while your three kids are at school?
MATHEWS: Either at home or at coffee shops, or wherever I feel like working that day.
Q: Okay, so wherever the WiFi is, and now it’s better and also that COVID has made this more of a normal kind of thing.
MATHEWS: Absolutely. At the beginning 15 or so years ago, it was almost something we hid. Like, “Oh, sure, we have an office in Virginia,” when it was just like a mailbox. But it’s really so accepted now that it’s not a big issue. I still get very self-conscious when the internet will drop out in the middle of a call or something like that. I’m in the Middle East now and on Thursday night in the Middle East it is late Friday night everyplace else, but it’s midday Thursday in the U.S., but everybody’s streaming Netflix locally, so the bandwidth goes down. Those kinds of little issues of fish out of water feeling like everybody else is in the middle of a Thursday, and the rest of my family is in weekend mode. But pretty much anywhere works.
Q: So how do you grow your business? How do you get new clients?
MATHEWS: Mostly through just my prior network. As I mentioned, our first client and still a current client was my boss at NASA, and then through word of mouth and networking and connections. I brought a business partner on a few years ago, and she is in the U.S., so she’s able to do more traditional business development. A lot of our employees have also helped us identify new clients. So that’s how we’ve grown over the years, and then we’ve been pretty good about once we get a new client, growing that client organically, so we get more projects from them. So, it’s that foot in the door that is the most challenging part because I can’t do traditional networking. But having other people on my team has helped to grow the business a lot, especially in recent years, because they do have that ability on the ground to network and to use their own contacts and leverage their former employers and colleagues and things like that.
Q: Right, when you do capable and efficient and useful work, then people hear about it, and more people are coming to you for your services. What are some other resources that you or EFMs [Eligible Family Members] that, you know have used, including Facebook groups or other resources that you could recommend for people in business?
MATHEWS: I would love to cut the cord with Facebook, but frankly, in the Foreign Service community, that’s where all the great networks are, that’s where all the good groups are. And there are a variety of Facebook groups where we’ve met colleagues. I’ve had moments when I’m like, “I need a graphic designer,” and I post something in a group and identify somebody. Or there’s even other expat networking groups that aren’t State Department specific but have a lot of State Department people involved with them, like Tandem Nomads, and some of those. We just hired a freelance writer and advertised in all the different EFM Facebook groups. EFM is helping EFM’s get employment and EFM Writers and a bunch of different ones, I think, three or four that we posted in and got several really great candidates.
I tell people all the time who aren’t in Foreign Service life that there is a tremendous, untapped market, especially right now with the way the economy is in 2022, and businesses are really struggling to find talent. If you’re just willing to be flexible and let people work different hours and be more outcome-focused than being in my office sitting next to me at the desk from 9:00 to 5:00, there’s a huge, great talent pool out there. It’s just waiting to be tapped in my opinion.
Q: What is your best advice for EFMs regarding having a successful career as an Accompanying Partner?
MATHEWS: From my perspective, there’s never been a better opportunity to set up something that you can do remotely. For all the reasons that we’ve talked about, the pandemic normalizes this kind of work from technology, making it that much easier and much more efficient. But the ability to control your own life and destiny and career is important. If you’re dependent on embassy jobs, for example, which is also a very valid and wonderful way to have a career, you’re at the mercy of what’s available and when you can get your security clearance and all those kinds of things. Being self-employed in some way just takes you out of that whole equation and gives you a lot more autonomy.
Two years ago, during the intense COVID periods and the lock downs, Jordan locked down really severely initially. The kids and I went back to the U.S. to our house in Florida. We decided not to come back, and we kind of did our own separation tour. It was all on our own, with no State Department support whatsoever. We were there for the majority of the school year. And the only reason I was able to do that is because I had this whole existence, I had my own income, because it was expensive to live, to support two households. And I had my autonomy, frankly, and I think it was the best thing for my kids during that period, because they were able to get outside and sunshine and activities and bike rides that we weren’t able to do in Jordan. So, there were other challenges, but that, to me, crystallized the value of my own independence and being able to make the choices that I thought were best for my family during that time, because I wasn’t so tied to the embassy community in that way.
Q: That’s really interesting how you and your kids adapted to the situation that was so difficult for everyone, but at least they could be in America; they could have the sunshine, and you could continue to work, especially in a time zone that was convenient for you.
MATHEWS: Yeah, exactly. Now, single parenting and working full-time during a pandemic, that’s a whole other conversation. But it did give us a lot of options that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Q: Okay, thank you so much, Melissa, for your wisdom and sharing your experience.
MATHEWS: Thank you so much. I really appreciate that you’re taking this on. And I do think that spouses are a very important part of Foreign Service life, and I’m always grateful when we have the chance to tell our own story.
Q: And you did. Thank you very much.
End of Transcription
Download a copy of Melissa Mathews’ interview transcript below.