FS CLIPS: Sharing Our Stories of Foreign Service Life
A Project of the Una Chapman Cox Foundation
Successes and Challenges of Having a Career as an EFM
- Background and career description, foreign posts and dates (+ DC)
CRAIG HOUSTON: I was born in Scotland. I studied Aerospace Engineering at university and then went into renewable energy. And that took me first to Mexico. where I met my wife to be; she was serving at her first post in Monterrey, Mexico, at the time. Since then, I’ve stayed in renewable energy the whole time, through a combination of working for an international company in different locations and then setting up my own company to continue that work while still being an EFM. Then we went to Beijing, and then in DC. After that, we were posted to Chiang Mai, Thailand, from 2015 to 2018. Then we were back to DC again in 2018 for Portuguese language training, ahead of our current posting, which is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, which we’re now coming to the end of.
LOUAY AZAR: I was born and raised in Syria. I’m an IT engineer. I immigrated to the U.S. in 2008. My first job in America was working as an Arabic teacher at IC Lingua [now ICA], a language provider that teaches diplomats and DOD [Department of Defense] students. It was just for a short period of time until I joined the NDU, the National Defense University. I was their web content administrator, but it didn’t take long to figure out that I love teaching. IC Lingua reached out to me asking if I was interested in a part-time position with them, as some of my students liked me and wanted to go back to my classes. Along with my IT job with NDU, I went back to teaching. That was approximately 2008 to 2011, before my wife joined the State Department in 2011, and when we started our Foreign Service journey. We were in Melbourne from 2011 to 2013, then Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, from 2014 to 1016, and Amman, Jordan, from 2016 to 2020. From 2020 to 2022, we’ve been here in DC. We are now heading to our next post in London.
ARIEL AHART: I am a public health specialist by training. My area of expertise is sexual and reproductive health, and I have a focus on gender-based violence. My husband and I met in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1992. And at that time, I was doing refugee work. Later, we both had assignments in Georgia, in the Caucasus in 1994. At the time, I was working for USAID as a contractor on humanitarian programs. And we weren’t married yet. After that, we got married and I was sort of inducted into life as the spouse of a Foreign Service Officer. We went on to India. After India, we went back to the U.S. and did a tour here in Washington, DC. Then in 2002, we went to Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia. After that, we went to Azerbaijan, and from there to India, from India to Albania, and from Albania back to Kyrgyzstan. We have just recently returned to Washington, DC after eighteen years out in the field. I feel like I have been very fortunate in that my professional field has been very compatible with State Department life. I have been able to work in my field, in Public Health, for the thirty years that I’ve known my husband and for the twenty-five years of that time that we have been together as a married couple.
CHRISTINE MANDOJANA: After completing my Bachelor of Science in Business Administration in Accounting in 1992, obtaining my CPA license and working for several years in a big six accounting firm and then a large corporation, I decided I wanted to move my career to an international focus. In 1997, I applied and was accepted to Georgetown’s Master of Science and Foreign Service program where I met my Foreign Service-bound spouse. We graduated together in 1999, and my soon-to-be spouse joined the Foreign Service in January of 2000. I did not want the stress of managing a U.S. Government tandem career, so instead, I joined the then big six accounting firm of Arthur Andersen, with a goal of changing my assignments every few years as my Foreign Service spouse changed posts. From 2000 to 2002, we were in Manila, Philippines. From 2002 to 2004 we were in Lisbon, Portugal. From 2004 to 2006 we were in DC. 2006 to 2009, Lima, Peru. 2009 to 2011, Bogota, Colombia. 2011 to 2015 DC. 2015 to 2018, Barcelona, Spain. 2018 to 2019, we were in DC for language training, and then 2019 to 2021, Ankara, Turkey. And 2021 to present, we’re in San Jose, Costa Rica. I launched a new business upon arriving in Peru in 2006 providing tax and financial planning services tailored to the Foreign Service community. Since 2006, I have grown this business from a few clients to a firm with five employees and clients in more than 80 countries across the globe.
MELISSA MATHEWS: I started my career as a journalist, and I was part of a training program that CNN used to have, where they train people from the ground up as journalists. 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 to switch over to the PR communication side, and I was working for NASA. When my husband 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 when we were going to go to our first post that 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 thinking, “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. And then I started the company. Our first posting was to Guatemala. 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, Austria next. Two years ago, during the intense COVID periods, Jordan locked down really severely initially. The kids and I went back to the U.S. to our house in Florida, and we did our own separation tour for the majority of the school year. It was all on our own, with no State Department support whatsoever. And the only reason I was able to do that is because I had my own income, because it was expensive to support two households. 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.
- At your foreign postings, did you work in person locally or internationally or in embassy jobs or remotely? How do you communicate with clients?
HOUSTON: In Beijing, our company was international renewable energy consultants, and we had an office already in the city. My wife and I weren’t married at the time, and that actually made things a little simpler, so I could come in under a work visa that was sponsored by my company. I was effectively working on the local market there. It was an international company, but in an office of about 20 people, all but two of us were of Chinese origin. And that was great to learn something else about different work cultures. There are some nuances in managing people from a different cultural background, so there are things to learn there, too. If you’re going to go into a management role, then being cognizant of some of the local sensitivities will help you go a long way.
AZAR: This whole telework culture is not new to me. We left for our first post, Melbourne, at the end of 2011, about 10 months before I started working for SOSi as an IT engineer. My company allowed me to telework for a testing period from January 2012 until March 2012 to see how things would go. Remember, this is well before people would even think about teleworking. I was based in Reston, Virginia, and at that time, I was pitching the idea to telework from Australia. Amazingly, I was able to continue working for this company remotely for nearly six years. Then my own business, Done By Native, started primarily as a translation service. I wanted to create a way to help people in Syria make some money, so I just took some small translation projects and passed them to people who could do translation, and then slowly that grew to be more. I lined it up with my teaching ability. I started exploring more about the bidding process. I was reading more about how you get jobs for the U.S. Government. Riyadh was where I started teaching a few people inside the embassy as a business, not as a person. I added more people to the team later on. I started winning small projects with the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh doing translation and doing interpretation seminars for five-day seminars until 2017, when we were awarded the first sizable project with the U.S. Embassy in Amman, Jordan, teaching Arabic for diplomats and other EFM’s [Eligible Family Members]. This is when I made the decision to leave SOSi and start focusing full time on Done by Native. Now we do not only translation, not only teaching, but we also do media monitoring and HR services, and we’re trying to expand that branch more.
AHART: I’ve done a lot of different things, but all in the field of Public Health. I’ve worked for international NGOs like Save the Children, International Rescue Committee [IRC], and Catholic Relief Services [CRS]. At some of our postings, I worked for the U.S. Government. I worked for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control [CDC] and for USAID. And then I’ve worked for international organizations like the World Health Organization [WHO], UNICEF, and The Global Fund for HIV and Tuberculosis.
MANDOJANA: We are a 100% remote firm. When I started in 2006, the options to have a remote firm were very different than they are now. Ironically, COVID helped a little bit because it really fast-forwarded a lot of technology. The big global move to teleworking really made the options a lot better. We have a secure cloud server in California. All of our client information is in that cloud server in a secure environment. In terms of actually communicating otherwise with our clients, we do a lot through email, because it’s a really good method when you’re in different time zones. It also creates a great written record, so everybody knows everything that was communicated. I like WhatsApp because it has secure end-to-end encryption.
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.
- Did you use your foreign language ability in your jobs abroad?
HOUSTON: At every post, I have attempted to learn the language, with varying degrees of success. I came in from Mexico with Spanish that was good enough for business conversations. My Chinese was not on that level. The State Department provided a short course, which is more like survival Chinese. In an office environment, it’s talking over lunch and those kinds of things which helps you feel a bit more integrated. But in terms of business language, there’s a higher bar there. In Thailand, I went to the local university for the first three months to take a Thai language immersion course, which is really great to meet people to learn the language. Again, I wouldn’t say as business fluency, but it helps you in the other parts of your life which do connect your career as well. I think it’s definitely something that’s important. But for everyone, I’d recommend trying to learn some of the languages, which just helps your overall experience to be that much richer.
AZAR: [Of course! I run a language teaching and translation service!] As of now, I haven’t been in a situation where I had to face a foreign language, but who knows what might happen in the future.
AHART: Yes, absolutely. One of the perks of having married into the Foreign Service is that the Foreign Service has been very generous in allowing family members and spouses to take language training, based on the availability of slots, of course. So, I have studied three languages at FSI [Foreign Service Institute]. I took a Russian language course; I did the full 10-month course. I studied a year of Azerbaijani at FSI, and I did a year of Albanian at FSI. I always tell people that it has helped me tremendously in my job search and my ability to work in my field at different postings. It’s a real benefit and at a financial cost to the State Department. So, I always encourage spouses and family members to look into the possibility of taking advantage of foreign language training.
MANDOJANA: I did not take Spanish language training. I took a six-week fast course in Portuguese, so it just gave me a foundation. And since then, we’ve been mostly in Spanish-speaking posts, and I just kind of converted my Portuguese over to Spanish. I can survive, that’s my level of Spanish. For work, we only speak in English, since we work only with U.S. expats.
- What are the challenges of having a career while moving around from post to post, including Washington? How did you cope with these issues?
HOUSTON: I do feel somewhat lucky there. My flexibility and transferability are my relevant skills that were working in my favor. I know other people who have had to pause their careers, really smart people that have taken that decision. Maybe they delay it and come back to later. For me, that wasn’t the case, fortunately. So, I think coming into the Foreign Service, do look at your own skills and how realistic is it for you to transition or move your skills around in different locations.
AZAR: In Australia, I did have crazy hours, but nothing that I couldn’t manage because it was more project-based than hourly-based. There were definitely crazy days and crazy weeks and probably crazy months whenever we had some emergency. I had to not only deal with Washington time, but with Afghanistan time because we were running a project for NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization]. It was tough sometimes dealing with all different time zones, and then adding Australia to the mix wasn’t helping. But it worked out amazingly, and six years later, I was still with them. What started as a three-month testing period ended up as six years.
AHART: I’ve been doing this for thirty years, and I think one of the major challenges is that every three years you have to prepare to kind of jumpstart your job search. You have to really get out there and hustle, you have to update your resume, you’ve got to stay current with your skills, and it’s psychologically pretty taxing to have to pound the pavement and look for new employment every three years. It’s a skill that you hone over time, but it can be challenging. I also think that all of us, as you move through life, have to make decisions based on the different life stage that you’re at. When you’re single or newly married, you make certain decisions based on certain criteria. It becomes more complicated as you have children, as your children get older, trying to balance your own career aspirations with issues of schooling for your children, for example. All of those things come into play and are difficult. We haven’t done a lot of postings back in the U.S. In the twenty-five years that I’ve officially been part of the State Department family, we did one planned tour here, and I used that time to go back to school and start work on my doctoral degree. That was how I made use of that time and saw that as an opportunity to upgrade my skills and try to remain competitive in my field. Then I did my field research for my doctoral dissertation when we went back overseas at one of our postings. I think that’s part of keeping your own career on a trajectory; anticipating these periods where you’re going to be moving and thinking about how to best use that time and place to keep yourself moving forward on your career path, whatever that might be for you.
MANDOJANA: I had the benefit of basically building my business knowing I was in the Foreign Service, knowing what I had to do in order to have a remote business. And then I also have to comply with certain IRS requirements. All of my clients have to sign something called a 7216 letter, which is an IRS disclosure letter that says somebody outside of the United States is looking at their information.
MATHEWS: 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.
- Did you need to get permission from countries in which the U.S. has a bilateral work agreement for family members? “Authorization to work” at post?
AZAR: Besides employment permission? No. We basically got permission for outside employment while we were in Jordan. It was a straightforward process.
AHART: I did. I would say this is an area that is really important for the State Department to provide family members with up-to-date information during the bidding process so that people really understand some of the hurdles that they’re going to have to cross in order to work when they get to the post. And the time to learn about that is not after your spouse has been selected for their post. As a young person early in my career, I had no idea about the bilateral work agreement, although I had already been in the work world for almost ten years. I was shocked when I discovered that you need to make sure there’s a bilateral work agreement before you bid on a country. So, I think it’s really important that people know about that and understand what the ramifications are.
MANDOJANA: When I first started the firm I did, to try to really understand what I needed to do in order to have a firm like this. I actually consulted both inside of the Foreign Service, in the Global Community Liaison Office, and then I also consulted outside attorneys, just to make sure that I understood all the rules and regulations, and I structured it accordingly. And then I just maintained that structure. And again, I am very careful to make sure that I stay within those boundaries. At every post, I always apply for authorization to work from the Chief of Mission. But since I launched my tax and financial planning business, my spouse and I have only served in countries with either a bilateral work agreement or a right to work agreement. And I’ve kept my business strictly focused on clients outside of my host country. So, I can work with U.S. mission employees if they’re part of the U.S. mission, but I don’t work with people on the local economy. I don’t advertise my business on the local economy. It is strictly a telecommuting situation, in terms of how my business is in the host country. And because of that, I fall under this wonderful area of legality for which I’m so grateful to the Foreign Service where I don’t have to register my business on the local economy or pay local taxes. I’m very careful to follow all those requirements in order to maintain that so that the business can stay intact.
- I know that for myself and other EFMs I have interviewed for the ADST Partners in Diplomacy podcasts, we had different jobs at each foreign posting depending on the local opportunities. Did you manage to have the continuity of long-term career, or did you have disparate jobs at each post?
HOUSTON: I met my FSO wife in Mexico, and then shortly thereafter, she was posted to Beijing. And so first challenge, if you’re in my position, is that you’re working for a company in a country, and then you have to throw them a curveball, saying “Hey, guys, we’re going to Beijing now. Can I work there?” This brings up one of the first challenges that EFM family members are presented with who want to maintain their careers whilst also moving with their spouse around the world. Some of the things to consider are: how flexible are your skills, how many opportunities do you have in your current position to be flexible? In my case, I was quite lucky on those two counts. Renewable energy is really something that’s done globally, so there are opportunities globally. That’s not necessarily the case with every career. The other one is location specific. In my case, fortunately, we did have an office in Beijing. That doesn’t mean there are not a lot of hoops you have to jump through. There’ll be a few extra hurdles to go over, things like bilateral work agreements, either formal or de facto, and maybe a few more steps in terms of visas. But the factors to think about is the flexibility of your skills and re they tied to a certification, either national or state, or can you really do that type of work anywhere? Since Beijing, I’ve been working remote in different guises. I set up my own company, partly because I want it to be even more flexible. I could see my wife’s career stretching out for another fifteen, twenty years. And one of the things, if you’re working in a company, if you’re the one instigating these moves every two or three years, that can be great for you, can also mean sometimes you’re not in the strongest bargaining position for those roles. You may have to take a sidestep or do something slightly different than the traditional career path to accommodate your other requirements about moving around. Ultimately, I took the decision to start my own thing, and that’s been great. It’s got its own challenges, taxes and a lot more things. But overall, for me, the more flexibility the better if you can do that with your skills.
AZAR: In late 2012, I started Done By Native, my own company. In late 2017, I decided to devote my time exclusively to my business after we were awarded a sizable project with the U.S. Government. Right now, we have about 20 teachers, and we have contracts with the U.S. Embassy in Amman, U.S. Embassy in Rabat, U.S. Embassy Algeria, U.S. Consulate in Casablanca, U.S. Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in addition to the New Zealand Embassy, Canadian Embassy and a bunch of other private students in Riyadh. We grew a good and large instructors’ team, in addition to our administrative team. I love working with EFMs. Right now, we have two EFMs working with me, and I hope in the future to be able to work with more. Done By Native offers Arabic or French or Darija, which is the spoken form of Arabic in Morocco and Algeria. Anyone who is interested just has to reach out to the Post Language Program Officer to inquire, but every embassy has its own registration process which is usually open to the entire community. The goal of the Post Language Program is to allow officers and EFMs to study the language in the country. We also offer private instruction for anyone, no need to come directly through an embassy program. A big part of our courses, especially in Amman and Riyadh, is what we call survival, to learn the basics, enjoy the culture, and not bother with the grammar. We recruit local people to teach the language. I’m really blessed to have an amazing team of local program managers doing the best they can to keep the team connected. With technology today, it’s not that difficult to stay connected. If you have the infrastructure and if you have the right people, you can do it.
- Were you able to get support from the State Department (including Global Employment Initiative, Professional Development Fellowship, etc.)? How?
HOUSTON: Yes, I’ve been very grateful for the level of support the State Department has provided me. Where I’ve interacted with that is through the Global Community Liaison Office. Part of what they do is try to support family members to make these career changes or look for opportunities. They have a grant called the Professional Development Fellowship, which gives pretty generous funding, up to 75% of the cost of quite a range of different things. I was fortunate enough to receive two Professional Development Fellowships. The first one I used to broaden my skills in Data Visualization, which was an area of interest to me And then, a couple of years after that, I did a Nanodegree in Machine Learning at the online school Udacity. This was part of my plan to build the skills and understand different aspects of technology that I thought would be important to develop my career in renewable energy. So definitely a lot of support. And I’d encourage anyone; if you write a decent narrative, you’ve got a pretty good chance of getting support. If you can use that to support the needs of your local mission, all the better. And it’s worth saying that for people who are thinking about whether they can even do this sort of training from some random place around the world, it’s become far, far easier to do that, and far cheaper. There are great online resources that, even without a fellowship, you can get very cost-effective courses to train in a lot of different things. So definitely use that if you can. Another way that the State Department helps families is that my wife, at the end of this tour, will take leave without pay. So that allows Foreign Service officers to take a period up to three years of unpaid leave to take care of a sick relative or a loved one. Or it could be to support the career development of their spouse, which is our case. And also, with COVID making travel difficult, it’s been hard to get back to see my family in Scotland, so that was part of the equation for us as well besides career. I think it’s really helpful that State Department employees ae highly trained and have a lot of skills. And if you don’t have that sort of flexibility in the system, then people ultimately just leave. So, it’s a good way to keep people engaged long term, whilst also allowing us, the EFMs, to have a period where they can focus on their career as well. So, I’m really grateful for that. The State Department provided a lot of support, and I think there are good reasons for that: they want people to stay a family unit. And it makes sense for both sides of that family to continue what they can to do for work that’s important and meaningful to them. And State does a lot to support that.
AHART: I did take advantage of the career support consultant who is available (through GEI) to provide coaching and different kinds of support to spouses and family members in their professional development. That was helpful for me when I was shifting away from working on U.S. Government-funded projects and trying to branch out and do more consultancies with multilateral organizations. I needed to learn how to position myself as an independent consultant. So that person was very useful, and I appreciated that the State Department had that resource for me to set up an independent consultation with her. She gave me a lot of good tips on how to deconstruct my experience and rework my resume so that I could make a little bit of a shift in terms of what kind of jobs I was competitive for. In terms of hindering, I would say the State Department has really made a lot of progress in trying to support dual career families. At the end of the day, the State Department’s primary responsibility is to their employees, not to the spouse. I think that’s something you have to understand; nobody owes you a job. As a professional, the process of having to ask for permission or apply for the legal waivers was sometimes a little frustrating. It’s not insurmountable, but as somebody who has worked very hard to develop professionally, the whole idea that somehow an organization that I don’t work for has that kind of oversight of my professional development was not always a welcome feeling. I understand why, but I think that it’s a source of frustration and can be a little bit demoralizing sometimes for a lot of spouses in the field.
MANDOJANA: At the beginning, I have to say that the Department of State was very supportive. The Global Employment Initiative was in a pilot stage when I launched my business in 2006, and I was fortunate to have two representatives who were really supportive of my business, which certainly helped me get started. I also received two Professional Development Fellowship Grants during the beginning years. I used those funds to take a review course and then to fly to the U.S. and sit for the Certified Financial Planner exam. I already had my CPA license, but I expanded my firm’s services to also offer financial planning.
- Did you need approval from State Legal Department for any of your professional activities?
AZAR: As for State Department help, no, but it’s on me. I have not fully researched these support mechanisms. I look forward to taking advantage of these in the future. I know there’s lots of stuff, but I have not done it.
AHART: I didn’t need legal approval for any of my employment until my husband reached a certain level of seniority in the State Department. That’s something that is really important for family members and spouses to understand as you move on in your career and your spouse is also moving on in their career, that the issues surrounding the potential for a perception of some kind of conflict of interest that you will eventually need this approval both from the ambassador in the country, and in some cases, you’ll need legal approval from the State Department, and your spouse will have to recuse himself/herself from working on whatever sphere you work on. So, for example, in my case, I was working on HIV AIDS, and so, my spouse had to formally file paperwork to recuse himself from having any involvement in policy and programming related to HIV. That’s another information piece that I think is not insurmountable, but it’s something that family members and spouses should know about upfront before the bidding process so that they’re prepared, and they know what they need to jump through those hurdles to make sure there are no glitches once they get to post.
- What are some other resources that you or EFMs that you know have used, including Facebook groups, etc.?
HOUSTON: I’m not on Facebook myself; I know people do use it quite a lot. In terms of reaching out, there are just a lot of groups there to understand, specifically, or people who have been to the post you’ve been to, so you could do that through the post itself, which is probably the first protocol. I would have to understand what are the unique challenges of working in a place like this, what are the opportunities that may not be that obvious from outside, if you’re going to a slightly more remote place? Try to speak to people who live there; that’s the best indicator of what it might be like for you. Some of those are on Facebook, other ones are just reaching out through the State Department’s own network of people. And again, go by the online courses; that’s a resource that you can make use of in a lot of places for training, and also for mentorship. Sometimes it can feel like you have a lonely path to remote work, and you’re doing everything remote. And so it can be good to reach out and have a mentor. And then, also look at what unique opportunities might be at your posts. For me, that was joining the local Green Team, which many places have, looking at renewable and other sorts of green themes and getting exposure that way. Volunteering can be a great path. And you have done a huge amount of that yourself, Bonnie. My experience there was through an interest in air pollution, and that dovetailed with my interest in data and data analytics, and that gave me some really interesting things to work on that, hopefully, benefited the local community too. And then the mission helped me further my skills in a way that was interesting.
AZAR: I’m a member of a few WhatsApp groups of other EFM entrepreneurs, which is really helpful to exchange ideas and advertise services. I really look forward to digging more into finding other tools and even connecting with other people. I’m missing out on a lot. Maybe I’ll email you later to thank you for opening my eyes to this big world.
AHART: The number one thing I really keep coming back to is language training. I really encourage people to look seriously at that. The State Department also offers the online continuing language training, which I’ve done as well, and that’s been very useful. It’s not a formalized program, but I’ve always found that talking with the CLO [Community Liaison Officer] and approaching people within different departments at the Embassy when you first get there, people are very willing to talk to you and help you develop a network of professional contacts in the country. This has been a very useful way to land on your feet when you get to post and begin to do a lot of informational interviews. That is a strategy that I’ve used in the in the past.
MANDOJANA: At the beginning, years and years ago, I advertised in the Foreign Service Journal. But I didn’t really do much other advertising for clients because I actually found word of mouth was the most effective advertising method. Also, when I launched the business in 2006, advertising by word of mouth was a really great way to do that. I got constant exposure without having explosive growth all at once. I was also fortunate that FSI [Foreign Service Institute] contacted me in 2013 to present their annual tax seminar, and I’ve enjoyed presenting that annual seminar since then. That has also given my business exposure to the Foreign Service community. And recently I took over writing the federal tax section of the annual AFSA [American Foreign Service Association] tax guide. It’s been great getting to know the AFSA team and also helping the Foreign Service community gain access to that critical tax information. Although it’s not a resource, per se, I want to say that my employees over the years have been critical to our success as a firm.
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.
- What is your best advice for EFMs regarding having a successful career as an Accompanying Partner?
HOUSTON: I think the first thing is to make an honest assessment of where your skills are. If you’re on the cusp of deciding to come into the Foreign Service or not, that’s the point to ask yourself whether this is the kind of life for you. The time to make an honest assessment and have those conversations is before you’re on that train. But don’t view it all as negative. There are many positive things and unique opportunities that I wouldn’t have had if I’d stayed in Scotland and doing some sort of traditional path there. Be open to opportunities that may come out of the uniqueness of your situation. In many cases, you’ll have unique skills that just don’t exist in that place. And that can be something that can be really valuable, and you just have to find where you can apply those skills. Flexibility in all aspects of life in the State Department does go a long way, so don’t have a very set path in mind but a direction that you want to travel, and be willing to meander a bit from there, if it gets you to the ultimate place you want to be in your career.
AZAR: My best advice is that every move or every post is a new opportunity, a new place, new people, new doors to knock on and explore. Probably just go in with an open mind and explore the available doors and then start knocking. If you like stability and no change, this is probably not for you, but I really enjoy being in a very different place. It doesn’t have to be super nice. We went to different kinds of places, but every place is unique in its own way, and every place has new opportunities. My EFM friends, just go in with an open mind and start knocking. A lot of the time we ended up with a project that we never imagined by being physically in that location. It allowed us to explore a whole world of opportunities. Change of scenery has always been fuel behind thinking outside the box. It’s just amazing how our North Africa projects were basically started when we were here in DC, not in Jordan where we were physically closer. Just the change of scenery is like a trigger to this explorer side of you. You want to start exploring and just looking outside, see what’s happening, and what you can do more of. With this lifestyle, you are where you want to be if you’re looking for that kind of next adventure.
AHART: I think it’s important to recognize that at different life stages, you’re probably going to make decisions about your career based on different criteria, and that’s normal and expected. I think it’s really important to have open and honest conversations with your spouse during the bidding process and really think about what your expectations for your career are and can those be satisfied at the post that you’re going to put on the list during the bidding process. That’s the time to do it, not after the decisions are made. In my experience, people who are happiest are the people who made those decisions in a collaborative, joint way with their spouse. Another recommendation is just do as much homework as you can in advance before you bid on a post about realistically what your job prospects are in your field in that setting, knowing about the bilateral agreement, what kind of hurdles you may have to jump over in order to keep your career going, and then always looking for ways to take the forward steps in your career to remain competitive. If you can financially swing it, when you’re back in the States, you might use that time to develop a new skill, go back to school, get an additional degree, or land a job that’s going to give you new skills and experience, so you’ll remain competitive when you go back out to post.
MANDOJANA: I think the key is twofold: having a supportive partner in my spouse and being flexible. I’m lucky in that my spouse and I really are a team when it comes to this lifestyle: managing the moves, managing our children’s school and extracurriculars, and managing two careers. My spouse was committed to only bidding on posts where I could keep running my business. I also think that embracing flexibility is also the most important attribute to having a successful career as an Accompanying Partner. I was lucky that my career passions focused on managing money, spreadsheets, and taxes – skills that I could translate into a portable career. Being able to telework has been a huge help. Being an EFM is hard. There are many joys and wonderful opportunities for travel and friendships, but it’s really hard to balance two careers in Foreign Service life. I think the best advice I can give an EFM regarding a successful career as an Accompanying Partner is to be very vocal about your needs, work as a team with your spouse, stay positive, realize that a closed door just means an opportunity to start something new, and be flexible to embrace whatever life throws at you.
MATHEWS: There’s never been a better opportunity to set up something that you can do remotely. 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 takes you out of that whole equation and gives you a lot more autonomy.
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