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 29, 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 Christine Mandojana. Welcome, Christine.
MANDOJANA: Thank you. I’m happy to be here.
Q: So, Christine, tell us a little bit about your background and your career and the trajectory of your career in the Foreign Service.
MANDOJANA: The Foreign Service has been a part of my family history growing up. My grandfather served as a Foreign Service Officer between 1945 and 1962, so my mother grew up as a Foreign Service kid living in Mexico and India. She also spent many of her formative years in Geneva with her mother and maternal grandparents, which is where they lived during periods when they could not accompany my grandfather on assignment. So, hearing the Foreign Service stories as a child piqued my interest in international affairs and foreign travel, though my early academic interests were focused on business and accounting. I learned later in life that my paternal grandfather was an accountant, so I must have inherited my love of accounting from him. 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. It was a good plan at the time because Arthur Andersen was looking to create a group of international managers who could work in various overseas offices. I was successful with his first posting to the Philippines, where I worked in the Arthur Andersen local partnership of SGV & Co. during his two-year assignment. But shortly before we were to move to Portugal for his second assignment, Arthur Andersen dissolved due to the Enron crisis. I had almost completed my transfer to the Arthur Andersen local partnership in Lisbon when the Enron scandal happened, and I was left without a career or any idea what to do next professionally. I was, however, blessed to be pregnant with our daughter, and she was born a few months after our arrival in Lisbon. I spent the next few years both in Portugal and our next assignment in DC, working part-time in the Lisbon housing office, studying to sit for the Certified Financial Planners exam, and working at a DC-based nonprofit. During this period, I thought a lot about what I really enjoyed doing professionally and what needs there seemed to be in the Foreign Service community, which led me to launch a new business upon arriving in Peru in 2006 – now with a newborn son as well as our daughter – 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. I am very happy that I found a way to remain active in my field while providing a helpful service to the State Department community.
Q: That is really interesting. So, you are an adaptable Foreign Service Partner and using your professional skills in each post. So, you were in Lisbon and then what other post?
MANDOJANA: 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.
Q: You have really been all over the place! And you took language training, you have Spanish?
MANDOJANA: I did not take Spanish language training. I took a six-week fast course in Portuguese, because I had no idea if I was going to have a job or what was going to happen when we moved to Portugal. I could only do six weeks, 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.
Q: But it sounds like most of the time with your clients you are speaking in English. So, what kinds of media do you use to communicate with your clients?
MANDOJANA: Yes, we only speak in English. I work with U.S. expats. A lot of them are U.S. Government expats, and others are what I call regular expats, which are just Americans that live outside of the U.S. for whatever reason. 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. Prior to COVID, we were using the precursors to what you have available now, which weren’t as good. 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, everything, is in that cloud server in a secure environment. Our staff go into that secure server to do their work no matter where they’re located in the world, and then that’s how we share information with clients in a secure manner. They log in with a username and password to certain parts of that server in order to upload documents, so we keep that information secure. One of the most important parts of this business is data security. 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, and we have clients all over the globe. My staff and I are also all over the globe. People are in a different time zones, so email makes it very efficient. It also creates a great written record, so everybody knows everything that was communicated. And then we use WhatsApp quite a bit, actually, for calls and so forth. I like WhatsApp because it has secure end-to-end encryption. We don’t text anything that is secure. But when we have calls, I like to do calls through WhatsApp. So those are the main tools that we use.
Q: Okay, so you’re definitely embedded in the 21st century, and things get developed as you go along. So, what are the challenges of having a career while moving around from post to post, including Washington, DC? And how did you cope with these issues?
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. So even though all of the information stays in the U.S. in a secure environment, and we access that environment securely, because I’m physically out of the U.S. and I have staff that are physically out of the U.S., all of our clients sign that letter, so everybody knows the whole situation of the firm. There were challenges in figuring out how to structure that to make sure we were compliant while also being able to service clients remotely. But thankfully I was structuring the business from the ground up, and I was able to do that.
Q: Have you had communication with the Legal Department at State getting advice from them or asking permission to do your work?
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. In the case of Costa Rica, we applied and received it straight from DC. In Manila, when I was an employee at Arthur Andersen, the local partnership of SGV & Co. before I started the business, I had to file and pay personal local taxes and be compliant as an employee in the local economy. 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. Because I built the business with the intent to make it a flexible mobile career, I’ve not had other issues other than ensuring proper internet access, and obviously, making sure that we have a bilateral work agreement or the right to work agreement.
Q: Is there any way that the State Department has been helpful to you and your career? Or that it has been unhelpful to you with barriers or anything like that in your career?
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. Their support 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.
And I love financial planning as well. I feel like tax and financial planning are so closely related that it’s very good to have knowledge in both of those fields in order to really fully serve clients. So, I went through and completed that examination process, and I am now also a Certified Financial Planner. So yes, the Department of State was actually very supportive. They do have, obviously, very strict rules. They can’t support or advertise or show any preference to a private business. I am very aware of that, so maintaining those boundaries is critical. I don’t try to advertise my business at all at the embassies. I don’t go onto the embassy compound in any capacity and advertise what I’m doing or anything of that nature. I’ve just tried to stay within those rules and, so far, it’s been fine.
Q: It sounds like you did take advantage of the Professional Development Fellowship and the Global Employment Initiative. These are relatively new services that are provided by State specifically for spouses who want to work overseas.
MANDOJANA: Actually, the Global Employment Initiative was so new when I started that it was actually called SNAP; it wasn’t called the Global Employment Initiative. It was a pilot program, so they hadn’t even committed to it completely when I worked with them. But it was really helpful.
Q: What are some other resources that you or other EFMs [Eligible Family Members] that you know have used including Facebook groups? I know you have a website. What are the other ways that you get your services publicized and that you communicate with others in the Foreign Service or their families?
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, I had a three-year-old daughter and a newborn son. So, I grew the business as my children grew. I didn’t want it to be really huge at the beginning; I wanted to grow it slowly, so 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. I’ve been fortunate to hire and work with both EFM and non-EFM professionals these past sixteen years, and I can’t say enough about how we as a team built the firm that we have now and kept it going through all the moves. I think having that team and a supportive environment is just so important.
Q: So, it sounds like you have a wealth of experience. Do you have any advice for EFMs regarding having a successful career as an Accompanying Partner?
MANDOJANA: I’ve thought a lot about this question over the years because I get asked that frequently. And I think the key, at least in my case, 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. Because we work together as a team, I’ve been able to keep it going for the past sixteen years. In addition to having a supportive spouse, I think embracing flexibility is also key to having a successful career as an Accompanying Partner. When my career dissolved after Arthur Andersen went under, I had no idea what I was going to do professionally. All the careful planning and relationship building I had done was for naught. I had to start over. I took some time to reflect on my passions, and I was lucky that my career passions focused on managing money, spreadsheets, and taxes – skills that I could translate into a portable career. As I mentioned earlier, being able to telework was a huge help. It seems a bit overused to say that EFMs should be flexible, but I do think flexibility is probably the most important attribute to happiness in the Foreign Service life. 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, whether you’re a tandem couple or a non-tandem couple. 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.
Q: Great advice, Christine. Thank you so much for describing what it’s like to have a career in the Foreign Service, and how you can successfully expand or contract your business, depending on the circumstances and your family. So, thank you so much for this interview.
End of interview
Download a copy of Christine Mandojana’s interview transcript below.