Carole Hyatt had assembled a collection of leaders in her dining room on a Saturday this past spring. There was an Air Force captain and a lieutenant colonel, an Army colonel and a major general, a commander of the Coast Guard, and a West Point department head, to name a few.
Those around the room had served decades: They had spent years on operational assignments at sea; handled Army logistics from Seoul, South Korea; overseen budgets in the multibillions; deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq; and commanded hundreds. As they scaled military ranks, they accumulated advanced degrees and valuable skills.
But now they were at a turning point. These officers – all women, most in their 40s and 50s – had reached the end of their time in the military, or were about to. And for them, like the majority of veteran officers, leaving uniformed service did not mean retiring altogether. These women were attending a workshop at Ms. Hyatt’s home in New York because they were transitioning to their next chapter.
“It was both liberating and scary at the same time,” says Eden Murrie, a retired brigadier general, of deciding to pursue a career in a new field after 29 years of military service.
A transition out of the military means entering a professional landscape with far less structure and many more options. It requires learning the language of networking, résumés, interviews, and business attire – conventions that military personnel haven’t had to use. But it is also a transition of identity. In switching gears, retiring officers shed a revered title such as captain or colonel.
Hyatt is helping highly ranked military women make these transitions. Two years ago, she founded Mission: Getting to Next, a nonprofit whose workshops aim to address the issues and challenges specific to these women.
“So that’s the big question: Who do you want to be?” says Hyatt, a career coach and author of six books.
More and more women are finding themselves at the point that Mission: Getting to Next is designed for. About 17 percent of military officers are women – nearly 40,000. That percentage has quadrupled since the 1970s, according to Defense Department data, and the proportion is expected to continue rising.
Female veterans make up about 9 percent of all living vets – a figure that is projected to increase to 15 percent by 2035, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. At the end of last year, the Pentagon lifted the ban on women in combat, opening all military positions to servicewomen.
A chance meeting
Hyatt has worked with an array of women throughout her life, but she had little experience with military women before a chance meeting three years ago with a retired female general. The veteran was struggling to find employment.
“These women are phenomenally educated, and to not allow them to use that afterwards is a crime,” Hyatt says.
To find out more, she began calling bases and attending military conferences, seeking out the highest-ranking female officers. They weren’t easy to find: Less than 7 percent of all generals are women, according to the Defense Department.
But that minority status made these women all the more interesting to Hyatt, who herself had risen as an entrepreneur during a time when women were just beginning to break into male-dominated professions. Having seen her own mother limited in a homemaker role, she had vowed as a teenager to make her own money. From age 22, she started and ran several businesses. On the side, she taught other women what she’d learned, such as how to gain economic viability or sell what you do. They needed support, Hyatt says, because “they were the ones who didn’t have the network.”
Hyatt gained acclaim writing books on these subjects, and in the early 1980s she decided to concentrate her energies on helping other women build networks and find meaningful, financially sustainable careers. She had been on this path for several decades when she met the retired general and saw an opportunity to extend her work.
Once she had amassed enough information and interest, in 2014 she created Mission: Getting to Next – a spinoff of workshops that she already ran for professional women.
With her new nonprofit, Hyatt joined others offering career transition support for service members. The Defense and Labor Departments hold multiday transition assistance workshops for both officers and the rank and file before they leave the military. Other groups such as the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) provide more customized support in the form of one-on-one counseling, workshops, and career fairs for veterans.
Both military and civilian women
Hyatt took an unusual approach with her workshops: They include both military and civilian women. That’s because she saw inherent similarities between the two cohorts, as well as opportunities to build bridges – and networks.
Each of Hyatt’s weekend-long workshops brings together 12 civilian and 12 military women, along with eight speakers from various industries. Participants work on exercises in small groups, and in the months afterward, they connect with group mentors – all with the aim of women helping each other figure out their next steps.
“I spent 32 years surrounded by people who had the same vocabulary, the same acronyms, the same progress through their career,” says Jan Edmunds, a retired major general. “Having the perspective of people who haven’t had the same architecture is pretty interesting.... If it had only been military people, we would have been very limited by our level of understanding.”
Ms. Edmunds attended the workshop a decade after her retirement, having heard about the nonprofit through word of mouth. “The thing that impressed me most about the whole thing is that somebody like Carole cared enough to say, ‘Hey, I have a talent that can solve a problem for these folks who are transitioning out, and I can do it in a way that is unique and special and very dedicated to a particular population,’ ” she says.
The pairing of civilian and military women is just part of what makes the workshops unusual, says Pat Cole, a retired Naval captain who is deputy director of MOAA’s career transition center.
“It was really a different approach than what the military and even our program takes,” says Ms. Cole, who describes the MOAA program as more “tactical” – revolving around résumé-building and interview prep. Mission: Getting to Next “was much more inwardly focused. It helped you learn about yourself as an individual: who you were, what kinds of things you want to do, what were your strengths.”
Hyatt sees these pieces of self-knowledge as prerequisites for the job hunt: “We do Step 1, and Step 1 is always about who are you and who do you want to be next.”
Now a boutique owner
That objective rang true for Jacquelyn Gemar, who attended Mission: Getting to Next while in her final months as a master chief petty officer in the Coast Guard.
“What Mission: Getting to Next made me realize is that I am more than what the military has taught me,” she says. “I would have just gone out and gotten a job in the oil fields or regulating the oil fields ... because that’s what I have training in already.” Instead, Ms. Gemar owns a boutique as a consultant with the clothing company LuLaRoe.
Finding something completely new was also attractive to Ms. Murrie, who was among Hyatt’s first military participants. Insights from women she met at the workshop encouraged her to pursue an executive MBA, which helped her become a director at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. And she believed in Mission: Getting to Next so strongly that she joined its board.
Hyatt notes that building up her first nonprofit has not been easy. In particular, getting sponsors has been a challenge.
Nonetheless, Hyatt and her team have garnered sponsorships from corporations including Amazon Web Services and the power company Dominion, as well as support from military groups and government officials. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York has endorsed the program, writing in a statement: “It is important that the leadership skills honed in military service do not go to waste, but that they redound to the nation’s benefit as these high-achieving women find success in their new roles.”
And as she trains others to continue and spread her work, Hyatt is optimistic about her organization’s future. Perhaps picking up some terminology from her military peers, she says, “We already have the womanpower to do it.”
How to take action
UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to groups providing opportunities to women and girls:
One Mobile Projector per Trainer uses low-cost technology in the education of the world’s poorest people. Take action: Help women farmers in India attain a sustainable livelihood.
Asia America Initiative, which was founded by a disabled US military veteran, builds peace, social justice, and economic development in impoverished communities beset by conflict. Take action: Keep 500 children away from terrorist control through education and the arts.