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Episode 164: A Relaunching Veteran’s Perspective on Starting a Return to Work Program, with Ashley-Bria Leo

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Episode Description

Ashley-Bria Leo is a relauncher who spent four years in military intelligence for the US Air Force followed by an entrepreneurial venture. While on career break, she moved to a new city, completed an accelerated, executive MBA program, and discovered the brand new Wells Fargo Glide-Relaunch program. She applied and was one of the few accepted to this competitive return to work internship program. We speak with Ashley-Bria at a milestone moment: a week before she starts the Glide-Relaunch program. Ashley-Bria also attended our virtual iRelaunch Return to Work Conference and reported on LinkedIn how valuable she found it. We talk to Ashley-Bria about her career path, her relaunch and what she is thinking at this moment before she starts her return to work program.

Read Transcript

Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice, and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chair and co-founder of iRelaunch and your host for today. Today, we welcome Ashley-Bria Leo. Ashley-Bria is a relauncher who spent four years in military intelligence for the US Air Force followed by an entrepreneurial venture.

While on career break, she pursued her MBA and discovered the brand new Wells Fargo Glide Relaunch program. She applied and was one of the few accepted to this competitive return to work internship program. We are having today's conversation with Ashley-Bria at a milestone moment. She is starting Glide Relaunch next week.

Ashley-Bria also attended our recent virtual iRelaunch Return to Work Conference, and reported on LinkedIn how valuable she found it. We will talk to Ashley-Bria about her career path, her relaunch, and what she is thinking at this moment before she starts her return to work program. Ashley-Bria, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.

Ashley-Bria Leo: Thank you so much, Carol. I'm super excited to be here.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm so excited to be speaking with you and I want to start by talking about your military experience. You are a veteran of the US Air Force. I want to know if you can tell us a little bit about your military experience that was in the first part of your career.

Ashley-Bria Leo: Absolutely. So I joined the military when I was an undergrad. I was actually studying at Penn State. And during my time there, I really discovered that I loved volunteering and I spent a lot of time doing that. So when a recruiter ended up coming to my campus and telling me a little bit more about the Air Force, it was really a very natural decision for me to go ahead and pursue that route. I decided to test for a military intelligence position. I ended up testing to be able to become a cryptologic language analyst, which was super exciting. I got to study at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California for a few years. After that I went ahead and learned the intelligence component of my position, and I got to spend a lot of time really developing a lot of great leadership skills, skills with working as a team. I ended up working at the NSA for a few years and I got the opportunity to manage international teams. It was a really amazing experience overall, and I felt like it really gave me a very well-rounded skill set to go ahead and go back into the workforce.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Your military experience sounds like it was incredible. And I know that the next step you took is that you engaged in an entrepreneurial venture. And I want to know if you can tell our audience about that decision and how you went from the military into this next phase of your career.

Ashley-Bria Leo: Absolutely. So I had known for a long time that I wanted to pursue entrepreneurship. It was just always something that I was interested in. I decided that as I was transitioning out of the military, that would be a great time to make that move because when you're researching opening a business, you read a lot of statistics that say that so many businesses fail within their first X amount of years.

And I knew that if I was going to take that risk, I wanted to fail fast. I wanted to do it when I was in my twenties, so that if I wanted to transition into something else or pursue something else that I would still have a lot of time to be able to do so. I ended up taking all of the savings that I accrued when I was in the military and throughout my life, and I opened this business in cash completely, no investors. And I got a lot of really different experiences from the experience I had when I was in the military. So this time it was a lot more management, a lot more onboarding and recruiting and HR functions, as well as training and development developing a team, leading a team in all of their endeavors.

So it was a really unique experience. I actually ended up opening a retail bakery. During that time, I got to learn a few unique skills that I didn't anticipate, including cake decorating and cake design. Because when you're a business owner, you wear all of the hats. But primarily, I would say my greatest takeaway from that experience was it really showed me that it's great to have hands-on experience, real time experience and operational experience. But there's also an incredible importance when it comes to education and training.

So during that time, I decided that I wanted to pursue an MBA and really allow myself the opportunity to get that educational background to combine with my operational experience. I ended up closing the bakery and moving to LA to pursue an MBA. And that was actually me stepping into my career break.

I didn't know it at the time and it wasn't intentional, but that was the beginning of the career break for me.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So Ashley Bria, you're bringing up a number of really important points here. First to jump back to the entrepreneurial venture, I just want to underscore for relaunchers who are listening who might have pursued an entrepreneurial venture in the middle or part of their career break, or else are considering doing that, that first of all, if you have an entrepreneurial venture that you end up closing or leaving, or if it fails, don't assume that is a negative experience on your resume when the companies are looking at it for a return to work program or for your next return to work opportunity, even if it's not with a formal program.

Companies view these experiences as incredibly valuable. And a lot of it has to do with how you talk about what you learned when you were in the middle of that experience. So I just wanted to flag that for our relaunchers who have either had an entrepreneurial venture or are thinking about one. And the other thing to think about entrepreneurship as a relaunch opportunity is to just make sure you're going in eyes wide open. And Ashley-Bria is talking about how part of her plan was to use her savings. I also want to underscore for an entrepreneurial venture that one of the issues you have to consider is that you may go for an extended period of time without income or with a very lumpy, unpredictable income. And that should be part of your thinking when you're making a decision about whether entrepreneurship is part of your relaunch or not. So now Ashley-Bria, I want to get back into a discussion about the MBA program. Where were you located before when you were running your business?

Ashley-Bria Leo: I was running my business in Savannah, Georgia, and then I relocated to Los Angeles for the MBA program.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And was it an accelerated MBA program and what were some of the things that were involved in being in the program?

Ashley-Bria Leo: It was an accelerated program and the fact that it was an accelerated program was really what led to my career break. There were definitely times at which I pursued opportunities of work while I was in the program. But I recognized pretty early on that if I wanted to perform at my highest ability in the program, that I would just need to give it my entire focus. And that's what I ended up deciding to do. But the great thing about the program was, during my time in it, I was still able to take on some opportunities to gain work experience.

So they would give us the opportunity to consult for different companies. I got to work for the California Council on Economic Education and help them with virtual fundraising events and things like that. So it was a really unique experience, and it ended up really giving me that educational background that I was looking for to match my operational skill set.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And then how did you hear about the Wells Fargo Glide Relaunch event?

Ashley-Bria Leo: I ended up hearing about it on LinkedIn after my MBA program. I was in my final semester and I decided to relocate to Charlotte, and I started looking for employment in the area. I discovered the iRelaunch program on LinkedIn through the Glide Program with Wells Fargo.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So let me just mention for our listeners that iRelaunch partnered with Wells Fargo on an event to announce Glide Relaunch, their return to work program, which was being launched in the middle of a pandemic. And this was an evening, two hour program, to introduce people to it and to Wells Fargo.

Ashley-Bria found out about it and was one of about 300 people that were at the virtual event that evening. You mentioned Ashley-Bria that you found out about this event through LinkedIn. And I want to know if you can talk to us a little bit about the role of LinkedIn and how you used it at this stage in your job search.

Ashley-Bria Leo: Absolutely. So I used LinkedIn to do a ton of research. The first thing I did when I discovered the Glide Relaunch program, was I looked for the types of roles that I would be working in if I were selected for the program. And that led me to start reaching out to Wells Fargo employees on LinkedIn. So I did a lot of cold outreach here, which is not something that's very typical for me.

I will say that I'm outgoing. It takes me out of my comfort zone to reach out to people that I don't know at all, no mutual connections, but I really wanted to learn more about the program. I really wanted to learn more about Wells Fargo. So I definitely used LinkedIn as an opportunity to do a lot of investigative research.

And I was able to set up a few calls with different Wells Fargo leaders, team members, where I could really get the answers to the questions I had about the Wells Fargo culture and what it's like to work there, and more information about the role. So LinkedIn was an essential tool during my research process when I was in the application.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And let me just get a little bit more into detail with you about that. So you did cold outreach to people who worked at Wells Fargo. And I just want to know, what did you say? Did you send them a LinkedIn invitation, and what was the wording that you used when you connected with them?

Ashley-Bria Leo: Absolutely. So I would basically say something along the lines, I would just connect with them and I would add a little note or I would send a message shortly thereafter, "Hi, my name is Ashley Leo. I am currently applying to this position with Wells Fargo and I was just wondering if I could set up a fifteen minute call to gain a little bit of insight on your experience at Wells Fargo." And people were very receptive. I was able to have calls with some people, I've gone out to dinner with some others, to really just get that background information. And it was so helpful to me when it came to being informed during my interviewing process.

So it's something that I would definitely recommend to people. And to be honest, I would always recommend connecting with people who you have things in common with. So for instance, I'm an Air Force veteran. I found that there were a few Air Force veterans who worked in roles that were similar to the lines of businesses that I was interested in.

They were super receptive about talking and just telling me about how they've transitioned from being in the military, back into the private sector, and what it's been like at Wells Fargo, and how the company is super receptive to the military community, and veterans. So it was really important for me to do that during my process.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I hope our audience is listening carefully to everything that Ashley- Bria is saying here, because this is such excellent advice. Tell us a little bit more, beyond the cold calling that you did, which is really exceptional, how did you go about researching companies?

Ashley-Bria Leo: For sure. So I did a lot of Google searching. I would definitely pull up the website and just go through all of the pages, familiarizing myself with the lines of business. And of course you're going to do whatever research is relevant to the particular company that you're applying to. But I would definitely say to start with the website and really familiarize yourself with it.

And the second thing I would say is start connecting with people who are already working there, possibly people who are in departments that you're interested in being in, or who are working in a role that you're interested in taking on, to get that background knowledge. And I also looked up a ton of news articles. So I basically just put Wells Fargo into a Google search and I would look at what Wells Fargo was doing in the news.

I was looking at any recent and relevant articles that could just tell me about what's happening in the company currently, that I can really pull from when I'm trying to really gain an understanding about the organization.

Carol Fishman Cohen: Excellent advice as well. And I want to direct our listeners to a podcast that we did with Jennifer Bewley, it's Episode 81 on the 3,2,1 iRelaunch podcast page, and it's all about researching companies, which has additional ideas about what to do to get a deeper understanding of the companies that you're targeting. So Ashley-Bria, you also found out about the iRelaunch Return to Work Conference and you ended up registering for it and attended. And I want to know what made you sign up and if you can tell our listeners what was valuable to you about it.

Ashley-Bria Leo: Sure. So when I was in the application process, I did something that I always do, which is run the numbers. And I realized pretty early on that about four to five percent of the applicants for the Glide Relaunch program would be selected. It's very competitive. As a realist, I wanted to keep my options open.

I was really optimistic and hopeful that I would get accepted as an applicant and candidate for this program. But I wanted to make sure that I continued researching other opportunities and putting myself out there. So I decided to purchase tickets for the iRelaunch conference, and I participated in the first event, I believe it was in early October. And, I found that the value that I received from it was astounding. It was an amazing experience just from how seamless it was communicating and networking on the platform, and just the way that the recruiters were so engaged. I had recruiters who connected with me on LinkedIn, asked me personally to send them my resume, to set up a profile on their hiring portal. And, it just made me feel very confident when it came to going back into the workforce, as someone who's taken a career break. There were so many gems and advice that was given that was tailored in particular for people who have been out of work for a while.

So I definitely think that was a huge part of what contributed to me being prepared to interview for Glide.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm so thrilled that you had such a valuable experience at the conference. And I want to highlight for listeners that one of the best things about the iRelaunch conference is that all the companies that are there know that people are there because they had a career break. And in some cases, in most cases actually, the companies have programs where your career break is what makes you eligible to apply and participate in their program.

So we say it's a no judgment zone as far as career breaks are concerned. And it's a much different environment to not have to explain your career break, but have it be a given when you're entering these conversations with recruiters. So Ashley- Bria, thank you for giving us that additional background about your experience.

Now I want to switch gears for a minute and just talk about what a moment we're in right now for you. You were selected for the Glide Relaunch program, which was a competitive process, and you're going to be starting next week. It's like a snapshot of time, right before you enter this program. And I wanted to know if you could share with us, how are you feeling? Are you nervous? Are you excited? Do you feel like you need to review anything? What are you thinking?

Ashley-Bria Leo: I think that it's a combination of the three. It's a completely surreal experience. Of course we know how competitive the program is. I'm super thrilled that I was selected for it. I'm going to be starting in the consumer and small business banking operations line of business.

So I am super excited that I was chosen because it's always really nerve wracking when you have your interview and you think that you've made a connection and you really are interested in a role. And just knowing that, my new manager felt the same way is super exciting. I know that I'm going to have to brush up on some technical skills. And I'm definitely nervous about this new experience as a whole, but overall it's completely surreal and I am thrilled to be taking part.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm so excited for you and I know it's going to be a great experience I can tell already. And I can't wait to hear about it after you've completed the program. But right now I want to come back to the present moment, and actually we're winding up our conversation time together.

And I want to know if we could end by talking about the question we ask all of our podcast guests, which is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something that we've already talked about today?

Ashley-Bria Leo: I would say that my best piece of advice is it's really just the recipe that I used during this process, which is practice and research leads to confidence.

We hear a lot as relaunchers and just as regular interviewers, "Hey, you need to be really confident. Confidence is key to acing an interview." That's really easy to say when you haven't been out of work for X amount of time. So I find that what leads me to feel my most confident is getting in a ton of practice and doing a lot of research.

So I've already shared what plays into my research before interviewing for any role, but also a lot of my time prior to interviewing was spent practicing. What people don't know is that morning, I woke up at 4:00 AM and by 5:00 AM, I was in my office and I had a whiteboard up with all of my stories from my past work experiences that I wanted to share, about times that I led teams and times that I overcame challenges. Not paragraphs, but little sentences to give me a little reminder. That's the benefit of being able to interview over the phone during COVID, but I spent a lot of time practicing those stories out loud. And knowing my story inside and out so that when I conveyed it to someone else, they would have a clear understanding of why I took my career break, what I'm looking for, where I'm going, what I'm capable of.

Having that practice and doing that research made me feel very confident by the time I was at my interview to know that I was able to represent myself in a strong way.

Carol Fishman Cohen: So this is such excellent advice. And I want to take a moment to reiterate and highlight some of the pieces of it that Ashley- Bria is talking about right now.

First of all, practicing over and over out loud how you tell your story and how you talk about yourself is one of the keys to building confidence as Ashley-Bria has already connected the two. So you hear what she's saying? She practiced her story, she wrote out scripts of anecdotes for different situations. That whiteboard, Ashley-Bria, I'm telling you, that's a new one for me. Having the whiteboard up with certain cues reminders of the beginnings of sentences to remind herself to talk about a particular situation. But this idea that this was scripted out ahead of time, these anecdotes were prepared, Ashley- Bria practiced them over and over again out loud, not just thinking in her head about it, but talking to a wall or talking to a mirror, recording on your phone or however you do it, it makes you feel a lot more confident for sure. So I'm thrilled that we're with that piece of excellent advice.

Ashley-Bria, thank you so much for joining us today.

Ashley-Bria Leo: Thank you so much for having me.

Carol Fishman Cohen: And best of luck next week, and to have an amazing experience at the Wells Fargo Glide Relaunch program.

Ashley-Bria Leo: Thank you. I'm super excited. I can't wait to tell you how it goes.

Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm looking forward to hearing about it.

And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss strategies, advice and success stories about returning to work after a career break. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the chairman co-founder of iRelaunch, and your host. For more information on iRelaunch conferences and events, to sign up for our job board, and access our return to work tools and resources, go to

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