EP 242: The Career Journey from Military Spouse to Strategy Consultant, with Monique Garcia Rizer
Monique Garcia Rizer was a military spouse for 13 years to a reserve service member. She relaunched twice, first after her partner's deployment, and second, after a major life transition. Monique currently serves as Vice President of Freedman Consulting, a consulting firm focused on strategic planning and policy development for non-profits, foundations and advocacy organizations. She has served in leadership and executive roles for direct service nonprofits, coalitions, and policy advocacy organizations, and previously created and scaled an award-winning career program for military spouses. Monique shares the details of how she built her professional career, including following her two career breaks, and provides recommendations for military spouses and other relaunchers who are looking to relaunch in public interest leadership roles.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, CEO and Co-founder of iRelaunch, and your host. Today, we welcome Monique Garcia Rizer. Monique has more than a decade of experience in the nonprofit sector, leading teams, operationalizing big ideas and advocating for policy change in the media and on Capital Hill. She has served in leadership and executive roles for direct service, nonprofits, coalitions, and policy advocacy organizations.
Monique was a military spouse for 13 years to a reserve service member. She describes herself as relaunching twice, first after her partner's deployment, and second, after a major life transition. Her professional experience includes serving as a nonprofit executive director of Urban Alliances, greater DC region, which provides workforce readiness, skill development, evidence-based programming, and rigorous work-based learning experiences to nearly 800 youth and young adults in six school districts. She also previously served as executive director of the national coalition Opportunity Nation, where the team developed and relaunched the opportunity index, secured partnerships with a leading consulting firm, social science researchers, and the media to tell the story of opportunity in America.
She also previously created and scaled an award-winning career program for military spouses. As one of the first class of Gates Millennium Scholars, she completed a BA from Gonzaga University and an MS from Syracuse University. Monique's most important role is as a mom of three, the eldest who serves as a military officer in the National Guard.
Monique, welcome to 3,2,1 iRelaunch.
Monique Rizer: Thank you so much, Carol. It's a real pleasure to be here with you today.
Carol Fishman Cohen: I'm so happy that we have this chance to talk. You have an amazing background and I think so much for our audience to learn from. So I wanna know if you can tell us in more detail about the early part of your career and your time as a military spouse and how it impacted your career path.
Monique Rizer: Sure. So, thank you so much for inviting me to tell this story. I feel like my career journey is a little unusual, but the more I talk, the more I find, maybe it's not so much. And hopefully your listeners will connect with my, what I feel is a nontraditional journey. So my military connection came through at first, my now former husband, we were married for 13 years, and during that time in 2005, he was deployed to Iraq. Like many families during that time, both in the active duty and reserve components, we knew that was a possibility. It happened, I think rather as a surprise to me. Still, we had only actually been out of graduate school, both of us, for about two years, we already had two children, two young sons. so we moved to Virginia for his civilian job as an attorney. Our boys were one and six years old and about three months later, he was gone for a 15 month deployment to Iraq, and I was on the other side of the country from my family.
I was looking for a new opportunity for myself, having just a couple years out of graduate school, having worked with a company remotely back in the day, which is very normal today, but back then...
Carol Fishman Cohen: Not so common.
Monique Rizer: Exactly, not then. And then it wasn't feasible for me to continue remotely in this new space in Virginia. So I was looking for a new job.
I had some great opportunities and interviews, and then this deployment came up, and I just decided that it was really important for me to focus on my young children at the time, being alone and as a reserve family member, not being connected to an installation. We're spread out all over the place.
So instead I threw myself into volunteering, like a lot of military spouses do. I became a family readiness group leader for the unit that my then husband was a part of. And I spent the next two years supporting our families through, like many, a very difficult deployment. My partner at the time actually was injured, injuries he still deals with to this day. We had casualties and I was a part of all of that, and it just really changed everything for me. I was early in my career, as I said anyway, but it just felt like nothing really mattered more than this military community that I was in. And it felt like a bubble back in 2005, 2006. It just felt like those were the only people who understood our life. And so I did spend a lot of time on the local installation. And when he came back, I was definitely ready to go back to work after being home with my children for so long, and I found it really difficult to get back into the workforce.
When we had moved, and before he had prepared to deploy, I was getting interviews. When he came back in 2006 and I took some time with our family for him to come home and get adapted, which was a whole other conversation, but I was ready to go back and I just had a really hard time getting all the interviews.
I can't be sure why, I'm sure it has something to do with, kind of people head scratching, what is this two year gap? What were you doing? Were you in the military? That was very confusing for people. So, I decided the thing that I love to do right now is to support military families, and specifically, which comes later in my career, I was really struck by how many, in particular women, because so many spouses are women, were doing what I did pausing their careers or working less, fewer hours and then having a hard time getting back into the workforce. Forget about if you're an active duty service member, spouse, and you're moving all the time. The reserve spouses, I felt like our experience was more this deployment cycle that was really disruptive. So it just really stuck with me that it became like a women's issue for me.
And I totally know that there are many military spouses who are men, but at the time it was like 90 something percent of spouses were women. I thought, wow, how are this, how is this group of women creating their own economic security, while they're supporting their family and frankly, the country? It's hard.
It just kind of stuck with me. I ended up getting a job at the National Military Family Association, which is an organization that's still around and thriving today, working as a development associate. And I was still really early in my career, my degrees had nothing to do with that, but I found an opportunity through networking and something that felt really fulfilling and worked with my lifestyle at the time.
So that was my first relaunch experience getting back into the workforce for experience.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Thank you so much. There's so much packed in there.
Monique Rizer: Yes.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And I'm sure the military spouses who are in our audience can directly relate to what you're talking about. And those of us who are not part of the military community, probably cannot directly relate because we haven't had that kind of experience that you've had, and it the whole, when we think about the whole military community and people thanking the active duty members for their service, it's also thank you to the military spouse community for supporting the families while the active duty members are deployed.
Monique Rizer: Absolutely. I was very humbled by the spouses I met through this experience and beyond. I stayed very involved with the military community for several years after that, after getting back into the workforce, because it was what I knew, I felt really passionate about it, and I didn't really have a career plan at that point.
I just followed my heart in many ways. But the military spouses I have met over the years, you know, that deployment experience was done for us. We did not go through another one, he was injured and really couldn't deploy again. And he actually was quite far into his military career. When he deployed, he had already served for 12 years. He started as an enlisted and became an officer. So he was getting closer to retirement by the time he deployed anyway. But the spouses I met through, to this day, they are, we have this kinship and I admire so much the men and women who have been so adaptable, and frankly, I think really set aside their kind of own economic journey, which is no small thing.
The reality is today, death and divorce are part of life and death for certainly or injury. There's a lot of things that can happen as a woman and as I became a single parent, it's so important that you have your own career or passions or just economic income stream. And I do think that's just a reality that many military spouses contend with that they may not be able to pursue something as rigorously as if they weren't partnered with someone in the service. And that's complicated, but I think generally, yeah, we owe those spouses some appreciation for the degree of sacrifice they're making for their family and for their country.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Absolutely. And Monique, I want to get into a little bit more detail about how you got that first role. You said it was through networking. We like to get really tactical and really detailed on 3,2,1 iRelaunch and at iRelaunch generally. So I'm so curious, what was the chain of events? What did you actually say to the people who you met when you were networking? And was there some special conversation that ultimately led to that job opportunity?
Did you have to talk to hundreds of people to yield that conversation? Can you give us, bring us into the moment?
Monique Rizer: Sure. It was a long time ago, so
Carol Fishman Cohen: The best you can remember.
Monique Rizer: In the recesses of my mind, but there was one person who was pretty pivotal for me actually, and she's actually now running all of military community and family policy for the Biden administration.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow!
Monique Rizer: Patty Barron, she's been a wonderful friend and mentor to me. And back and day before she had this incredible role, she ran a support group on Fort Belfor called Hearts Apart for families of deployed service members. And, my former partner's tour was about 15 months, I think. And for the first six months, I was like, I don't need support, I'm not gonna go to some like crying spouse club, which is, this is my idea in my mind. And then I just hit a wall. It was just so hard. I was watching the news every day and there were IEDs going off. I felt every day on the news and my partner was in one of those explosions. And it just became so stressful.
And I was a single parent to two little boys. I just was like, I need to talk to somebody. So I caved and went to this group that I'd heard about, and I met Patty. And we stayed in touch through the experience. And when I was looking for something, I told her, I wanna get back to work. I really need to get away from my children. I love them, but it's been a long, 15 months of just being with these two wonderful little boys. And I wanna contribute again. And I think she introduced me to the National Military Family Association because I think she was working there full time. And the Hearts Apart group that she was leading was volunteering.
So I'm fairly confident she's the one who connected me. And what's great, I think also about military organizations or organizations like yours or others that I've run across, who understand the military lifestyle, they're ready and willing to like, say yes, let's hear what you'd like to do and what we have and see if we can employ you here.
And it really, I think it really was through Patty that I got the connection and obviously she recommended me, that I got the job. And I honestly, I don't, I think she was the lynchpin for me. I also had, she had nominated, I think, or someone nominated our family for an award through NMFA. So they'd also heard about us as like a military family.
So I'd gotten in their orbit. Another thing I did actually was I started writing. I have a degree in journalism, and I started writing for Military Spouse Magazine, freelance, while I was, and I can't remember the sequence exactly. Forgive me. It was a long time ago, but while I was at NMFA, I was also writing.
And that work grew. I ended up writing for other magazines within that publisher's portfolio. So like GI Jobs and VenturePreneur. And as that grew, I actually ended up transitioning out of NMFA and becoming a freelance writer. But still, it was like connecting to people in the military community and pursuing opportunities.
I was able to craft a new start for myself, and that was never something I had in mind when I was a graduate student setting like information systems. But I think it just speaks to how, one, when you find something that you really care about and you would do it for free as cliche as it comes, can be a really powerful driver.
And when I'm, when I was talking to people in that space about working in the military community, you can feel it, that you really care and you're hardworking and smart, and you're early in your career and you're ready for an opportunity. So that the passion piece was a big part of my journey.
And then it also helped me refine, I was really early in my career and I was a first generation college student. I didn't really have anybody in my family who had like a post-college journey. So I was already kind of flying blind before the military thing came in and became my world for a little while.
The military community and the work I did there also heavily influenced how I thought about what I was gonna do for a career beyond this very niche sort of work. And that comes up later in my career journey.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. And, you were, so you were working in a development role remotely, and you were also freelance writing. So you had some flexibility in terms of your schedule or not really?
Monique Rizer: No, I wasn't working remotely for the development job back then. I went into the office for the development role. I think it was about 30 hours a week. It wasn't quite full time. And then yes, I was freelancing on the side, so I was pretty busy still.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Got it. Yeah. And then tell us more because later on you ended up working at the Military Officers Association of America, developing a special program for military spouses. So can you tell us a little bit, a little bit how that happened and was that after another career break or was there the other career break later on?
Monique Rizer: Yes. Great question. One of my favorite jobs actually was working at MOA. No, so that was, I took a break, I left NMFA to focus on freelancing, and my son was in preschool. I wanted him to go to a particular school, life was still shaping my work decisions. So I freelanced for several years, actually. I wrote for a group of military magazines. I found some other clients that I wrote for, and I did that and it was great. It was sufficient income. It was my thing. It allowed me to have the flexibility to pick up my two, two or three year old after preschool. But then I was ready to go back to full, well, to full-time, really starting my career journey from a full-time perspective, 'cause the kids were in school full-time. And I feel like it's worth saying too, for me, my, my personal life had, I think, an outweigh impact on my education and career decisions because I had my first son when I was in college. So by the time we got out of college, I already had a five year old and then a one year old. And then my, my, my marriage was a little bit of trouble. And so it was time for me to really develop my own career in a much more serious way.
And I applied for this opportunity at the Military Office Association, they were looking for somebody to succeed their first person who had dedicated policy and programmatic work at this long time military officer association, just for spouses. So I succeeded her, that was Sue Hoppin. And I got that job.
I applied 'cause I saw it. It sounded really cool. I think someone sent it to me. But I was thinking, gosh, I'm not an active duty spouse. I don't know a lot of the active duty life. And it did feel like my time with my partner's deployment felt less relevant by then, 'cause this was four or five years later.
But, Patty Barron, again, recommended me for this job. I had a champion.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Amazing mentoring person.
Monique Rizer: She's amazing. She's been like a second mom/sister to me. I know I had other recommendations and I had established some, a track record. I had written for folks. I worked on a key program at the National Military Family Association. And I got the job. I was really surprised. I did not feel like I was the typical candidate. I wasn't the typical, I'm using air quotes, military spouse, but I'm, so I love that job. It was, the second I was the second person to have this job for military spouses in this older VSO.
And the opportunity was to really form more clearly what this institution would offer to military spouses, from spouses, who were we called, currently serving in the thick of two wars and in Iraq and Afghanistan. We've got much more momentum around how we're serving those who come home injured, many policy issues on how we care for returning veterans from employment to injury, to health, to mental health, et cetera.
So there were just so many really important issues to work on. And my sense was military spouses were gaining a much more powerful voice in what happens to that service member's career. That's always been the case, I think, from in the military community. But it felt different from what I learned and what I knew, which was, we were like, I'm saying we, as spouses were like, we are one supporting two war efforts, the largest we've seen since really World War II. And my ex-husband's unit, when it deployed, it was their first sort of mass deployment since World War II, I think. Like this was new for people.
Anyway, my sense was military's spouses were playing a larger role, and in talking about the things they wanted to do. It's a new generation. We are lawyers and doctors and teachers and entrepreneurs, and they wanna keep their lives going while they support. So, they were like, Monique, what, how do we be of value as an organization to military spouses. And I was like, help them find jobs and build careers. That is a gap right now.
Carol Fishman Cohen: That's exactly right. And just for our audience, so MOAA is Military Officers Association of America, just so people know the acronym. And I also wanna give a shout out to Sue Hoppin, who has been a guest on this podcast before and went on to be the founder of the National Military Spouse Network. Hi, Sue, giving her a shout out.
Monique Rizer: She laid the groundwork for sure.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yes. So Monique, then you ended up moving into nonprofit work, I'm guessing away from the military spouse as a theme. And I wanted to know, how did that happen and how did you figure out that that would be the next step in your career?
Monique Rizer: Yes. So I had three amazing years at MOAA, we created a branded career program that continues to this day, it's become like a marque part of their spouse outreach. I had an amazing partner on the policy side, Karen Golden, who worked in government relations and pushed all the spouse policies.
We were a team and I loved it. And I felt so fulfilled by what we did there. But, my life had changed. I went through a divorce. And I really felt the need to rebrand myself as someone who was "military spouse and." You never really lose that title, I feel like after nearly 20 years of being in that space. But it was important to me to explore the other dimensions of my identity and things that I cared about.
And so I started telling folks that I knew that I was looking for something new and I was ready to branch out into other areas of work. And my, as somebody I knew, Lynette Fraga who she was at Zero to Three, and then she ended up becoming the CEO of Childcare Wear of America. She recruited me, she needed someone to run communications for this very respected childcare policy organization.
And that might sound very strange to go from military spouses to childcare policy. But to me, what I realized is I really was curious about what I said earlier, career development, workforce development. Nobody really teaches you how to do this, especially if you are for me, I am a woman of color, I was a first generation college student, I was almost a teen parent, I was only 20. For me, that was a mystery. And now I am becoming a single parent, like my mother was, and I wanna make sure my children have everything that they would've had if we'd been married. It was really important to me that I continue to grow my own economic security and that I live just as well alone.
It just became just such a part of my belief in myself and what I wanted for my family. And but I thought, I really think I'm really interested in this idea of work. And so to me, childcare was so essential for especially women to go to work. We know this, we've seen how the pandemic has just destroyed the childcare industry and what that does.
And again, for me, it was still around women, but, that, that became a transition for me too, and thinking more broadly about work. So Lynette asked me to apply to run their communications team and it was such a huge opportunity for me. I was very clear on things I needed to do that I hadn't done yet.
I hadn't directly managed staff yet. I wanted to be a manager. I had a salary goal in mind. I had a title in mind and we were able to negotiate all of that. And so that, I think of that kind of as my sort of second relaunch because it was doing something that I hadn't really done before as a professional , even though I had the educational background and in communications and marketing touch the work, I did it wasn't my role.
And so I spent about a year there. I did not expect to spend such a short amount of time, but I had another opportunity that came to me much earlier than I had ever expected. It was another mentor who just stayed in touch with me over the years, who actually worked also as a political appointee under the Obama administration who had, an African American man, who'd been a great mentor to me.
And he was just, what do you wanna do next? What are your long-term career goals? And I was much more clear at that point. Something about a life change crystallizes what you wanna do. And I knew ultimately I wanted to run a nonprofit organization. I wanted to be an executive director.
And I needed to learn how that's done. I needed to work with somebody, and I needed to learn how to raise money. So he said, you know what? We have something coming up at an organization I'm going to, why don't you come be our chief of staff? And it was just too good of an opportunity to turn down, the title, the responsibility of staffing to executives, CEO, and president.
He was the president, and helping this social enterprise grow. So it was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do was to tell my friend Lynette that I had been given another opportunity. Yeah. But I took it, it was the right thing for me at the time. And that was my launch to my relaunch was taking those.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Yeah. It's so interesting. And I have to comment on your confidence that the way you're talking about all of this, I'm wondering if inside you had the confidence that's matching what your projecting right now, or whether this is you years later talking about the past and have you always had that confidence level, or did you not and then how did you develop it?
Monique Rizer: I am smiling as you say these things because absolutely not. I was not confident. I was terrified. I was very scared. Again, I, you know what I know now, having had a couple of leadership roles and doing other work, I understand so much more how the role like your family and like the tacit knowledge plays and the decisions you make in life as you're a young adult.
And I look back now and I'm like, oh my gosh, I did not have any of that. I had some people, but not a ton, and they certainly weren't my parents, who were very disconnected from my life. And so no short answer is no, I did not feel that confident. I was pretty terrified every step of the way. And so this is definitely like hindsight being like, Hey, I did that.
Nope. I did pretty good. I learned a ton and I did good work and yeah, I think experience builds confidence. Some people are born with a lot of confidence. I also think like looking back, I had to have some confidence, right? Like I did take the jobs. I did do the work. I did do the scary things.
But no, I wasn't sure of myself. I didn't know what I was doing. I was learning. And I guess that was, that's the thing I look back on that I was always willing to do. Like I was willing to learn and I was willing to work hard and maybe, and I I had a good education. I was very fortunate.
I was a Gates scholar that allowed me to pursue a good education. So I had a good education, and then I ended up developing some really good mentors. That made a huge difference. People I could go to and be like, what do I do now, everything's happening. So, no, each step was really, nope, what I was absolutely confident in, or I should say sure about was what I wanted for my life.
I knew I wanted to have as many options as I could for myself and my kids, and that was gonna come through growing my career, making more money and doing something that wasn't gonna just burn me out. I was a single parent for six years and I was trying to be a good parent and do increasingly difficult jobs.
And that was hard. In fact, that's the thing I'm probably still not confident in. I hope I did a good job. My boys know that I love them. I worked hard for them, but I had to be away and I had to spend time providing in ways that I might not have otherwise. But it's fine. I'm so happy and feel really blessed for the opportunities I was given. And I feel good about that.
Carol Fishman Cohen: So, monique we're wrapping up right now, but before I ask you the final question that we ask all of our podcast guests, I wanted to know if you could bring us up to date and tell us what you're doing now.
Monique Rizer: Yeah, so I, like I said, I had a couple of I ended up having a couple of executive director roles, I met my goals around my career aspirations. And now I am working for a social impact firm, a small sort of boutique firm that works with philanthropies and foundations and nonprofits and some state government work on the issues that I care about. I get to primarily work on issues around economic opportunity, which has ended up being my area of expertise.
And so I run client projects around economic opportunity. I've only been there about nine months, but it is just an incredibly rewarding place to be, to draw on all the things I've done and worked with. Just incredible staff. It's a wonderful firm. I'm really loving it right now. I'm at the point where I get to now share what I've learned and inform other people who are doing good work. And this is where I hope to be for a while.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Wow. It does sound like the perfect match, hearing your career progression and what you're passionate about and all of that coming together. So that's, I'm so happy for you. That's pretty amazing. And you've, you are in a place that really takes advantage of everything you're interested in and your skillset.
And I also just wanna comment on, you're saying you're always interested in learning. So that's the growth mindset people talk about and approaching the world with curiosity. And that could be a strength for relaunchers who are listening, to use that fearless learner, lifelong learning, sense of curiosity as a way to drive yourself, even if you're not feeling a hundred percent confident. And also hearing from what Monique's saying in terms of how she developed these really important relationships with certain people who had a direct impact on her career progression. And before I ask you the last question, I also just wanna give a very quick shout out to Karen Golden, who you mentioned earlier. Hi, Karen. She's also been on our podcast before, so wanted to make sure we gave a shout out to Karen.
Okay. So Monique, our final question is the one we ask all of our podcast guests. And it is what is your best piece of advice for our relauncher audience, even if it's something we've already talked about today?
Monique Rizer: You know, right when you were talking, I thought, gosh, it sounds like it was so easy and acknowledging, like it was hard.
Like I got rejected for a lot of things, I was sharing the cliffs notes of how I went from what to what, but there were a lot of opportunities that I didn't get. And so I guess that's the only thing I would add is, rejection is part of the journey, especially if you're coming back in maybe, or you're making a transition, but keep at it. That was one thing I thought of is it was a lot harder than it sounds in a podcast.
Carol Fishman Cohen: No, it's great advice.
Monique Rizer: For me having genuine, strong relationships with other people has been pivotal. The folks that have opened doors or hired me or recommended me, like these are people who care about me and that I care about and would do the same for them, including folks like Karen..
And like I've named a couple of folks who have been really pivotal, but there are others for sure. And that has been a real asset for me. And I teach a lot of folks that, but I also think, being willing to, at least for me, I had to accept that my journey was a little non-traditional and being okay with that for the military spouses in your audience, I think especially, and they know this probably better than I do, sometimes you have to be creative, but I guess my advice is, own your story and and be proud of it. Lean into it and make it make sense for you. Like you write your narrative. I had to explain how I went from volunteer to military, but I found the through line and it became my story. And so I also think being really intentional about making your story makes sense for you and for other people, so they can see who you are, what you've done, and then what they can, what you can do for them. I feel like I could go on, but those are probably the two that come to mind.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Fantastic advice. And especially Monique, what you're talking about at the end, in terms of you can control the narrative. This is something that you can control and thinking long and hard about what that storyline is and how you want to tell the progression is, can be very powerful.
Monique Rizer: Absolutely. And I think you give folks the freedom to do that, Carol, in so many ways. You've created the space for people to even talk about coming back into the workforce or even making a career change. We met many years ago and I thought that was what was so powerful about what you were doing and how it resonated with military spouses. Like you've normalized in so many ways that I might jump from a career or take a break, but I still am here to work hard and do great and grow and I expect to be paid accordingly. And I just have to give you some credit for that.
Carol Fishman Cohen: Thank you so much for saying that. And it has been really wonderful, having these periodic connections over the years. So I'm thrilled that we were able to have this conversation as part of a podcast. Monique, thank you so much for joining us today.
Monique Rizer: Thank you so much, Carol. Appreciate it.
Carol Fishman Cohen: And thanks for listening to 3,2,1 iRelaunch, the podcast where we discuss return to work strategies, advice, and success stories. I'm Carol Fishman Cohen, the CEO and 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 iRelaunch.Com. And if you like this podcast, be sure to rate it on Apple podcast and your favorite podcast platform, and be sure to share this podcast with a friend on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media.
Thanks for joining us.