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Military spouse entrepreneur builds business to fit military lifestyle, encourages others to join pursuit

Lakesha Cole (left) and her husband Deonte Cole, talk to a customer at their new store, She Swank Too

CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. – When military life gives you lemons (or orders), make lemonade (or build a brand).

Lakesha Cole didn’t let the frequent moves and career pitfalls associated with the military lifestyle discourage her. Instead, the mother of three decided to test the entrepreneurial water by opening an online children’s boutique called She Swank Too.

“I needed a portable career that allowed me to pursue my passion and obsession for retail, and offered financial independence and a flexible lifestyle. Owning a business allows me to be creative and express myself,” Cole, a Marine wife, said.

She Swank Too began establishing a customer base when the Cole family received orders to Okinawa, Japan from recruiting duty in Virginia. Transitioning to overseas living and dealing with the international shipping delays alone would require an adjustment of her business model.

Cole seized the move as an opportunity to expand her business to on-base operations. She successfully brokered a deal with AAFES to sell her wares inside the Exchange through a pop-up shop, building another loyal following in the process. She Swank Too became one of only three military spouse-owned businesses operating at the location.

While in Japan, Cole’s initiative within the entrepreneur sphere earned her recognition by Military Spouse magazine, when she was voted installation representative for Okinawa in 2014. That same year, she was named 2014 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year – an annual award program recognizing military spouses’ important contributions and unwavering commitment to the military community.

Cole used her platform to mentor others considering small business ownership as an alternative for traditional employment, dubbing herself the MilSpouse Retail Coach. She says, “I believe desired results are achieved through practice and more practice. I often say I don’t give handouts, I give hand-ups … I’m a straight-talker and provide a very personable-centered approach to mentoring,” Cole said.

Earlier this year, the Cole family unexpectedly received military orders once again.

“We look at PCS’ing as a geographic expansion for our business. Each move has required us to modify our existing business model,” Cole explained.

By the summer of 2016, as a family of five, they transitioned to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and this business model shift would bring about the biggest change to date: she was going to open her first brick-and-mortar store. “We opened two weeks ago, and we’re already seeing an unexpected shift in target market, which requires us to shift in operations, sales and marketing,” she said.

Lakesha Cole She Swank Too Retail Store Camp Lejeune
She Swank Too grand opening photo at She Swank Too in Jacksonville, North Carolina, near Camp Lejeune.

She Swank Too officially opened November 12th in Jacksonville, North Carolina. Her oldest daughter is now 11 and it’s very much become a family business. “Being able to discuss store ideas with my oldest daughter Kailey is a good way for us to spend time together as well as help me see problems from a different perspective. Some of our best sellers were recommendations from Kailey. I also love bringing the kids to work when I can,” says Cole.

Needless to say, this woman is the perfect example of how to make things happen in the business world. A feat not easily accomplished for the regular civilian, let alone a spouse whose partner is constantly working long hours, staying in the field or moving every couple of years.

In fact, military spouse employment remains a constant issue for many, hovering around 4 times the unemployment rate of regular civilians, and those working earning less than 50% of their civilian counterparts.

When asked what advice she would offer to others considering a similar career path, Cole offered:

  • “Don’t up and quit your day job even if you believe your business idea is a guaranteed win. Plan to quit. Starting your own business means you are willing to accept that you may not have someone writing you a check for a while. Also, ask yourself if you’re ready to be flat broke for a year or two or longer. How will you make ends meet while building your customer base? The struggle isn’t unique to a specific type of business. There is always an initial start-up phase where you will be rolling pennies as you build.”
  • “Be all in. If you are not all-in from day one, you shouldn’t start at all. With that comes the haters and naysayers, failure and rejection and sometimes self-doubt. Just keep moving forward.”

To learn more about Lakesha Cole and to shop She Swank Too in time for the holidays, check out her website at: She Swank Too. The shop brings you imaginative clothing and accessories for girls ages 1 to 6, which embrace the innocence and fun of childhood.

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