When you operate with integrity and grit you can do great things.Rhonda Smith
After retiring from the Air Force in 2001, Rhonda Smith’s transition to civilian life wasn’t entirely smooth. She missed the sense of purpose and camaraderie that she’d enjoyed in the military. So, she started looking for ways to reconnect and make good use of her skills. She’d always wanted to give back to female veterans and one day employ them, but it was hard figuring out where to start.
In 2018, inspiration struck.
“In researching the veteran-owned business market, we were looking for a category that wasn’t already saturated and something that we could enjoy and be proud of,” says Smith. “Parallel to that, our local tea [purveyor] had recently retired. My daughter had enjoyed going there for tea parties and while driving by the former location one day, she commented on how much she missed going there.”
When Smith and her daughter got home that day they started mixing and recreating some of the tea blends they missed. From there, says Smith, the idea for Skirted Solder began to form. She filed the necessary documents, forged relationships with organic tea importers with sustainable farms, designed their packaging and, in 2018, launched her new brand of hand-blended teas: Skirted Soldier.
Since then, Skirted Soldier since found distribution across a range of businesses throughout the nation. Smith’s handmade teas are available everywhere from boutiques and bakeries to coffee shops to farmers markets. The brand is available in 25 states and more than 50 locations within her home state of Pennsylvania. Smith also operates a direct-to-consumer e-commerce platform and a wholesale division.
More importantly, Smith achieved her goal of giving back to organizations that support female veterans. 10% of annual profits from Skirted Soldier are donated to a range of nonprofits, such as Pennsylvania Troops to Tractors and the Pennsylvania Veteran Farmer Project. Her company also donates to military and first-responder-related fundraising efforts and ships monthly combat care packages to deployed units, among other initiatives.
“The mission of the business is to give back, but that mission has also taught me to work harder and push myself,” says Smith. “The more we make, the more we can give back. That’s an amazing feeling.”
Smith’s next goal is to hire a female veteran (so far, Smith is the tea venture’s only full-time employee). True to form, she began ramping up to achieve that goal well before her target hire date.
“We accomplish that by marketing to new wholesale vendors, boosting ads on social media, setting up at local holiday events and offering promotions and sales to online customers,” she says.
Just like any mission, however, building Skirted Soldier has had its challenges, too. After honorably discharging from active duty as a trauma nurse, Smith went on to earn her Master’s of Business Administration. Building Skirted Soldier has been a sharp contrast from her classroom experience.
“Operating your own business is much different and more intense than any case study,” says Smith. “Your reputation is on the line and failure is not an option. We had to learn how to create a website; that continues to be a challenge and we learn as much as we can to make improvements.
“Digital photography skills are still a work in progress and we catch as many tutorials as possible. Learning how to market using social media was another learning curve for us.”
Now, four years after taking the leap, Smith is still committed to her vision and has found her niche. Running Skirted Soldier has allowed her to connect with other veterans and reintroduced the sense of belonging that she missed after leaving the military. Plus, the process of blending new ingredients, experimenting with teas and sharing them with others has been therapeutic.
“When you operate with integrity and grit,” she says, “you can do great things.”