Why This DoD Memo Could Open Doors for Military Spouse Entrepreneurs

Why This DoD Memo Could Open Doors for Military Spouse Entrepreneurs
Military spouses participate in a MOAA Military Spouse Program “Keeping a Career on the Move®” Military Spouse Symposium at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. (MOAA Spouse Facebook)

A new Defense Department memo makes it easier for military spouses to operate retail businesses from their on-base homes, which could provide new options for a group that traditionally faces unemployment and underemployment levels well above the national average.

Research sponsored by MOAA and other organizations has tracked the unemployment rate of military spouses from higher than 30 percent in 2013 to 16 percent in a 2017 survey by Hiring Our Heroes. That's still more than four times the national average, and underemployment may add to the problem: The 2017 survey, for example, found that half of the spouses of active duty and recently retired servicemembers who were working part time said they'd rather be working full time.

The memo could clear a significant roadblock to home-based retail businesses faced by spouses who live on military installations. Spouses in such situations seeking to start a business (or maintain it after a PCS move) need permission to do so from the installation commander. Those commanders must consider whether the business would compete with vendors such as commissaries, exchanges, or morale, welfare, and recreation (MWR) providers.

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The memo provides guidance to commanders that appears to steer them toward approving such businesses:

  • “The word 'primary' does not mean 'exclusive,'” the memo states, stressing that anti-competition language targets large retail outlets.
  • Examples such as a spouse's in-house piano lesson or home-based cosmetics sales are listed as generally nonthreatening to commissaries, exchanges, and MWR programs.
  • Online-only businesses, such as an Etsy store, are not covered under the anti-competition guidance.

Individual services may offer updates to their on-base business guidance in the wake of the memo's release, Military Times reported.

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“Because of their mobile lifestyles, many military spouses have chosen the entrepreneurship route to be more in control of their careers,” said Eryn Wagnon, associate director of military spouse and family advocacy for MOAA's government relations team. “It is encouraging to see DoD view military spouse small businesses as an asset to installations rather than competition. By making this clarification, DoD is aiding in tearing down barriers to their successes and is recognizing that military spouses make valuable contributions to their communities.

“I hope this clarification also encourages installation commanders to standardize and clarify processes and standards for military spouses to operate their small business on installation as it often varies by location and can be quite cumbersome.”

The memo comes after Congress asked the Defense Department for a report on the feasibility of allowing spouses to run on-base businesses. The request, part of the National Defense Authorization Act, also covers spouse-run businesses seeking to rent space on installations, such as kiosks or small storefronts, that may compete more directly with commissaries and exchanges. The report is due by March, per the NDAA.     

Military spouses can access employment and other resources via the MOAA Spouse Community.

All MOAA military spouse professional development programs are funded, in part, through the MOAA Foundation and depend on MOAA member donations for support. Donate at www.MOAA.org/Foundation today.

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