This small business consultant is on a mission — to employ military and foreign-service spouses no matter their station
About the business: LVL-Up Strategies is a small business consulting firm with larger business aspirations. Its employees are almost entirely Eligible Family Members, or EFM, of foreign service and active-duty military.
How it started: Rona Jobe co-founded Arlington-based LVL-Up in 2020 at the very start of the pandemic, though she was not new to working with small businesses, having previously held positions in management consulting, strategic communications, program and policy analysis.
An EFM herself — a foreign-service spouse for the last decade, with one stint overseas in Brazil — Jobe saw an opportunity not only to bring her skills to the consulting arena as an entrepreneur, but to support the women and men like her who may lack employment opportunities because they are constantly on the move to support their spouse.
“While we are busy supporting and lifting our spouses in their careers, it became clear we were sacrificing our own,” said Jobe, the business’s CEO.
LVL-Up, co-founded by Laura Jennings, its chief strategy officer, largely works with small businesses and startups to “get that community to the next level,” Jobe said. That might mean implementing strategies and systems that larger companies use — customer relationship management software, for example — but pared down or tweaked to meet the client’s resources and budget.
The business, bootstrapped by the co-founders (outside investment is "something we're open to," Jobe said), started with a couple of clients from Jobe’s personal network, and has grown to nine or 10 all through word of mouth. Those clients are in tech, health care, architecture, real estate and other sectors.
As for its employees, LVL-Up currently has 15 on staff. They’ve been onboarded across the globe and can work from anywhere.
“A lot of our staff have worked as consultants before, however, we do a lot of training, guidance and onboarding to make sure they’re able to shift their mindset and translate their skills to work with small businesses,” Jobe said.
Pandemic effect: “What a shame that so many talented EFMs, they like to work, they’d like to move forward, but the opportunities aren’t always there,” Jobe said.
LVL-Up provided the opportunity, but Covid-19 had other plans. While the firm continued to grow at the very start of the pandemic, as schools closed en masse, its staff were forced to turn their attention to the home front. So the company stopped accepting new clients while it rode out the 2020-2021 school year.
“This fall we began to take on new clients again,” Jobe said.
Pandemic pivot: The company recently survived its first Permanent Change of Station (PCS) season.
“One of the reasons why companies don’t always hire EFMs is that move that’s going to happen later,” Jobe said.
LVL-Up has lost five staff members due to personal reasons. But amid the PCS, “Folks were moving, taking their leave and passing the baton to one another,” Jobe said. And those who remained with LVL-Up through their PCS were supported as they paused their work.
The business was recently named a winner of a Bronze Stevie Award for Women in Business. Even amid the pandemic, the business grew its staff by 200% and its clients by 900%, all while implementing a fully remote, six-month onboarding process. If anything, Jobe said, the pandemic made it easier to convince LVL-Up clients that a remote environment, and virtual tools, can work for their business.
Challenge today: LVL-Up faces the same challenges other small businesses do at this time, Jobe said, in that it must refine the way it works with clients in an ever-changing environment. Whether that’s improving its employees’ internal skills or external client guidance, “there’s always a challenge we pick to tackle that we can improve upon.”
“The heart of the company, our North Star, is progress,” she said.
What’s next: “While we love working with small businesses and startups, and the past year we’ve focused on those two communities, we have started looking into what our company could look like if and when we started to look into government contracts down the line,” Jobe said.
LVL-Up is working toward the various government contracting certifications, and has established an internal team to consider all of those possibilities.
“Overall the goal is a sustainable business that can support the EFM community in terms of career progression, in terms of their skills and knowledge,” Jobe said.