It’s hard to believe that a little over a year ago I was in the final stages of completing The Emotionally Resilient Expat.
This meant writing the last bits and pieces, tidying up the table of contents, drafting the acknowledgements, finalizing the references and resources section, creating an index, and responding to the edits, questions and suggested changes of my fabulous editor, Saint Jane.
As I double-checked contributors’ short biographies, one bright spot among the exceedingly detailed tedium at the time was learning that Evelyn Simpson (then The Smart Expat) and Louise Wiles (then Success Abroad Coaching) were themselves in the throes of giving birth to a new joint business venture: Simpson Wiles and Associates Ltd. and the corresponding website ThrivingAbroad.com.
While I kept this knowledge secret until last summer when my book was published and their new company was made public, I knew then I would write about this fascinating story of professional transition amid cross-cultural life. This is the first part in a three-part series of how two expat business women living in different countries met, collaborated on a joint survey project, identified a niche and conspired to build an online business together.
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Originally from the UK – Evelyn from Scotland, Louise from England – both found their careers impacted by typical conditions affecting many expatriate partners: interruption from multiple moves, limited opportunities, language barriers, raising small children, and a sense of disconnect from their previous career paths.
“I started out as an investment banker, stopped working for a while when my children were little and found myself so removed from my original career, both practically and emotionally, that a rethink was the only choice,” Evelyn said. “After a couple of detours, I realised that coaching and working with accompanying partners were where my passions lay.”
Louise, too, ended up switching careers, reinventing herself as a coach.
“I have enjoyed the experience of living abroad and gained a lot from it. But it did challenge me from a career perspective,” she said. “Initially in Madrid I did a TEFL course and taught English for a while, then I went back to studying and gained a degree in Psychology and a Masters in Occupational Psychology. I then decided to train as a personal performance coach and chose to link that qualification with my experience as an expatriate.”
It was a discussion a few years ago in a social media Human Resources group that brought the two together. Someone else had complained that expat partners didn’t really seem to want to work; even when efforts were made to gain a work visa, many still chose to stay at home.
“If you’ve read some of my articles, you’ll know that I get a bit worked up about some of this stuff,” Evelyn said. “So I got online to respond and noticed that Louise had already expressed a similar opinion to mine.”
“I thought the issue was much more complicated than just simply being able to get a visa or not, and that there were multiple other factors which would influence an accompanying partner’s decision to work or not,” Louise offered. “Even though some accompanying partners choose not to work, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are happy with that choice – it’s just the best available choice in the circumstances.”
Louise mentioned she’d been thinking about doing some research around the subject of accompanying partners’ career choices, something Evelyn also had been considering.
At the time, expatriate employment surveys focused exclusively on the views of the employed spouses; very little, if any, research had been done from the accompanying expat partner’s perspective. The two decided to join forces to develop and conduct this groundbreaking survey and publish a corresponding report.
“Almost everything we did was done online. We set up the survey on Survey Monkey and promoted it though our respective blogs and social media channels,” Louise said. “We contacted women’s groups in various countries to solicit participants and also to promote the survey. We also worked with many of our online friends in the expat world to ask them to write about the survey, and eventually, the results.”
“To analyse the results and write the report, we spent over 100 hours working together via Skype − thank goodness it’s free. We’d split the work, go off and each do what we committed to doing and then get back on Skype to discuss what we’d done and work out the next part,” Evelyn said. “In many ways our skills are quite complementary – I’m a numbers geek so I did a lot of the quantitative analysis whilst Louise tackled the daunting job of analysing the qualitative data and tying it into what the numbers were telling us.”
The result to this initial joint venture was the successful survey report ‘Career Choice and the Accompanying Partner,’ released in 2012.
“We got quite a bit of coverage in various outlets when we first published, though we were a little disappointed that it didn’t get more attention in the HR world,” said Evelyn. “However, we are finding that as we talk about it in the context of what we are doing now (with their business partnership and Thriving Abroad), it’s getting more attention and gets us into conversations about the well-being of accompanying partners.”
“The summary report has been downloaded by over 200 people so far and we’ve given away dozens of additional copies,” Louise added. “As far as we can tell, it’s been read by a mix of accompanying partners, people who provide services to expats and some HR/Global mobility people, too.”!
Both agreed they gained valuable insights on working together during this survey project.
“We learned a lot about conducting research projects. Having both conducted research as part of our Masters we had a good basis on which to build, however there is always room for improvement,” Louise said. “Also, having worked on my own for quite a long time, I had to remind myself at times not to be too defensive of my ideas, and to recognize that the synergistic result of combining and accepting each other ideas created a better end result than my initial individual thoughts and ideas.”
“I’m a bit of a control freak, so letting go of certain aspects of the project was a big step for me,” Evelyn admitted. “The upside was that I learned that Louise is someone whose judgment and way of doing things I could trust. Whilst we don’t agree on everything (nor do we want to), working on the research really set the foundations for the way we work together in Thriving Abroad.”
Working together on a project is one thing; dismantling your respective businesses to jointly build a new one is something else entirely, especially when working in different countries. So exactly how did the decision come about to take that next gigantic step?
“We talked about our businesses, what we wanted to do with them and the challenges of doing those things throughout the process of working on the survey research,” Louise shared. “We had very similar ideas about what we wanted to do and the same challenges (travelling husbands, young children), and as we worked together well over the months in which we were preparing the report, we both started to think about the potential benefits of teaming up.”
“However, at that point we hadn’t ever actually met – looking each other in the eye is not really the same as on Skype,” Evelyn added. “We agreed that we’d both go to the 2012 Totally Expat Show in London, and just before attending we started to talk about combining our businesses. The in-person meeting in London was the final ‘test’.”
“Yes, I remember sitting down and discussing our ideas, it was obvious that we had similar visions, goals and that we shared a real passion for wanting to support the accompanying partner,” Louise concurred. “I remember thinking, this is great, but how will we ever mould these ideas and our dual involvement into a joint business? It seemed like a massive but very exciting challenge.”
Join us next week when we learn how Evelyn and Louise built a joint business together.
[Image credit: patrisyu, portfoli 6621 at freedigitalphotos.net]