Claysburg woman inspired to give back to female veterans
Skirted Soldier features tea from around the world
CLAYSBURG — Rhonda Smith admits that as a teenager, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do for a career.
She gave some thought to becoming a teacher but said her family couldn’t afford to send her to college.
Her big break came when she was encouraged by a DuBois police officer to talk to a military recruiter.
“That was the best advice I ever received,” Smith said.
After graduating from DuBois Area High School in 1991, she joined the Air Force in 1993.
“I joined the Air Force because it gave me the best opportunities to go to college and make a career when I got out of the service,” Smith said.
Smith started in Texas, then went to Washington, D.C., then North Carolina and finished up in Germany at The Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the largest U.S. military hospital outside the continental United States.
“I was in Germany three years; if they had let us, I would still be there. I started as a surgical technologist and moved into trauma nursing,” Smith said.
After she left the Air Force, she decided to attend graduate school.
Smith has degrees in surgical technology and nursing from the Community College of the Air Force and in sociology and psychology from the University of Maryland, and a Master’s degree in business administration from Maryland.
Smith is grateful to the Air Force for the opportunities she was provided.
“I felt a strong need to give back. When you are part of a fleet, you are all working toward one goal. I wanted to give back to other female veterans. I thought of a plan on how to start a business. My main goal is to give back and provide opportunities for female veterans,” Smith said.
She had a set of criteria for a business.
“I wanted something that had a good shelf life, not a lot of weight, was of good quality and hard to find. Veteran-owned businesses are saturated with coffee shops and beer; I wanted to stay away from competition. I was looking for something not saturated in the market with a decent shelf life that was affordable,” Smith said.
In March 2018, The Skirted Soldier, a female veteran-owned operation that specializes in hand-blended artisan teas, came together. Ten percent of all sales are donated to help female veterans.
The business is operated out of her home and small farm in Blue Knob.
“The timing and resources were right. Overnight it blossomed into a profitable opportunity,” Smith said.
Smith received some assistance from Startup Alleghenies, a free program in central Pennsylvania that helps aspiring entrepreneurs locate the information, tools and connections that can move an idea from vision to market.
“Rhonda had already launched her business before we met, so we worked together to help her realize and expand upon Skirted Soldier’s mission of creating opportunities for other veterans. After reading Rhonda’s business plan, I knew Skirted Soldier would succeed. I think of entrepreneurship planning as creating a recipe for success. You need to know exactly what your product will be. Then you list all the ingredients, in the exact quantities needed, as well as the right time to incorporate them into the mix. Once you have everything organized, measured and ready to go, the recipe for a great business plan almost writes itself. After reading Rhonda’s business plan, I knew she had all the right ingredients in all the right amounts,” said Andrew Trexler, her entrepreneurial coach.
The Skirted Soldier offers 26 different flavors of tea. The tea comes via three importers and comes from all over the world.
“We are very particular; the quality has to be just right,” Smith said.
Smith ships to all 50 states. Her products are found in 20 different states and at 30 locations in Pennsylvania, including the Smoky Pig in East Freedom, Nine Lives Cat Cafe in Hollidaysburg and Wholesome Living Marketplace in Bedford.
“We are in coffee shops, bakeries and gift shops. We also do well in boutiques,” Smith said.
She attracts customers of all ages and the majority are women.
The Skirted Soldier is a Pa. Preferred Farm, and Smith — who grew up on a farm — is a board member of the Pennsylvania Veteran Farming Project.
“Rhonda is entrepreneurial in the best sense of that term: She started her business first with the idea of giving back to the military/veteran community with whom she served, and carved a niche with her homegrown, custom blends of tea, leveraging military culture to create a connection with her consumers,” said PVFP Director Mimi Thomas-Brooker. “I don’t believe Rhonda knows the word ‘no.’ The process Rhonda followed while starting her agribusiness and feeding its growth has been a model other members of the PA Veteran Farming Project network are inspired by and learn from.”
Smith has a simple business philosophy.
“The more we make, the more we give back. We put all of our profits back into the company to make it bigger and better. It is hard work. We want to give back to fellow veterans,” Smith said.
Smith is the sole proprietor of the business and she gets help from her husband, Dan, who is retired from the Air Force and is now a civilian working air traffic for the Air Force, and her daughter, Emma.
Smith, who holds a full-time job as operations director at Family Services Inc. in Altoona, is optimistic about the future of her business.
“Our future is to grow. We want to be next to Lipton’s in the grocery stores,” she said.
The Smith file
Name: Rhonda Smith
Position: Owner of The Skirted Soldier
Education: 1991 graduate of DuBois Area High School. Degrees in surgical technology and nursing from the Community College of the Air Force, and in sociology and psychology from the University of Maryland. Master’s degree in business administration from Maryland.
Family: Husband, Dan; and daughter, Emma.
Quote: “When I left the service, it didn’t take long to realize it was difficult to transition back to be a civilian; it was a tremendous challenge coming back to civilian life.”