Skirted Soldier

Skirted Soldier: Supporting Female Veterans and Finding Community Through Tea

After retiring from the Air Force, Rhonda Smith built a business to stay connected and give back.

When Rhonda Smith retired from the Air Force in 2001, her transition to civilian life wasn’t entirely smooth. She missed the sense of purpose and camaraderie she’d experienced in the military and began to look for ways to reconnect and put her skills to good use. She’d always wanted to give back to female veterans and one day employ them, but wasn’t yet sure where to start. 

Then, 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. Smith started forging relationships with organic tea importers with sustainable farms, filed the necessary documents, designed their packaging and, in 2018, launched her new brand of hand-blended teas.

 Skirted Soldier has since found distribution across a range of businesses nationwide. Smith’s handmade teas are available everywhere from coffee shops to boutiques and bakeries to farmers markets. The brand is available in 25 states and more than 50 locations within Pennsylvania. Plus, Smith operates a direct-to-consumer e-commerce platform and a wholesale division. 

 Perhaps most importantly, however, Smith has achieved her goal of giving back to the organizations that support female veterans; she donates 10% of annual profits from Skirted Soldier to a range of nonprofits with personal meaning, such as Pennsylvania Troops to Tractors and the Pennsylvania Veteran Farmer Project. The 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.” 

 Next on Smith’s list of goals 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.”

Still, 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.”