F7 Group works to empower female veterans - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

F7 Group works to empower female veterans

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A woman may wear many different uniforms, but that doesn't change who she is on the inside.

That was the message women, including several veterans, heard at the Charleston Area Alliance's March 6 Elevations luncheon. Cassaundra St. John and Victoria Wegwert from the Texas-based F7 Group said their mission is to empower female veterans by giving them the tools to focus on the seven F's: friends and family, freedom, foundation/formation, function, focus, flexibility and fundamentals.

"As we sit around and we start talking to the lady next to us – possibly one of our best girl friends, someone we find out we have so much in common with – we realize that if you're an entrepreneur, a CEO, you work for corporate America or you're a veteran, our faces are the same. We're all women," Wegwert said. "How we engage, how we plug in, how we connect to each other and to society, how we get jobs, how we work together—all of those things are amazingly important."

St. John grew up with parents who were in the Army. Her father was a command sergeant major and her mother a four-star general. St. John joined the U.S. Air Force and now has an MBA in marketing and international business. But her success post-military didn't come easy. St. John said she faced many challenges after leaving the Air Force.

"I went literally from answering the red phone and talking to Colin Powell to working in a potato chip factory," she said. "That's what happens. Over the course of the years, I went and got an education and had some great opportunities, some phenomenal mentors in my life and over the course of the last 20 years, I made a transition. I sure wish it wouldn't have taken 20 years though. I sure wish I would have had people out there, what we have today."

Groups that point women veterans in the right direction, such as the Charleston Area Alliance and the West Virginia Women's Commission, are a great start, St. John said.

St. John and Wegwert met at a networking event in Texas. Wegwert already owned a design company, so she and St. John began collaborating and decided to go into business together. They had an opportunity to go to a symposium in San Antonio for female veteran entrepreneurs, but the workshop left something to be desired.

"We thought man this is awesome, everything we've been waiting for," St. John said.

"We were so excited," Wegwert added.

They were surprised when the person leading the workshop titled "I'm every woman, but am I an entrepreneur?" turned out to be a man.

"I think he's a wonderful man, but he is a college professor and he was telling us that he knows what it's like to be a female veteran entrepreneur," St. John said. "It was a great weekend and we met phenomenal women who we still have great relationships with today. But I'll be transparent with you, we drove away complaining. We were not happy with the fact that there was nothing out there for women by women, who had walked in our shoes and understood what it was like to live our life."

That's how the F7 Group was born.

"We see a huge need," Wegwert said.

The two women used their network and backgrounds to build an organization that could reach out to female veterans. From there, they hatched a business model and got to work.

"After we developed our business boot camps and all of our trainings, we put a lot of time and money in that and put it on the shelf. We said we don't think that's the answer. That might be the answer DOD, VA, Army, anyone else was looking for. But we didn't think that was the answer. We think we need to start by talking to just the girl."

One way the F7 Group gets down to the core is through retreats, which are specifically designed for current female service members, female veterans or female family members of active duty military. F7 Group also offers business boot camp.

St. John said breaking down the walls is where change happens.

"This is just about breaking down some barriers, going out to Girl Scout camp, literally, going out on the ropes and staying up all night being silly and really breaking down the walls," St. John said. "That's where real change begins to happen."

The Elevations luncheon coincided with Women at the Legislature Day at the West Virginia State Capitol. First lady Joanne Tomblin gave the luncheon's keynote speech.