Today, there are over 210,000 women serving in the active duty military (Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force), and another 5,955 serving in the Active Coast Guard. On top of that, there are 200,000 women serving in the Reserve and National Guard. Women serve at every pay grade, from the General and Vice Admiral ranks to lower enlisted. As a result, women are the fastest-growing Veteran demographic. That’s important to Air Force Veteran, Susan Feland, because prior to 2003, when women constituted less than 15% of our military, no professional development organization existed for women to connect, network and tackle challenges specific to military women. So she created her own network to do just that.
AcademyWomen is a 501c3 non-profit organization and community dedicated to empowering aspiring women Veteran leaders. It reinforces a community to stay connected, inspired, and recognized for the leadership and strength they provide for the defense of the nation.
Feland, who served in the Air Force from 1993 to 2001, believes that women were often left alone to overcome unique challenges, that they didn’t leverage their fellow sisters’ wisdom and power in arms. “We were so visible, everything we did was highly scrutinized–by not only the men but the women too,” she said. “Many women felt the unspoken pressure that their actions or missteps could jeopardize the situation for other women, especially those coming up behind them.”
During Feland’s service, she couldn’t help noticing how so few women held higher leadership positions in the military. To Feland, it didn’t feel like they were part of a greater, connected community, and “it was really hard to have a personal conversation or reach out to senior women for mentoring.” As a result, women often made career decisions without fully understanding the possible options and implications.
That experience led her to later founding AcademyWomen: To offer mentoring services, premier networking, and professional and personal development opportunities for women Veterans. The organization has expanded to serve men and women, including military spouses, for professional development and career transition.
In a 2005 interview, Feland said she saw AcademyWomen as a trendsetter for changing military culture for women. Today, she believes this vision has become a reality. The culture is shifting: “Our military and nation are stronger because of the fact that we are different,” she said. “Because we bring different perspectives, different skills, different backgrounds, and different approaches to problem solving.”
In service and after
After graduating from the Air Force Academy in 1993, Feland received the Gerhart Fellowship, which allowed her to study abroad for two years in Paris, France.
As a Gerhart scholar, Feland completed a master’s degree in language, literature and civilization from Middlebury College and a Diplôme from the Université de Paris – Sorbonne. During her stay in France, Feland worked at the American Embassy in Paris and represented the U.S. during the World War II commemoration ceremonies held throughout the country. Feland returned to the U.S and worked as a Finance officer in systems acquisitions – planning and preparing for the development of satellite systems. In 1996, the Air Force deployed Feland back to France for the Bosnia effort in 1996. While in Southern France, she worked on enforcing the no-fly zone by supporting U-2s and KC-135s that were flying missions in the area. In this role, she also coordinated logistics and negotiated contracts for American service members supporting the NATO mission in France. Later, she became an instructor at the Air Force Academy.
After leaving the Air Force, Feland moved to Silicon Valley in Northern California. In 2015 she received a LEAD Certificate in Corporate Innovation from Stanford Graduate School of Business and now leads the conceptualization, development, launch and support of new teaching and learning methods to drive engagement for the school’s program.
Feland believes that there are areas within the civilian workforce that could benefit from what she has learned as founder and President of AcademyWomen. Many are lessons that AcademyWomen can share with corporate America. “That’s my passion,” she said. “Sharing lessons across all industries to improve lives, drive innovative thinking, and make the world a better place for all.”
Writer: Rachel Heimann
Editor: Essence McPherson
Graphics: Michelle Zischke