Alumna Advocates on Behalf of Military Spouses
Entrepreneur Rachel Bell ’98 Helps Families Who Serve Create Financial Stability
Rachel Torres Bell ’98 crafts communication strategy for a living. Typically, that work has been on behalf of corporate concerns. In recent years, however, Bell has given her time and talents to expanding legislation that would send a powerful and positive message about the value of hiring military spouses in the workforce.
As a military wife of 21 years, Bell knows just how meaningful such a measure would be.
“It makes a huge impact on a military family to be able to earn a dual income,” she observes, adding that the benefits extend far beyond individual households. Promoting financial security for military families” is also about readiness, because if you can’t afford to serve, you can’t serve.”
Bell led advocacy efforts from her home in San Antonio last year to expand the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC)—a federal incentive for employers who hire members of eight designated groups including veterans and youth employees living in an economically distressed Empowerment Zone—to also include military spouses. Speaking to legislators at the state and national level, Bell promoted awareness for the expanded tax credit because it would help incentivize employers to hire professionals who must move with their service member. Military families move every two to three years on average, sometimes more often, which is a barrier to employment for military spouses. The benefit promotes their earning potential, she says, but it sends a strong and important message to potential employers, as well.
“If there is some tax incentive that comes along with you, I think that helps lower some of those barriers for the whole community of military spouses and families,” she believes.
Bell’s career, carved out in tandem with her husband’s military service, was instructive as to the challenges faced by partners in similar circumstances.
After graduating from Saint Mary’s with a double major in English and communications, Bell moved smoothly from an internship in Chicago to a position at a large public relations agency in Washington D.C. It was there that she met the man she would go on to marry, an officer who had most of his lengthy military commitment ahead of him. Bell anticipated a life that included multiple moves, so she decided to make her career as portable as possible—to develop a set of skills she could carry with her wherever the government might assign them. She earned a master’s degree in English at their first duty station in Texas and set about building her own communications consulting company.
“One of us had to be flexible,” Bell says, “but it meant a lot to me that my career still had a trajectory.”
She didn’t know it then, but her path to advocacy began by building her business with that goal in mind. Bell started by promoting her agency experience and her work in Washington D.C. to establish credibility as a consultant. A mentor cautioned her against this, suggesting that doing so might dim her prospects. By leaning into her work on the East Coast, Bell might be telegraphing not only that she wasn’t from the area, but didn’t intend to stay for long.
Later, in building her portfolio of local work, Bell took on a writing assignment covering an event on her local military base. She spoke with an official attached to the story who, after understanding Bell’s credentials and level of experience, suggested she apply to a local internship program.
Bell was stunned. She’d earned two degrees, completed a long-ago internship, and had work experience in a major metropolitan center, only to be offered an entry-level opportunity to prove herself all over again? She passed. But the experience highlighted the challenges faced by partners of servicemen and women whose professional lives often stagnated because of their family commitment to the military.
“I thought, ‘I need to work in a space where people can understand and respect my capabilities,’” she remembers.
She’d be surprised again when she learned the WOTC wasn’t available as a benefit to employers considering a military spouse as an employee. She could see that by extending the credit to include spouses like herself, she and others would find tangible support when seeking jobs due to reassignment. It was an issue Bell wanted to help address.
In 2021, she became involved with the National Military Spouse Network, an organization that champions five legislative recommendations each year “that could make a measurable impact on the lives of military spouses and families.” The group devoted a day of advocacy on behalf of their recommendations around Military Spouse Appreciation Day, observed in May.
In 2021 and ’22, Bell made phone calls and met with legislators to brief them on military spouse employment. The measure didn’t pass in the 117th Congress, but Bell said that securing more than 300 bicameral co-sponsors for the Military Spouse Hiring Act, including a record 15 from Texas which previously had three, left her feeling hopeful.
“It’s gratifying to see folks on both sides of the aisle unified in this kind of support for military families,” she said, reflecting on the ongoing initiative. “It increased awareness, and it’s been reintroduced in both the House and the Senate this year.”
And Bell is happy to note that a number of other recommendations on which advocates in the community have worked were advanced just this month through a number of executive orders unveiled by the Biden-Harris administration. These new directives also strengthen economic opportunity for military and veteran spouses, caregivers and survivors.
Fostering Entrepreneurship Through Education
Bell’s efforts to assist other military spouses also extends to education. After 12 years as a business owner, Bell stumbled upon Syracuse University’s D’Aniello Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF). The institute hosts conferences and creates educational programming designed to empower military service members, veterans and families, including help to build and strengthen their own small businesses. One area of IVMF’s work focuses specifically on women: Veteran Women Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship. V-WISE is a three-phase program open to 250 attendees across the country per session. In 2018, Bell enrolled to be one of the group’s 20th cohort of women entrepreneurs. By the start of the 25th cohort, Bell had signed on as an instructor and online facilitator, and has since participated in curriculum development because she believes in the power of their work for other women.
“I’m a product of a women's college, so I can tell you first-hand about the benefits of women supporting each other through education and professional development,” she says.
The business Bell built grew up alongside her family: daughters Madeleine and Fiona are now 14 and 9. Since 2005, RVB Group—the letters are Bell’s initials—has worked with Fortune 500 companies including CVS Health and the Department of Defense. In 2022, her company enjoyed its highest billing year to date, but following her husband’s military retirement in 2020, Bell began exploring opportunities with companies that allow her to be fixed in place. In June she joined USAA full time as a lead communications director.
“With the military connection, I became more engaged with supporting members of the military community—especially military spouses—because I never want somebody else with years of experience to face such limited opportunities to earn what they’re worth,” she explains. “It’s personal to me that I take the good fortune I’ve had to have continuity [of place] and to build a career working for myself as long as I have.”
June 30, 2023