Rose Lopez Keravuori sat down with Women in Foreign Policy to talk about starting her own business, how she joined the military, and lessons learned from working in multiple aspects of international affairs.
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW BY KAITE MCKENNA, MAY 2018
CV IN BRIEF
EDUCATION: BACHELOR SCIENCE, FRENCH/SPANISH AND COMPUTER ENGINEERING | UNITED STATES MILITARY ACADEMY AT WEST POINT | MASTER OF DIPLOMACY, OXFORD UNIVERSITY
PREVIOUS WORK: BAE SYSTEMS | UNITED STATES ARMY | UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE
How did you get the idea to start ROSE Solutions?
I was working for BAE Systems at the time, a Fortune 500 company, as the Director of Business Development for their Stability Operations Business unit. I was trying to expand Human Terrain teams in Afghanistan and expand the soft side of defense. My husband decided he wanted to go to medical school after a 20 year career. I was pregnant with our first child, and he chose the American University of the Caribbean in St. Maarten for medical school. I decided the best thing for us as a family was to move down there with him. It was an absolutely wonderful choice. I had all of this experience from my time working for a Fortune 500 company, which made me think I should start my own company.
ROSE Solutions started off as helping to counter human trafficking on the island of St. Maarten. I incorporated myself at home in Virginia, which is a state that is very helpful to small businesses. Countering human trafficking was something that I was passionate about and unfortunately, was occuring on the island. I wanted to help a Dutch NGO and nonprofits on the island do this by supporting their marketing and business development (i.e. writing proposals to the U.S. State Department TIP - Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons). After we left the island, I decided to grow my business.
The company then went after empowering women through business practices. With my two business partners, we went after President Obama’s Small Business Administration programs developing small businesses in underdeveloped areas. We identified high-potential businesses that, with a bit of mentoring and examination of their business practices, would scale and be successful. As a team, we would guide and coach them to become bigger businesses, thereby helping the local community. When we could, we went for women-owned businesses, as we always have women and helping women-owned businesses in the forefront of our company.
While you’re running your business, you are also involved in the U.S. Army Reserve. What does that entail?
I am! I have been in the military now for about 21 years; it feels like only yesterday that I joined. Currently, I am a Brigade Commander of an expeditionary Military Intelligence unit, with about 700+ Army Reserve soldiers in my command. Most soldiers will do duty one weekend a month, and annual training for two weeks a year. We focus on the Pacific region, so we support Pacific Command (PACOM) and I Corps looking at Korea, China, and doing joint exercises with our allies and partners in the region. I’m essentially leading the brigade, guiding it in order to provide intelligence support, on a very large and complex area.
What prompted you to join the military?
When I was in high school, the military was never in my radar - I grew up in Los Angeles and I knew I wanted to get out of LA. Most of my friends were going to California schools like Stanford, Berkeley, UCLA, and USC. I really wanted to do something different, and my parents said I had to pay for college. I got a call from a recruiter at West Point my senior year, and I had no idea what West Point was. No one had really spoken to me about any of the academies.
The first day I set foot on campus was my first time visiting it. I never went on a college tour, so it was a huge shock. It’s comical when I look back it. It was rigorous and hard - not just academically, but also physically. I went from being on the tennis team in high school where we barely ran to rucking 12 miles. It took me a while to get fit enough to do that. Militarily, you’re always practicing leadership without even knowing it. It was absolutely wonderful, and it provided a lot of experiences I would never have had, nor been exposed to. We would get people who would come and visit West Point - ambassadors, presidents, statesmen - making the experience about foreign policy, the world, making a difference, and leadership, rather than simply an undergraduate education.
As soon as you graduate, you become a lieutenant and typically become a platoon leader of a platoon of 30 people, and immediately you’re leading them on missions anywhere in the world. When I was a junior, the Balkan Wars happened. A lot of my friends were already in Bosnia when a lot of the violence was happening. I thought, “I want to be involved, this is what I want to do.” It’s something bigger than myself, and I feel like I’m giving back. Young people want to do that -- they want to do something where they’re contributing, growing, and developing while also giving back to a greater cause. That is absolutely how I felt when I joined the military or, I should say ‘stumbled upon’ the military.
When did the military's role in foreign policy really come into focus for you?
Let me tell you about the last job that I was in. In the Army Reserve, you have the option of doing one weekend a month, two weeks a year or sometimes getting mobilized. Being mobilized means being on active duty every single day. My business partners ran ROSE Solutions and for the past two years I was mobilized on active duty.
I had the great opportunity of coming to Tampa and working at Central Command (CENTCOM). I would go with my boss to the Middle East every month, and that’s really when I first saw how the military is a strategic-level foreign policy actor for the U.S. I think of law, academia, think tanks, private practice, State Department, and development, as the crux of foreign policy. What I didn’t really appreciate before my recent job was the strategic role the military played. We explain the elements of national power in the military as the DIME (Diplomacy, Information, Military, and Economic). What I used to think was these discrete areas had their left and right limits. The State Department worked in the D, diplomacy, lane, and that’s it. We in the Army only stay in our M lane. But I learned that was an artificial construct because these lanes don’t exist, the military was a part of every lane. We touched on economic, diplomatic, and development work, because we had to. My recent travels took me to meetings with a lot of ambassadors of the region, such as the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, the Ambassador to Afghanistan, the Ambassador to Lebanon, and I was really impressed by how in sync the military was with them. We were in sync to make sure that what we were doing as a military was in sync with what the ambassadors were trying to achieve in the country. And likewise, we would sort out what we could do to help support the initiatives they needed. The DIME in practice was a continuum rather than discrete elements.
It came into focus again in Syria. My boss would do visits on the ground in Iraq and Syria, where the military, the Ambassador, the State and USAID representatives and the Presidential Special Envoy would come together to meet with local stakeholders. It was a very physical representation of the entire DIME. Seeing that in action gave me a further appreciation for the strategic role the military plays in foreign policy.
What would you say to women who would never think to join the military?
For those, like myself, who were never exposed to the military, I would say consider it. The military is really about leadership and a greater cause. I feel like women need to understand the viability of it as an option. Don’t just look at State Department, USAID, Peace Corps, or think tanks, but also look at the military as a viable option to be a leader and for a career that actions foreign policy. I would also love to see a higher representation of women in our military as a whole.
Also, I have been able as an Army Reserve Soldier to balance two careers: that of a military officer and of owning my own company. I am grateful for my military experiences, at the same time I love the private sector, because it provides quick and innovative solutions to some of the problems we’re facing. No one really told me about the Army Reserve path when I was graduating from West Point, but it’s worked out really well, especially as a mother.
Did you see anything in your work that solidified the need for more women in the military?
I really saw it in Afghanistan, when the U.S. Army started the women-only Female Engagement Teams. These were created because men couldn’t talk to Afghan women due to Pashtun religious and cultural customs. The military women would go into villages and towns, and were really the only ones who had access to the Afghan women. They would spend time talking to and engaging with local women. From this I learned women connect regardless of the country they are in. The program had such a great success.
What has also been really interesting to see is the Kurdish female fighters in Syria, some who are commanders, fighting ISIS. These women are making such a big difference in the fight to reclaim their own hometowns in Syria. The need for women in their own militaries is important for so many reasons.
Have you had any deployments that were particularly impactful to you?
As I mentioned, the Balkans were happening as I graduated and I ended up doing about a year and a half supporting peacekeeping in Kosovo. Then, I was deployed to Afghanistan and then to Iraq during the Surge in 2007 to 2008. Again, those are very complex wars with complex problems, but my thought process was “okay, I’m doing my small, but important, part to bring the Taliban to the table.” And, with a group like the Taliban, you need to defeat them militarily before they’re able to come to the reconciliation table. Now, 17 years later, we’re finally seeing a day where we might see reconciliation, which is what is needed to finally bring lasting peace to Afghanistan.
What advice would you give to women interested in starting their own firm?
Don’t think about the pain of starting your own business, it’s certainly a difficult endeavor! I went to several senior women who were CEOs of their own firms, and I asked them “should I make mine a non-profit?” Several said that a for-profit firm would drive focus for my board and my team more so than a nonprofit. For what I was trying to do, a for-profit business was better suited. I would recommend sorting out what type of work you would like to do and then find some good mentors. I had some great mentors and two great business partners that helped me through everything - the legal issues, the taxes, the incorporation. It’s really about keeping in mind your vision and mission for your company, that will get you up and out of bed every day. Let your passion show through what you’re trying to do to make a difference. That’s really what I try to do with ROSE Solutions.
You have been able to do a lot with your career in a short amount of time. Do you have any words of wisdom for other women working in, or wanting to work in, multiple areas of foreign policy?
Seek different educational opportunities. I did my Master’s at Oxford - at a program called the Foreign Service Programme. In my program, 99% of students were international and State Department equivalents in their countries. For me as an American in the military, I really needed global and diverse viewpoints and experiences different from mine. They taught international relations in a much more nuanced way that wasn’t U.S.-focused. In the U.S., you do Realism, Liberal Theory, and maybe Constructivism, at Oxford I was taught more than 10 different IR theories and tenets, It was great! Likewise, the international discourse was necessary to work through difficult problems. Seeking out international opportunities for education is really important, especially if it makes you uncomfortable and pushes your limits.