By Sandi Moynihan

Washington, D.C. – Cassaundra Martinez doesn’t seem like someone who would be unemployed.

Cassaundra Martinez listens to a guest lecturer at Dog Tag Bakery. | Photo credit Sandi Moynihan

At 30, the former Army intelligence analyst and defense contractor, who boasts an impressive resume and a master’s degree from UMBC, should be in the middle of a rewarding, professional career. Instead, the mother of six and Military Spouse of the Year nominee is struggling to make professional strides.

In 2015, after one too many moves for her husband’s Army career, Martinez found herself unemployed, yet again, without any job prospects in sight. Despite applying to numerous positions in her family’s new duty station, Martinez couldn’t find work for over a year.

At that point I really lost my network. I lost all of my connections. I lost the rapid [pace] that I was growing at,“ Martinez said. "It was a struggle.

That’s when Martinez, who’s family is currently stationed at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, heard about the fellowship program at Dog Tag Bakery in nearby Washington, D.C.

The work-study program, which provides transition support and hands-on professional development to disabled veterans and service members, military spouses and caretakers, seemed like the perfect fit. Martinez immediately applied and is now part of the fifth cohort of fellows to participate in the one-of-a-kind program.

"Dog Tag Bakery is creating that canvas [for us] to be able to communicate [our military skills to civilians],” Martinez said. “They’re giving us the space to be able to understand what we have done [so we can] translate that into civilian needs and skillsets.”

‘Boot Camp to How to Be a Civilian’

Upon first glance, Dog Tag Bakery seems like any other cafe. But one look at the patriotic décor – like the dog tag chandelier – and it’s clear there’s more going on behind the counter than cake decorating.

The Dog Tag Bakery cafe in Washington, D.C. | Photo credit Sandi Moynihan

“If you come into our bakery, there’s no walls between walking in the front door (and) seeing everyone in the back,” said Meghan Ogilvie, Dog Tag Bakery CEO.

We wanted … anyone who came into our bakery to be able to know and understand what our mission is.

From the very beginning, part of that mission has been weaving the work-study fellowship program into the daily activities of the bakery and its overall business model.

“This is our way serving all those that have dedicated their life, the family, their relationships [to the military],” Ogilvie said.

Dog Tag Bakery’s five-month fellowship program, hosted in partnership with Georgetown University, is a three-tier program designed to immerse fellows in every aspect of running a small business. Through a series of classes, guest lecturers and subject-specific business rotations like finance, public relations and personnel management, fellows gain a complete picture of what it means to be an entrepreneur.

“They teach you everything you need to know. From how to network, how to interview, how to work on your resume [and] business communication,“ said Darius Johnson, Army veteran and Dog Tag Bakery alumnus.

"It’s a boot camp to how to be a civilian.”

A Dog Tag Bakery fellow Nnana Obioha learns knife skills.
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A Dog Tag Bakery fellow Nnana Obioha learns knife skills.

Dog Tag Bakery fellows participant in a group activity.
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Dog Tag Bakery fellows participant in a group activity.

Dog Tag Bakery fellows Charles C. Carolus Jr. and Nnana Obioha learn how to properly chop an onion.
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Dog Tag Bakery fellows Charles C. Carolus Jr. and Nnana Obioha learn how to properly chop an onion.

Dog Tag Bakery fellows participate in a presentation by guest speakers from Deloitte.
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Dog Tag Bakery fellows participate in a presentation by guest speakers from Deloitte.

A cinnamon bun for sale at Dog Tag Bakery.
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A cinnamon bun for sale at Dog Tag Bakery.

Dog Tag Bakery in Washington, D.C.
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Dog Tag Bakery in Washington, D.C.

Dog Tag Bakery fellows participate in a group activity.
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Dog Tag Bakery fellows participate in a group activity.

A Dog Tag Bakery sign.
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A Dog Tag Bakery sign.

As part of the work-study program, fellows receive hands-on culinary training, personalized professional development and exclusive opportunities to connect with leaders across a variety of industries. They also participate in activities like yoga, journaling and meditation to learn how to incorporate positive self-care into their daily routine.

“They really get that holistic understanding of what a small business is through that hands-on perspective,” said Kyle Burns, Dog Tag Bakery senior program director.

At the end of the program, fellows leave Dog Tag with a certificate in business administration from the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies as well as a completed business plan, a network of contacts and a new community to ready to support their civilian career.

“The void I had of just not having [an outside] community that understood my [military] experiences … it was filled by Dog Tag,” said Shay Mason, an Army veteran and Dog Tag Bakery alumna.

A History of Baking a Difference

Fellows practice their knife skills. | Photo credit Sandi Moynihan

In 2011, philanthropist Connie Milstein and the late Father Rick Curry founded Dog Tag Bakery with the mission to serve delicious food while simultaneously empowering disabled veterans – and other members of the military family – with the professional skills they need to succeed in the civilian world.

Curry, a one-armed Jesuit priest and lecturer at Georgetown University, felt a special calling to serve the transitioning military community after counseling wounded, ill and injured service members and hosting writing workshops for them after September 11.

“He saw the demographic and the need, not just for the support and the counsel, but really for this motivation and empowerment to get back to a new world and a new life as a civilian and what that looked like,” Ogilvie said.

In the program’s inception, Dog Tag Bakery has hosted five groups of fellows and boasts program participants, several of which, like Army veteran Darius Johnson, have gone on to find fulfilling positions in the civilian world.

Johnson, who’s also pursuing his bachelor’s degree in business administration, currently works as the Mobile USO Program Specialist for the USO of Metropolitan Washington-Baltimore. He credits much of his success at the USO to the entrepreneurial training he had at Dog Tag Bakery.

I have a budget, I have contacts and I have weekly meetings,“ Johnson said. "So it’s essentially entrepreneurship but my business is with USO-Metro

Ultimately, Johnson hopes to use is new skills to start his own nonprofit to use recreational sports programs to help transitioning service members re-integrate into the civilian community.

"Dog Tag gave me the confidence to take on the world,” Johnson said.

Connection to Community

A baguette for sale at Dog Tag Bakery. | Photo credit Sandi Moynihan

Although Dog Tag Bakery’s primary mission is to serve the disabled and transitioning military community, the bakery staff also realizes the unique role it plays in connecting civilian customers to those who have served.

“The community that we bring in just through the cafe becomes a part of the mission [and] understands the connection and the service of our military members greater than perhaps they had before,” Burns said.

While they’re in the cafe, customers have the opportunity to read about Dog Tag’s mission, buy veteran-made items or interact with the current fellows while they wait in line.

“Our customers appreciate it and learn and share the story,” Burns said.

“I think because of places like Dog Tag, the invisible faces behind the forces are growing.”

You can send a message of support and thanks directly to service members via the USO’s Campaign to Connect. Your messages will appear on screens at USO locations around the world.