From surfing and endurance competitions to starting her own business, Carrie Papke has always been one to try something new and dive head-first into the unknown. Even while growing up—despite not having any immediate active military ties beyond two grandparents who served—she always knew she wanted to do the same.
"I can't really explain the 'why' so much as I just knew it was something I was going to do," said Papke, a self-professed shy person who grew up in a small "one stop light type" southern Indiana town. "My mom wanted me to go to college and our mediation was me becoming an officer and going to military school. I chose to commission in the Marine Corps because it's a tough, physically demanding organization with higher expectations. It was something I really aspired to be like."
Papke went on to attend the Virginia Military Institute where she earned a bachelor's in psychology and became a communications officer, with most of her training being completed at Quantico in Northern Virginia. From there, her duty stations included Beaufort, South Carolina, a deployment in Djibouti, Africa, and the Pentagon, where she was in charge of coordinating and submitting the Marine Corps' IT budget.
At the conclusion of her active service, Papke admits she initially struggled with pinpointing her next passion and professional direction. She eventually made her way to West Michigan in 2015 and fell in love with everything the area offers, including the strong sense of community. It was in part the same reason she went on in 2018 to found TO & FRO Activewear in Ada, a retail store featuring high quality athleisure wear and empowering accessories and gifts from local brands and recognizable names including Vuori, L*SPACE, Free People Movement and Varley.
With a tagline of "Love Yourself," TO & FRO's vibe is one of thoughtful intention, with carefully curated colorways and displays presented alongside portraits of the TO & FRO Ambassadors, a group of local women from all walks of life who embody the brand's core values: Passion. Positivity. Kindness.
It's this connection to community—whether through free group fitness classes at the store or complimentary private shopping events—that Papke hopes to help women embrace their most confident, multi-faceted selves.
"If you would have asked me in college if I was going to be an entrepreneur, I would've said, 'No way!' But that's the coolest thing about pulling on that thread and letting yourself fall through these rabbit holes to see what you're interested in trying," she said. "I didn't want to go through my life thinking about doing something and not actually trying to do it. Even if you crash and burn, you can always carry away the lessons from it."
Papke, who was a Girls on the Run head coach and was the first female volunteer firefighter at her college town's fire station, often shares this same mindset with her five-year-old daughter.
"I'm thinking about my daughter when she's my age one day and I want to see her do things like trying surfing for the first time when she's almost 40; I want to see her undertake an endeavor without worrying about what happens if she fails," she said. "And I think the best way to teach her that is by demonstrating it myself."
Papke, who also currently works full-time as a E-Commerce and Digital Manager for SpartanNash, equates plenty of her military skills to her personal success and that of TO & FRO, including being agile and pivoting when needed.
"That's a wonderful skill a lot of people don't realize about veterans—our ability to be flexible and to get the job done," she said. "People have asked me, 'How do you have a store without having retail experience?' and I attribute a lot of that to the Marine Corps' expectation that you'll just figure it out. You don't expect the answers to come to you. You hit the ground running, find new ideas, new perspectives, new capabilities, and I think that's also what makes TO & FRO a fun and innovative business."
For Papke, knowledge is limitless.
"I tell my family that I'm going to be learning and evolving until the day I die. I think as long as you're doing that and putting yourself out there, you can live a life without regret," she said, encouraging other aspiring entrepreneurs to start small and consider timing. "You don't have to full-on cannonball into being an entrepreneur. You can build up your skill sets first—take a graphic design class, learn photography—and see how those skills could potentially feed into starting your own business."
When not working, Papke enjoys spending time with her daughter and boyfriend and going to the zoo together, learning new hobbies, golfing, cooking and staying active. She emphasizes that fitness is not supposed to be a punishment, but rather a healthy outlet for enjoyment that looks different for everyone.
"I always tell people to keep trying—there's something out there for you. And it doesn't have to be running on a treadmill or weightlifting at your local gym."
In recognition of Veterans Day and beyond, there are a number of things Papke wants people to realize and remember about veterans, the first being that female veterans exist and come in all shapes, sizes, ages and demographics.
"If I go to a home improvement store and park in a veteran parking spot, people sometimes assume I'm not a veteran," she said. "Or, if I were wearing a Marine Corps shirt or a hat, people often don't identify me as the veteran and think it's my significant other."
She also encourages employers not to make assumptions about what a veteran's service was (or wasn't) like.
"Meet with them and ask about their experiences," she said. "It can be difficult for us to really share on a resume, because you can't go too in depth, so I encourage businesses to really talk to veterans and learn what their strengths are before thinking, 'Oh, they don't meet every single criteria.' Because there are a lot of really great things veterans can do."
Looking forward, Papke plans to continue living in a way that casts reservations aside in the name of embracing what's possible.
"Everything doesn't have to lead to a single destination and you don't have to be super good at something to enjoy what you're doing. Some of my biggest failures have led to my happiest moments and the best opportunities I wouldn't have had otherwise."
As the holiday shopping season approaches, Papke encourages shoppers to think local and support small businesses like TO & FRO.
"For many small businesses, with the pandemic and the economy right now, it's a period of just surviving and hopefully thriving. We want to continue to be around for the next four, five or more years and get more people to embrace and recognize the value in spending local."
Written by Sarah Suydam, Managing Editor for West Michigan Woman.
This article originally appeared in the Oct/Nov '22 issue of West Michigan Woman.