Tina James: Championing Women on and off the Dance Floor

Tina James_ballroom compressedTina James’ heart and passion lie with women’s empowerment and, in case you doubt her credentials, she’s got two businesses to prove it. FemTECH, a support program for women-owned tech-enabled start-ups, helps African women take charge of their destinies by creating growing businesses. On a lighter note, Dancing Divas, a non-traditional dancing school targeting more “mature” ladies, builds confidence on the dance floor that translates into clients’ daily lives.

“I am so fortunate to be involved in two businesses that I am absolutely passionate about. The dancing caters to my creative side and through femTECH I can offer support services to women that inspire them to make their visions a reality. Out of what was not a very nice situation seven years ago, so many wonderful things have happened.” (more…)

LaShanna Alfred: Turning Adversity into a Strength

2014112795161105Often at Career 2.0, we write of women who have left one successful career to start a new one or perhaps launch a creative enterprise midway through a career.

This story is a little different.

LaShanna Alfred’s first “career” involved running and selling drugs and time spent in jail. She didn’t leave a successful career in order to find fulfillment, she left a life filled with tragedy and hardship, a life that many of us would have been unable to find a way out of. But Alfred did find a way.

Alfred was only two years old when her mother was murdered. Her mother was, as Alfred puts it, “basically in the wrong place with the wrong people.” About four years later, when she was in second grade, her father was in a fight and stabbed to death. An only child, Alfred went to live with her grandmother and uncles. When she was 12 or 13 her grandmother moved out, leaving Alfred with her uncles. “They turned the house into a drug house,” she recalls matter-of-factly. “They began selling drugs out of the house, having house parties. Even as a young girl I knew that I didn’t want to live like that. But most of the time I didn’t see anyone around me that I wanted to be like.” (more…)

Hyasintha Ntuyeko: Starting Small But Dreaming Big


Update: May 2015, Hyasintha was awarded second place in the trailblazer category of the Tanzania Annual Young Professionals Award.

March 2015 Hyasintha has been selected to participate in the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders in 2015.

According to those in the know, there are 22 things creative people do differently. For starters, they get inspired at the least expected moment. When they fail, they try again. They are repeatedly told to get real jobs but more often will follow their heart even when this seems unwise. But probably the biggest giveaway that Hyasintha Ntuyeko, an African small-business owner with big dreams, sports the creative gene is her uncanny knack for creating opportunity where others only see difficulty.

Ntuyeko was born in the Dodoma Region of Tanzania, almost smack in the middle of the East African nation that borders the Indian Ocean. The eldest child of four raised by her mother, Ntuyeko was fortunate to have the financial support of her uncle, a medical doctor, to attend St. Joseph College of Engineering and Technology in Dar-es-salaam, where she received a Bachelor of Engineering in Information Systems and Network Engineering.

Firmly believing in the value of a university degree to secure employment, Ntuyeko’s family was proud when she seemed firmly on that path, pursuing employment as a network engineer with several telecom companies.  And Ntuyeko herself truly believed this is what she was meant to do.

That is until the day her aunt Victoria planted the seed of inspiration. “I had sent off my job applications and money was tight, I was leaving for home the next day. Aunt Vicky had urged me to do something temporary until I got a ‘real’ job and invited me over. ‘I have something I want you to see,’ was all she said,” Ntuyeko recalls. (more…)

Margaret Kilibwa: From Big Pharma to a Clinic in the Tropics

MKprofileRare is the medical research professional who would give up an established 23-year career to start a healthcare clinic in Africa. Fewer still are those who would fund it out of their own pocket, eating through their savings and foregoing retirement benefits. Meet Margaret Kilibwa, clinical nutritionist and social entrepreneur.

“I wasn’t prepared when I made the leap, but I suppose if I knew then exactly what it would take, I might not have jumped into it. Then again, when I’m at the clinic, many women come to tell me ‘you saved my life’ but even if it was one woman it would be enough for the amount of investment I’ve made.”

Kilibwa was born in Sabatia not far from Kisumu, on the banks of Lake Victoria in Western Kenya. Influenced by her American classmates at boarding school, the young graduate crossed the Atlantic to study chemistry at the University of Cincinnati, where she had won a scholarship. From Ohio, she was accepted to the prestigious Cornell University where she did a Masters, followed by a PhD in clinical nutrition. Although she was interested in going to medical school, Kilibwa decided to gain work experience instead, “not in the diet area but rather to understand in more practical terms how nutrition can be used to prevent disease,” she recalls. (more…)

Dr Phil Pizzo: Founder of Stanford University’s Distinguished Careers Institute

Phil PIf Peter Thiel and Elon Musk, two of the founders of PayPal and still two of most influential Silicon Valley investors, believe life extension technologies are the next wave of hot Silicon Valley start ups, then it’s a good thing that other forward thinkers in Silicon Valley are spending their time focusing on how to improve the quality of our longer lives.

As a medical doctor, researcher, and educator, Phil Pizzo has always been drawn to the transformative power of research.  Earlier in his career, he led changes at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the treatment of children with cancer and AIDS, pioneering techniques that are still used today. And he used those examples to persuade a new generation of aspiring doctors to consider the field of pediatric research when he served as Pediatrics Chair of Harvard Medical School and then Dean of Stanford Medical School.

Pizzo attributes his mission-focused approach to his fundamental belief that anyone can produce great change when it’s needed. As a child of the sixties, he witnessed significant cultural transformations take place, and he believes we are on the cusp of yet another — we are no longer living in the era of a single career that leads to retirement at 65, but rather people can live two or perhaps even three professional lives. And at 69 years, Pizzo has launched his own second act, leading the charge to help people, corporations, and educational institutions make that cultural transformation a reality.

The brainchild behind Stanford University’s Distinguished Career’s Institute, Pizzo has foreseen his own reinvention for nearly four decades. “As a young intern in Boston, I met some extraordinary people in medicine who had had great careers but weren’t really ready to move on or in other directions. But they had nowhere else to go; so they were hanging on, and it was then that I vowed I was never going to do that.”

Born in the Bronx, NY into a working class family – his mother was a part-time beautician and his father worked two jobs, selling women’s coats and as a check out person at the race track – Pizzo was the first person in his family to graduate from high school. “So I was immediately a success,” he jokes “a relative success of course.”

He earned full scholarships to undergrad at Fordham College in New York City, and then another full ride to the University of Rochester Medical School.  He moved to Boston for his clinical training, and it was there that he became much more interested in the fundamentals of research as he specialized in hematology/oncology and infectious diseases. In a few years, he was recruited to work at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland.  It was a supposed to be a 2-year stint but ended up lasting 23 years.

“That was a big part of my life. I had the opportunity to put together the pediatric department at NIH, and we played a large role in developing AIDS and cancer treatment protocols in children. And it provided a significant imprinting for me about the power of research to improve lives.”

Pizzo loved his work in Bethesda and could have stayed for longer, but a new  challenge was concerning him in the mid-90’s…the lack of pediatricians who were focused on careers in science.

“Everything I’ve done in my life has been mission oriented. I’ve always been led by the question, ‘how can you do something that’s going to change the world in some way?’”

So for the first time, Pizzo sought out a job rather than being recruited into one. He decided to return to a medical school teaching assignment, and wound up in Boston as chair of the Pediatrics Department at Harvard.

Happily ensconced at the ivy league university, a call in the Spring of 2000 came totally out of the blue asking if he would be interested in becoming the Dean of Stanford’s Medical School.  “I said no at first. It seemed so foreign to me.”  But he eventually agreed and served as Dean for the next 12 years. “It was a terrifically exciting time — leading a medical school and center that was going through a lot of transitions.”

Stanford was an exhilarating change for Pizzo. “It’s a very exciting and entrepreneurial campus and the acceptance of failure around trying new things is very much in the culture. It’s about trying to be transformative.”

But even as Pizzo loved Stanford, he remained committed to his own career 2.0 always remembering his pledge as an intern to acknowledge when it was time to move on. We spoke with Pizzo about his decision to finally take the leap.

Phil P_2You loved your role at Stanford, so how did you decide to leave?

After 10 years there I made the decision that I wouldn’t go beyond 12. Even though I had stayed in medicine and science my whole career until that point, I had moved around a lot. I like change and I like to engage in new activities and challenges whether it’s in research, academia, advocacy or public policy.

Going back to my time in Boston, the seeds were sown for my career transition early on.  I witnessed incredible individuals being moved aside and I made a resolution at that point that I would not let that happen.

How did you figure out what that transition would be?

When I began thinking about it a long time ago, I thought I would do a PhD in history. So for 40 years, I have read history as a hobby. But fast forward to when I really began thinking about it more seriously, I had this epiphany that I probably wasn’t alone. When your career has run that 20- to 30-year gamut, which is the traditional amount, you oftentimes don’t have a clear path to follow next. And that’s what really led to the formation of what is now Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute.

Why do we need a program like the Distinguished Careers Institute?

Frankly, because everyone is out of sync with reality – not just traditional businesses but everyone. We’re caught up in the 20th century narrative that says you do something for a career, and then retire at 65. That may have worked when most people died at 68, but those days are gone. That’s not the narrative that the people living through the experience are having today. Many people have to continue working because they need the money, but – even if they don’t have to – many people want to keep working and they want to try new things.  They want the intellectual stimulation, the community and the sense of purpose.

What are the goals of Stanford’s program?

Well, I began formulating this idea about three years ago and then two years ago I heard about Harvard’s Advanced Leadership program. It’s a very seminal program that broke ground, but there are pretty big differences in the way the Stanford program will work. What we have in mind is much more about personal transformation. It’s a year-long program, initially for 20-25 participants or fellows. We’re going to take them on a scholarly path in a chosen field – there are nine potential paths to choose from like education, energy, engineering, health and healthcare, the arts and more—they cover a whole array. Once you pick a path, senior faculty members mentor and guide you to probe deeply into a field that is quite different from where you’ve gone in the past.

The other part of our program is community building. We will bring people together for faculty forums, transformation series, deep-dive think tanks and more and couple that with evening social events as well. We are really aiming to build a community among the fellows. And then we’re building into that counseling and career placement services with Stanford and external search firms. We will also look at ways of making this a multiyear experience. If we’re successful and personal transformation later in one’s career becomes a national effort, then you can envision that the dialogue can shift and change around this topic.

Why is a University the right body to spearhead this kind of cultural change?

The way I see it is that universities and higher education play a critical role for younger people today. And I’m interested in universities scaffolding that experience for midlife – meaning from the 50’s to early 60’s. If you look at it that way, people have almost as much time for their second career as they did for their first career.

But here’s where universities can and should play a role.  Without a path, many people panic and don’t know what to do, they hang on longer than they should in their current jobs, or they retire early and squander their time and just react to things that come at them rather than actively shaping the next path.

I’m really interested in the transformation of higher education at large, and the program at Stanford is just a start.

How can and should other educational institutions play a role?

By necessity, to begin with, the Stanford program will be very small and elite to a certain extent, but the bigger issue is how we can use what we learn at Stanford to engage community colleges and other institutes around the country. Most people will not have the opportunity to take a gap year at Stanford. I have many family members approaching retirement age who would be unable to do it.  But they ought to be thinking of other ways to approach retirement, and we should be thinking of how to use all kinds of higher education to help people reroute and recalibrate their thinking as they get older.

As a medical doctor, what role does your interest in public health and medicine play in this?

People are going to be living into their 90’s and beyond, and I’m interested in paving the way for what’s going to happen in 2050 when that’s the norm. I won’t be around then but I’m interested in creating a legitimate, clear path where people can say, ‘I’m going to take time and probe deeply and see where I’ve been and where I’m going.’ The second part of the Institute’s work will be to look at the public health angle or repurposing your life and career in middle age. If you couple a new direction of purposeful living, value-based and goal-directed, with a recalibration of health and wellness programs, you could potentially attenuate some of the chronology of things that occur over time.

So that’s the big question – is this the start of something that can have an impact on how people live and their health in old age?

That is the big question indeed. Will programs like this make life in older age happier, and healthier and less debilitating?   From a public health point of view, I think if we can change the paradigm, I believe it will have a huge public health impact.

Who else needs to be on board to really change the culture?

What we need to do is change the narrative for employers across the board and that’s the next phase of this. At DCI, we are now beginning to meet with corporations and having dialogues with them. Right now they are in the mindset of ‘we need to get rid of people at certain points to make room for new people.’ But what I’m envisioning is that these people will broaden the pie – they won’t take jobs from new entrants. They may create new jobs some of which we haven’t thought about yet. New opportunities will unfold and people will approach them with different needs.

What can you accomplish starting this at Stanford as opposed to somewhere else?

Stanford is a great place to be doing this… if I were at a state university in the middle of the country, the chances of having this kind of engagement with corporations, the public health world and others would be much different. Being at Stanford helps tremendously in the facilitation of that dialogue. We’re very fortunate to be a part of that. But we don’t want to limit these opportunities to just few places. We hope for novel programs emerging from those universities and colleges across the country and around the world.

So what’s next?

We are ahead of the curve right now. The way change happens is that ideas transform behavior and we’re currently already beginning that transformative phase. Twenty percent of the US population will be 65 by 2030, and that’s a plurality of people whose views are going to be important. I’m focused not on what happens in the next five or ten years but paving the way for what happens in 2050 or 2100. I’m obviously not going to be around to experience it personally but I’m interested in planting the seeds.

If you are interested in becoming a fellow at the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, the 2015 Class is now filled but positions are available for 2016. See  http://dci.stanford.edu/ for more details.

Linda Picard: Film Distribution Phenom to Immigration Specialist

Linda2Born into a French-Italian family in Budapest, Hungary, Linda Picard was left to her own devices at the tender age of 16 when both of her parents walked out of her life. “It was a volatile marriage, a romantic drama. They had wed and divorced twice, and there was a lot of blame. When my father moved with his new family to the countryside, my mother left without me as I reminded her too much of what had passed between them.”

Staying in the family home alone with some money her father left her, Picard survived by teaching English and drawing to school children until she finished high school. It wasn’t easy, especially as she was unknowingly suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome, which causes infertility, compromises energy levels, and generally slows down metabolism. On turning 18, a time when most of us are dreaming of college, she was able to sell the apartment and invest in a small studio where she lived while she worked as a media planner at MindShare, the global media agency. From there she did a brief stint as a researcher manager for a music TV channel until McCann Erikson hired her.

Twenty years of age at the time, the independent Picard knew she needed to secure a degree if she was going to make a go of it so she enrolled in Kodolányi János University of Applied Sciences to study economics while she mastered marketing by day at McCann. “It’s all a blur. I don’t think I really slept for five years. I went to work at 9am, worked 12 hours and then hit the books until about 3am every morning. Somehow, I did it but it’s not an experience I would like to repeat.”

While still in university, the perfectly English-accented Picard headed to InterCom Ltd where she managed overall marketing communication for Fox, Sony, Warner and Disney titles in Hungary. After three years in film distribution, she moved to London as a freelance producer in the entertainment industry organizing music and film events. Discovery Networks recruited her as an on-air marketing planner. “It was a brilliant opportunity for me, but I just got a bit depressed with the weather and the mentality.”

An invitation to an international film festival in Dubai, United Arab Emirates (UAE), became a turning point for her. Picard was surprised at how at home she felt. “It’s a beautiful here. People are very friendly and it’s all so new.” That newness wound up speaking to Picard in ways beyond the shiny modern high rises of Dubai. “I got the feeling I could start over and do something completely different and interesting.” On her return to the UK, she sent her CV to a local film distributor, Empire International, which represents the biggest Hollywood studios in the region. After a second visit to Dubai for an interview, Picard joined the family-owned business as their marketing manager for the UAE, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Egypt, Syria, and Ethiopia. “In the beginning it was a bit tough. Upper and mid-management were very welcoming, but there were a lot of challenges for me especially being a woman. I disrupted the equilibrium somewhat. While women are respected in the region, they are not taken that seriously although things are rapidly changing for the better in the UAE today.”

After three years and a few marketing awards, she felt it was time to move on: “Dubai is such an exciting place to be. Everything is developing, growing out of the desert. But at the same time, because so much is new, the employment legislation and contract law is evolving. So career moves always come with potential risk but nevertheless, I decided it was time to jump to a new opportunity. Unfortunately I jumped into a big hole.”

Picard signed on with a licensing agency that had a contract with some major studios. At the time, licensing was not well established in countries like the UAE and the dynamic Picard felt she could make her mark in the up-and-coming field. By three months, she realized something was seriously wrong. Despite having closed a $100K deal with a large local company, she failed to receive any commission and her salary was not forthcoming. With her employer holding her passport, which he needed to apply for her work visa, Picard had had no alternative but to wait the situation out. It turned out the agency was not processing her visa but rather holding her passport as collateral. “It’s hard to say why I waited so long before acting when it felt fishy from day one. I guess I thought I was just being paranoid. After all, the visa process can take up to two months so I just hoped it would all be fine.”

With no other recourse, Picard reported her employer to the Ministry of Labor. Although the authorities were helpful, there was a language barrie2014-07-01 17.10.32r and misunderstandings on both sides. “Everyone was following procedure, but I couldn’t decipher what was happening around me. In the end, the authorities invited me to the Ministry eight times for mediation to resolve the situation, but each time my employer failed to show.”

After eight weeks, the Ministry finally launched an investigation and uncovered the extent of the agency’s fraudulent activities. Picard was not the only employee to be deceived. She ended up filing two cases with the courts, one to recoup the owed salary and fees and another to get her passport back. “I couldn’t leave the country without a passport. I couldn’t work as I had no visa. I didn’t have any income. I had not done anything wrong. I had simply signed a contract and became a victim of the system.”

It took ten court hearings over the course of a year for Picard to see justice. She drained her savings, resorted to freelance marketing work, and finally ended up sleeping on friends’ sofas. A Latin and Oriental dancer of more than ten years, dancing helped see her through the tough times. She won her case with the help of an Emirati lawyer and – despite not receiving back-pay from her bankrupt employer – got the recognition that she had been wronged.

The damage was done, however. Any potential employers in the film and entertainment industry were nervous about her status and so she found it difficult to find a job. As luck would have it, a friend put in a word for her at a well-established British law firm, which was looking for someone to manage a visa and immigration system they were establishing. “They were interested in my experience as I had been through the ringer so to speak. The good part was that they understood my situation and where I was legally so it worked out well. As I had gone through a terrible year, struggling to understand with the legal system, I really felt I was in a good position to help others navigate the process. Unfortunately, the only way to learn the legal system here is to experience it.”

Despite all she has been through, Picard is keen to stay on in Dubai for now although she has images of Singapore in her future. Ever the optimist, she sees her experience as just that – experience. “My life would have been a lot easier if I had stayed where I was but I’ve learned a lot from the highs and lows. I never expected to end up as a specialist in visa and immigration policy but things have a funny way of working out. What might seem like a blow at the time, can turn out to be a pivot point from which many new opportunities become available once you open yourself to the possibilities. Just don’t give up. I’ve worked hard to get where I am today and, for the most part, I’ve done it on my own, more by necessity than choice.”

It’s been an interesting ride so far, let’s hope those possibilities are a little smoother in Picard’s future.

Tips from Linda Picard

  • Never take anything for granted!
  • Fight for your rights and whatever you believe is right.
  • Find the time and place to give back, there is always a need and a cause.
  • Don’t forget to be grateful and thank everyone who has ever helped you. If there is no one to thank, then don’t forget to be grateful to yourself and the universe.
  • There is no such thing as impossible, never accept it as an option.
  • Dance and sing as much as you can…

Brenda Berkman: From Pioneering Firefighter to Printmaker

IMG_2126Brenda Berkman is no shrinking violet but she didn’t set out to be the poster-child of women firefighters. She just wanted to do her job. At the same time, she wasn’t going to pretend gender discrimination in non-traditional employment didn’t exist and so she tried her best to make things better for those who would follow. For 25 years, Brenda fought fires and sexual inequality, rising to the rank of Captain in the New York City Fire Department (FDNY). Not one to recoil from challenges, in her fifty-fifth year, Brenda revisited her long-ago passion for art and is currently an established printmaker, chronicling important social and environmental issues and keeping the memory of 9/11 alive through her work.

With a (Summa Cum Laude) degree from St Olaf College, the native Minnesotan went on to grad school at Indiana University with the intention of teaching college-level history. While wrapping up her Masters, Berkman did a summer job at a law firm and was drawn to the idea of using her skills to achieve greater social justice. And so she left the PhD program and switched to a legal track at NYU Law School.

But she found the law to be socially conservative: “Just think about it. In order to win a legal case, you have to refer back to previous decisions. It’s very difficult to move the ball up the field in law in terms of social justice issues. It’s not that it can’t be done, a couple of legal decisions can flip the paradigm, but it’s difficult.”

This growing awareness, combined with her natural athleticism and active personality, made Berkman think twice about whether law, and spending time sitting at a desk, was actually right for her. Although she remained in law school, she started to look around for inspiration.

In the summer of 1977, she was amazed to see the FDNY was – for the first time – allowing women to take the test for firefighter. “Up until that point, it didn’t matter if you were an Olympic-caliber athlete or holder of the ‘Strongest Woman in the World’ title, if you were born a woman, the FDNY did not want you.” But in response to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Title VII legislation, the Department realized they had no choice but to make the change. But they weren’t going to make it easy so they changed the entry exam, making it more difficult for women to pass the physical portion.

Photo by Joyce Benna
Photo by Joyce Benna

“Although I was finishing up law school, I thought firefighting could be the perfect occupation for me. It combines my strong desire to help my community and other people. The fact that it was not a desk job really appealed to me. I figured the job would be physically and mentally challenging and I would have to learn new skills. You never know what you’ll be called on to do as a firefighter and I’d have to know a little about lots of different things.”

Berkman along with about 90 other women took the physical part of the firefighter exam. They all failed. “I believed at the time that the test was not related to the actual job of firefighting. The FDNY had put in a bunch of obstacles that did not adequately measure the ability of a firefighter to the job. So I fought back.”

Berkman was the sole named class plaintiff to challenge the test in federal court. The City argued that she was just trying to make a political point. “I had to testify under oath that if I won the case, I would quit practicing law and become a firefighter.”  And so, true to her word, when she won the decision five years later in 1982, that is exactly what she did. Even her own mother was amazed by Berkman’s decision: “She and everyone else wondered: ‘Why would a lawyer go through all this training, take a 50% cut in salary, and jump into the deep end of the pool?’ In all honesty, I had the luxury to do this because my then-husband was a lawyer and I could always return to law if it didn’t work out.”

Following Berkman’s example, many women came out of the woodwork to join the force. But their numbers were small and it was hard going.  With only one woman to a battalion [several firehouses], they were very isolated. And Berkman’s reputation of ‘Chief Troublemaker’ did not help. “The first ten years were extremely difficult. There was lots of harassment and retaliation, I wasn’t even sure some of the men ‘had my back’ during some calls. With male firefighters who refused to speak, train, or even eat with me plus anonymous death threats and pornographic harassment, it was hard to feel part of the “team”.  But I refused to quit something I loved because some men felt women shouldn’t be doing it … You know, I wasn’t a complete idiot. I wasn’t going to continue doing the job if I wasn’t up to it. This is serious business.  After all, we are in the life-saving business.”

Not only did she love her job, but she was good at it, and for the next 25 years served her adopted city with competence and pride.

Like many others, Brenda Berkman’s life was changed forever on 9/11. On that unforgettable day, the then New York City Lieutenant lost many colleagues and friends. After surviving 9/11, she spent the next months working at Ground Zero in recovery efforts until the site closed.

Five years after 9/11 and after 25 years on the force, it was time to retire from the FDNY and the fire service. “It got to the point it wasn’t fun anymore. I was getting older. I realized I wanted to do something else with my life. Partly this was timing, changing as a person, but post 9/11, I realized that continuing as a firefighter was not good for me. I needed to recalibrate.”

At the age of 55, Berkman handed in her “helmet and hose” and started to look anew for inspiration. Collecting a pension and without immediate financial worries, she didn’t have much in mind except that the next step should be something completely different and yet she wanted to retain the ability to help the community.

She started volunteering at church in social projects targeted at the elderly and homeless and worked closely with the 9/11 Families Association and the United Women Firefighters Association. “Believe me, I had lots of opportunities, once people hear you are retired, they think you have an infinite amount of time. You really must figure out what you most like and where you can make the greatest contribution.”

“9-11” (self-portrait), stone lithograph

Despite her busy schedule, Berkman felt a need to be more creative. As a child she had always been interested in art and music and throughout her career as a firefighter often received gifts of arts books, easels, and painting sets as friends knew of her interest. It took actual retirement to find the time to pursue her interest. She started taking print-making classes at the Art Students League. “Printmaking appealed to me because there is a certain amount of technology and process involved as well as creativity. Having been a firefighter and having to learn how to operate different kinds of tools, it seemed like a natural fit.”

At first she felt guilty. “I thought of art as being kind of selfish choice for me. I should be out saving the world but here I am drawing … but then I realized I was making something out of nothing. Being creative has become a huge thing for me. It has touched me in a very important way.”

Winter Walk on the Brooklyn Bridge, stone lithograph
Winter Walk on the Brooklyn Bridge, stone lithograph

Berkman donates a lot of her art to charitable causes and finds ways to use her work to help others. In anticipation of the 10th anniversary of 9/11, she worked with other artists to organize a collaborative project to deal with their responses to 9/11. Berkman worked on numerous rebuild projects after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy. She also visited northeastern Japan after the 3/11/11 tsunami to talk to survivors and share her experiences as a New Yorker of how the City worked together to rebuild after 9/11. Some of her artwork was inspired by that trip. Other topics in her art deal with social issues such as oils spills in the Gulf and the 2008 financial collapse. Today she is working on a series of 36 views of the new One World Trade Center, a multi-year effort as the prints cannot be completed until the building is finished.

“All these different types of expressions turned out to really great for me personally but I hope that they are also helping others to move past their grief. Frankly I’m not so interested in making money although it would be nice to move some of my art out of my apartment! I’m more focused on just making and doing the art. In that sense, it has been very rewarding.”

Any regrets? “I don’t think anyone comes into this life with all the answers on how to make a successful career journey. I know I didn’t. When those women and I entered FDNY, we didn’t have anyone to turn to as an example or mentor. So looking back, I definitely wish I had understood the value of being able to talk about my story and make those outside firefighting – the ordinary citizen, the policy-maker – aware of the importance and benefits of having women firefighters. I wish we had spoken up more. It’s not that I wanted to be more high profile but I should have gotten the message out better. It’s a problem that still exists today. If you can convince people that women can be firefighters, you can convince people that women can be successful at anything. People need to understand how important it is to open jobs to women in the trades, the uniformed services, the military, and other non-traditional employment fields. These are careers women and girls should be considering but it’s still not happening.”

In fact today, there are fewer women firefighters in the FDNY than when Berkman joined the department in 1982.

Berkman may regret not having spoken her truth as a firefighter all the time, but she certainly pioneered the way for many women to follow and is recognized for all she did to improve the lot of others. (Berkman is the recipient of the National Organization for Women’s Susan B. Anthony Award and other accolades and has been the subject of numerous articles, books, TV shows, an off-Broadway play and the 2006 PBS documentary “Taking the Heat.) And now as an artist she is getting a second chance to break new ground.

You can view and purchase Berkman’s art on her website.

Tips from Brenda Berkman:

  • Don’t let stereotypes hold you back!
  • Even if you can’t earn income from your passion, work it into your life and with time you might be able to make the shift.
  • If you are not ready for the deep end, go in the wading section and transition to the deeper water when you are ready.
  • People don’t respect you if you don’t speak up for yourself. Speak your truth.




Elizabeth Rice: Real Women Wear Toolbelts

liz in her glory  Elizabeth Rice’s fundraising page opens with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world but in being able to remake ourselves.” Rice has done her bit to remake the world. But true to those words, the real challenge is her own reinvention. After the sudden loss of her brother in the prime of his life and 13 failed fertility treatments, cycling solo more than 300 miles to support Habitat for Humanity and raise money to go to carpentry school is no sweat for the determined Rice.

Born and bred in Massachusetts, the cheerfully optimistic Rice has construction and carpentry genes coursing through her veins. Union men both, her father was a millwright and her late brother a carpenter. Rice spent her teenage years working at her uncles’ construction company in Abington. “It was scut work mostly. I hauled trash, cleaned out after jobs and painted fences, but I enjoyed the physical labor and being outdoors.”

Although she had an interest in the family business, Rice’s personality leaned more towards helping people than hammering nails. Trading in one accent for another, she left Quincy, Mass, for the Bronx, NY, where she studied sociology at Fordham University. Throughout her college years, Rice volunteered at numerous HIV/AIDS efforts and when she graduated, she signed up for her first of several AIDS charity bike rides between NY and Boston. “The first was the best. Doing that ride made me realize I am capable of things I never thought I could do,” she remembers.

Moving back to Massachusetts, Rice worked as a personal care assistant for a man with end-stage AIDS during the day and at night worked at a home for brain-injured adolescents. Somewhere along the way, she decided to return to school to get a Masters degree in clinical social work, this time from NYU. Getting her crazy out and notching up the car-dodging skills she would need for a life on the bike, she worked as a bike messenger to support herself while in graduate school.

After NYU, Rice returned to Massachusetts to work for several years in community health centers, primarily with people who were homeless, HIV+, and had substance abuse problems. “ I loved my job, but I had a yearning to work outside doing something more physical. So I turned to small carpentry projects as a hobby to fulfill that need. There is nothing better than the smell of freshly cut wood,” she adds.

Then unexpectedly in 2007, Rice’s 37-year-old brother, Derek, died from a suspected heart attack. “It was devastating because it came as a total shock. It made me realize how fragile life is. You’re here one day, the next you’re gone. I started to question if I was happy enough. Did I love my job? Did I want to do this for the rest of my life?” she recalls.

VT carpentry schoolDriven by grief tinged with doubt, Rice headed to the Boston Carpentry Union and applied to be a Union Apprentice. “The next step would have been to go out and find on-the-job training, but fear got the best of me and I didn’t follow up with the opportunity.” At that time she also met with the Admissions Director of North Bennet Street, a craft and trade school in Boston, to look into their carpentry programs. But having recently completed social work school, Rice decided not to apply. “I wanted to make sure my desire to do carpentry was not too strongly influenced by grief over my brother.”

She packed away her dreams and moved jobs to Adcare hospital in 2008, where, to this day, she counsels people with substance abuse problems. Feeling guilty about her inability to make the leap, Rice took up various carpentry courses to keep up her skills and alleviate any regret. A highlight during that time was a 1-week Yestermorrow women in carpentry class in Waitsfield, Vermont. “ I gained so much confidence in such a short period of time. Two highly accomplished women carpenters were mentoring us, and we even built a shed.” Rice loved the course, but returned to Massachusetts and remained in her career.

Three years later, in the midst of a serious relationship, Rice began trying to get pregnant, a journey that eventually led to multiple infertility treatments. “I tried everything I could to have a baby. I exercised, changed my diet, and thought of nothing else. We went through multiple IUIs and IVFs. To say it took a toll on my emotions is a huge understatement. It consumed me for three years.” But never one to walk away from a challenge, Rice was determined and kept at it – a total of 13 times.

10325295_10203048628489609_7791261639915265744_nNeeding an outlet for the intensity of the treatments combined with her emotionally taxing job of helping addicts, Rice turned again to carpentry. “It all started with an idea of refinishing an old table. Feeling accomplished, I moved on to building a workbench, shelves, and even our queen-size bed frame.  I transformed our former office into a workroom and hung photos of my brother Derek on the wall. Using his old tools and listening to the music he loved, I felt a connection with him and the sadness and helplessness I had been feeling started to lift. I felt transformed.”

With that change, came the realization that she was not entirely happy with her job and that perhaps it was time to take another shot at carpentry. So in the fall of 2013, Rice decided to go part-time at Adcare, doing social work at night and dog-walking during the day to have some time to think about her next move. “The dog-walking gave me a break to stop and think about what I wanted. I was in nature, feeling good, and getting clarity about my life.”

Rice picked up the pace and started taking more carpentry workshops. She surfed YouTube to watch videos on how to use nail guns and routers. “My friends and family were great. For my 40th birthday, all I got were tools and gift cards from Lowes and Home Depot! Everyone was very supportive.”

In her research on possible schools, Rice found herself taking a fresh look at North Bennet Street. It piqued her interest that the founder, a woman, had started the school to provide immigrants new to Boston the foundation to find work and support themselves. “It was the perfect fit. I went for an info session and fell in love. The student body was diverse in terms of gender and the type of carpentry classes offered was a step above the unnamed (3)standard.” North Bennet Street offers the only preservation carpentry program in the country.

Fueled by her love of antiques and all things old, Rice applied for the 2-year program. “To be honest, I didn’t think I’d get in, but I didn’t want that to stop me from applying,” she laughs. On the first of this year, she sent off her application, one of more than 100 applicants for only 13 slots.

“I got the letter on March 10th. I remember it like it was yesterday. It was the day before we found out that my last pregnancy attempt had failed. One door closes, another opens. Well there it was, the directions were laid out in front of me, I didn’t know which way I was going to turn but now it seemed the path was clear.”

The path may have crystallized but Rice still has to come up with the tuition. Three years of ongoing fertility treatment had left Rice and her partner financially drained. Despite some financial aid, loans, and the National Association of Women In Construction Founders’ Scholarship, Rice is still $15,000 short (and that’s for the first year).

Brainstorming on how to raise the funds, she thought about crowdfunding sites like YouCaring. “I always did fundraising for others so it didn’t sit well with me to focus on myself. I had to do something to earn it.” Having volunteered for Habitat for Humanity when in college, Rice reached out to her local Habitat affiliate and agreed to donate 20% of all proceeds to the home-building NGO. “Now I don’t have to feel guilty. I can raise money for a social good and myself,” she explains.

Inspired by the charity rides she has done in the past, Rice decided she would bicycle from her apartment in Quincy, Mass, to New York City to prove her commitment to attending North Bennet Street School and raise money.  Although she has ridden between Boston and New York before, Rice’s “Bike-to-Build” campaign is a solo effort without the emotional and physical support of others cyclists or spectators. “When I came up with the idea, I hadn’t sat on my bike for a year or so, and I didn’t think about all the work I’d have to do to make this fundraiser happen. But I’m a girl, and girls can do anything,” she laughs.

You can follow Rice on her entertaining blog as she shares the highs and lows of training and even touches on her personal journey with infertility.

And if you believe Rice deserves a break, donate to her cause.

Some tips from Elizabeth Rice’s blog and motivators that keep her going:

  • Don’t give up no matter how bad things may seem
  • It is easier to let go and accept than to try to control and resist
  • You did enough, have enough, and are enough
  • As long as your heart is beating, you can learn and try something new
  • 40 is to be savored, not feared
  • When the mind is not weighed down with struggles and stress, it can accomplish great things
  • Service to others takes my mind off of me.

Dr Shami Feinglass: The Doctor of BMX

Photo courtesy of Kay Ohta

Shamiram “Shami” Feinglass loves a challenge, and God help you if you think she’s not up to it. The five-foot-tall, mother-of-two medical doctor has, in the past year, added nationally ranked BMX racer to her resume, the perfect accompaniment to policy-maker, med tech executive, and public speaker.

“Frankly it all started as a lark, but by challenging myself I realized I can do it. And in doing the unexpected, I can be a role model for women and girls and an inspiration for others to take risk and own their choices. I can use myself as an example of attaining the seemingly unattainable. If Shami can do it, so can you!”

A native of San Francisco, Feinglass graduated from Smith College with an AB in Biochemistry. She was certain she would go on to study molecular biology but after one summer as an intern at Genentech, Inc, quickly realized that “I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life talking to rats.” After some soul-searching during that summer, she switched to health policy and became a lobbyist for a non-profit education association in DC.

Feinglass spent two years as a lobbyist working on health, education and computer technology issues. Attending many discussions on health policy, she found herself surrounded by lawyers. “I knew I had to go to medical school. If I was going to do a decent job in the field, I would have to become a physician policy-maker. There were just so many lawyers at the health table, but not a single doctor.”

So off she went to grad school at Emory University, getting a Masters in Public Health and continuing on to medical school. Throughout her grad school career, she stayed close to the policy community in DC, working with the Carter Center on the inclusion of mental health care in the Clinton healthcare reform package and with US Medical during the Olympic games in Atlanta. She moved to Portland, Oregon, to do her residency in internal medicine while simultaneously doing public health policy work at the state level, with a focus on teen health and prenatal care for pregnant migrant farm workers (yes, you read correctly, interning as a doctor and doing public policy work). From there, she moved to Seattle as part of the prestigious Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholars Program to study access to mental health services for teens. “Most of my clinical time was spent in homeless teen clinics. It’s a population that has real promise if they can access the right services. I really felt I could affect more people in need if I helped the underserved and didn’t have to charge for my services or rely on the income.” Feinglass’ path became clearer to her after Seattle. From there, she entered the U.S. Public Health Service (the Surgeon General’s Corps) and then headed to Medicare where she felt she would make a difference as a physician policy-maker in government.

For the next seven years, she was responsible for making decisions on what Medicare would cover for seniors and the disabled across the US. It was during this time that she had her two children, and, just to keep things interesting, did a second residency in preventive medicine at Emory University. “So it’s not always the best of attributes that I strive for constant stimulation and fear boredom. I’ve always been interested in the learning curve and the challenge. Once I’ve mastered something, I’m interested in learning new things while I continue to focus on whatever that job is at that time.”

From Medicare, Feinglass moved to Zimmer, a large medical device company, as their VP Global Medical and Regulatory Affairs. “I went there because I was really attracted to the international business exposure and the opportunity to learn about non-US health systems,” she explains. Managing a large team on many continents and multiple time zones for 4.5 years was highly challenging but something was missing, “While I was senior enough to make decisions and help move the culture around, I wasn’t taking as much risk I wanted to,” Feinglass says, “so I took a pause. It was a bit scary but I wanted to take a self-imposed ‘time out’.”

The pause gave her time to explore something even the energetic doctor never imagined she’d take up.

While attending her 7-year-old son’s BMX event, Feinglass’ enthusiasm impressed a woman at the track who joked, “Why don’t you train to race BMX during your break from work? If you start now, you could compete next year.” Feinglass did a double-take and answered, “Are you crazy? I’m too old for crashing to a fiery ball of broken bones on a bike with no gears. And besides, I am super competitive so if I am going to do this, I need to be ready this summer.” The more she tried to convince the woman she wasn’t interested, the more she realized she was. The dearth of women in the sport made the challenge even more compelling.

In case, dear reader, you are not aware, Google defines BMX as “organized bicycle racing on a dirt track, especially for youngsters.” A “dead sailor” in BMX jargon is a jump gone wrong that might land you in the “melisha” but if you “kill” a “quarter pipe” and “shred” the competition you just might end up on the “X-Games” or nowadays even the Olympics. Got it?

With no time to lose, Feinglass started looking into how many races she would have to do to make sure she would place at the state and national level. It was doable. As a 45-year old woman, Feinglass got a kick out of the reaction from the competition when her name started appearing on boards before the race. “I loved the look on the boys’ faces when they would ask ‘Feinglass, who’s that guy?’ and I’d answer ‘Don’t worry, you’ll probably beat me but I’m still going to come up the track on your heels so watch out!’”

It was never quite a fair race for Feinglass but she has become a poster child of what is possible for women in their forties if they are willing to take a risk: “Whether they are boys or girls, the 17-year olds will lap you all the time! For me, it was all about showing that I could do it as an ‘old lady’ when I frankly had no right to be starting this sport at all. At least as a doctor, I can diagnose my own broken bones. It was a personal challenge and something I could do with my husband and son. But my daughter remains thus far unconvinced.”

And now Feinglass has made it her personal mission to get as many girls and women interested in the sport as possible. She approaches the mothers and sisters of the competitors at any track she races on asking if they want to give it a try and helps host girls-only days at her local track. Some of the moms have been inspired to give it a go. “Last week, a woman said to me ‘you know, Dr. Feinglass, I watched you on the track and I think you’re totally nuts but if you can do it, so can I.’ That has been the best part of all this. After only one year, we’ve seen more than double the number of females participating at our local track.”

Feinglass is currently ranked number 2 in her class in the state of Indiana. She competes nationally (and in Canada) and ranks in the top 30 of all female BMX racers in her category. “I haven’t heard from Go-Pro yet but I’m sure the call is coming,” she laughs.

Photo courtesy of Kay Ohta

Although she raked in a whopping $24 in Pro-Am official winnings in her first year, surpassing the career earnings of her son and husband, Feinglass is not likely to make money from BMX racing. But the experience has been transformative and made her rethink what she wants to do next. “I will admit, it is amusing to me to be a middle-aged mom doing my children’s sports but it’s also the role model piece. I want my legacy to be that there are more women in leadership positions, not just in medicine and the corporate world but also in sport. If I can inspire women and girls just by seeing me on the track – and not always doing that well – to get out there and maybe even lead on that track one day…well that’s fabulous.  And I bet they will be leaders in other areas of their life too. I loved ballet as a child but with a little inspiration, maybe I would have loved judo!”

So, after a little personal research into what other non-traditional sports she could affect, she decided to start Tae Kwon Doe with her daughter. “I literally decided on a Friday to start and competed one week later, I won my group!” OK, full disclosure, all three white belts – Feinglass, an 8-year old boy, and a 10-year-old girl – got medals.

As she considers her next career move, at the very least Feinglass has great fodder for her public-speaking events. Regardless of where she lands, she’s committed to pushing boundaries for women. She tells you straight up, “Hey, this totally middle-aged, not-very-athletic doctor took up BMX racing one year ago and now she’s a state champ. What do you want to do today?”

Tips from Dr Shami Feinglass:

  • Try to widen your comfort zone. Be ready to take on more risk.  Be comfortable with some level of chaos and uncertainty.
  • Don’t rush to take the first job that comes your way. Try to understand how the job fits into your legacy versus how your legacy fits with job.
  • Thinking and transformation come from taking a pause.

Do you have some suggestions for the next Feinglass sports challenge? Leave your comments below.

Christine Bienvenu: Reinvention in the Face of Adversity

CB profileIf it takes a special kind of woman to stand up to breast cancer, remain positive, question experts’ recommendations, and take control of her own care, then surely it takes an extraordinary woman to turn the whole experience into a career opportunity. Meet Christine Bienvenu.

At a time when most teenagers are contemplating college options, the then-17-year-old Bienvenu moved from Montreal, Canada, to Switzerland. In the land of Emmental cheese and punctuality, she had the opportunity to do an apprenticeship directly after high school. “Not everyone is made to sit in a classroom, the hands-on experience is very valuable for a lot of young people trying to figure out what they want to do with their lives. It worked for me,” Bienvenu notes.

Already fluent in English, she requested to substitute the language class requirement with a volunteer opportunity. She worked at a local senior center and liked it so much that she realized she wanted to continue the work outside of mandatory class hours. “I felt like a fish in water,’” Bienvenu recalls. After high school graduation, she signed up for a 3-year apprenticeship in a nursing home. And for the next 15 years, worked as a social activities coordinator in three different nursing homes, at one of which she met her husband, Alain. “In case you are wondering, he was the chef, not a patient. Who says exciting things don’t happen in nursing homes?” jokes Bienvenu.

In support of Alain’s long-time dream to open a restaurant, Bienvenu took a break to support him. Together, they worked a grueling 16–18-hour days, 6 days a week. “It was struggle, especially with a small child, and not particularly rewarding as the income was just enough to cover our expenses. We went into it a little too wide-eyed and optimistic.” So after two years, they decided to let go of the dream.

Bienvenu returned to the eldercare sector and found a job again as an activities coordinator, which she held for five years until a restructuring was announced. Her new contract required her to work irregular shifts. Her husband, head chef at a restaurant in Lausanne, also works non-standard hours. Between them, they agreed it would be impossible to manage the hours and two young children, so Bienvenu demurred, “I saw it as a sign to take a break and stay home with my little ones.”

And then came the terrible news. With no familial history of breast cancer and only 35 years old at the time, Bienvenu was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). Considering her age, they had to move fast. Within one month of the diagnosis, Bienvenu underwent a tumorectomy in her right breast in hopes of saving it. Another month later, she started 18 weeks of highly aggressive chemo. Unfortunately, the tumorectomy revealed that her entire right breast had pre-cancerous cells and so she ultimately decided to undergo a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. “It was a pretty intense time. When you are on the wrong side of the statistics, you just go with what you’ve got. You don’t really have a choice. I was ‘out to lunch’ for several days after chemo treatments and the children were so young. My husband, sisters, and mother had to pick up the pieces.”

At the time of her treatment, many of the cancer resources available for women suffering TNBC were targeted at older women, and Bienvenu had a hard time finding helpful advice. “The issues facing older women with cancer – not to detract from that – are very different. They don’t tend to have young children at home. The issues between husband and wife are not the same at 55 or 60 versus 35 years.”

She also found the Swiss support group meetings she attended to be anything but supportive. Generally Swiss people and are not known for their willingness to question authority. “I found everyone to be so passive in the discussion. It was always, ‘Well, my doctor says this…my doctor has it under control … But I’m not a passive person! I’m a proactive person, I like to get answers and do things for myself.”

Frustrated by the lack of information and the “old-school paternalistic approach” and knowing that she was not the only young cancer survivor in Switzerland with different needs, Bienvenu struck out to find like-minded people, women and men who would understand her. “I needed to find people who were like me, going through what I was going through, and with whom I could discuss things I couldn’t speak about with my family for fear of hurting or scaring them.”

She turned to the internet, specifically online cancer communities or forums and social media. What she found was very helpful and guided discussions she had with her oncologist. She questioned some of the advice she was given and started seriously considering a double mastectomy after she read that TNBC could be more effectively treated by removing all of the breast tissue. “I respect doctors but they are only human. Several heads thinking together on how to tackle a problem is better than one. There is a need to be more critical of traditional treatments. For me, it made perfect sense, the more I take off, the less chance I have of relapse.”

Her oncologist was not in favor and the surgeon was up in the air, so the no-nonsense Bienvenu got a second opinion from a Professor at the breast center in Lausanne, who also thought the double mastectomy was the better option. After weighing the pros and cons, the fact that there was no way to detect pre-cancerous cells made Bienvenu decide to err on the side of caution and undergo a double mastectomy. The dread of wondering whether the left breast would also one day present with TNBC won out over keeping it.

Through it all, she remained active on social media and maintained contact with people in the breast cancer community abroad. Although the online resources were remarkably helpful, they were targeted at a North-American audience. “It was very healing for me, but when it came to ‘translating’ all the advice to my context, I started to see the gaps. While the issues may be the same, the Swiss way of handling them is not. Much of the information on protocols, insurance, doctors’ approaches, financial aid and so on is quite different.”

And so the seed was planted for Seinplement Romand(e)s – an online breast cancer platform across social media – and in it, Bienvenu found her calling. If she could not find the support she needed, she would create it – as much for herself as for others. It was not going to be easy as the Swiss, even today, are apprehensive of social media.

To help get started, the resourceful Bienvenu turned to the Swiss disability insurance program for assistance in job retraining. It was clear she would not be able to return to her profession due to physical limitations that would restrict her from pushing wheelchairs, lifting elderly patients, and the like. At first, officials resisted. “They wanted me to train to be an office manager as they didn’t see the benefit in social media training. It was only the beginning of many battles I would have.” But Bienvenu was tenacious and finally won them over. She received financial support for a 1-year program in social media and online communities, which she started in 2012.

With her health back on track, she threw herself into her classes, “I absolutely loved everything about the courses. I finally found where I was supposed to be and it felt great to feel professionally competent again!” Her thesis was essentially the business plan of Seinplement Romand(e)s. The platform merges many channels of communication and is a place where French-speaking people can come to find information and support, share experiences, and exchange ideas with other patients about their situation. It is open to both men and women (thus the “e” in parenthesis indicating the feminine noun). “I wanted to make it inclusive because not only do men suffer from breast cancer directly, but they are usually the ones left keeping the household and family going while the woman is going through treatments or recovering.”

It hasn’t been an easy ride, but the resilient Bienvenu continues to push on. Two weeks before she presented her thesis defense for her diploma, she relapsed and had to start another 15 rounds of chemo and radiotherapy. Offline she reached out to lot of associations and women’s groups to try and broaden the community across Switzerland’s six French-speaking cantons. “That was a frustrating experience. Decision-making in Switzerland is highly centralized. There are 26 cantons, each with its own cancer organization. I got the same answer from everyone I approached: ‘Oh, that’s an interesting idea, but social media? We are not ready for that.’ But then my thesis advisor suggested – instead of going top down – to create the community from the bottom up. And so that’s what I did.”

And finally, the “top” is noticing and coming to her. Her community is growing all the time and Bienvenu has become very active in the whole Health 2.0 for French-speaking Switzerland and France. She will speak at Doctors 2.0 & You this summer and works in collaboration with the Geneva and Lausanne University hospitals on various 2.0 projects. She was chosen to translate Dave DeBronkart’s book Let Patients Help! in French. “Social media has enabled me to meet fascinating people that I wouldn’t otherwise have been able to meet and to get involved in incredible projects that I could never have imagined. It’s ironic that being so ill has enabled me to find skills I never knew I had, and invest in a passion that would grow into a career.”

Disability pension is a key form of support for Bienvenu and has enabled her to keep Seinplement Romand(e)s independent. “I want this neutrality so it can be open to everyone. I could probably cash in, I live in the country of pharmaceuticals after all! But right now, I am satisfied with the recognition that I am helping others. But honestly, it’s not even really the recognition. I do it for the community. I’ve made some wonderful friends, the journey has just become so fascinating. Who would have thought?”

Christine Bienvenu Tips for Surviving Tough Times:

  • Have confidence in yourself and your gut feeling. Trust that above all! You can respect experts in the field, be they in the medical sector or otherwise, but your own personal experience counts for a lot.
  • It’s OK to take no for answer as long as you have a valid and logical explanation why the answer is “no”, otherwise keep pushing.
  • In my situation, educating myself was crucial for me to stay strong and be considered an equal partner in my care. This can be applied to any situation really. No one can know everything, stay humble, and bring knowledge to the table.

Have questions for Christine Bienvenu? Post a comment and we’ll make sure she sees it. You can follow Christine on Facebook.

Srirupa Dasgupta: Giving the Gift of Work, Food, and a Little Perspective

SrirupaDasguptaSrirupa Dasgupta admits she rarely listens to other people. Well, to be fair, she listens to what other people say and then makes her own decisions. The Bengali Indian is a doer, that much is clear. But her story is not what you expect. The force behind this tenacious woman who has sported many career hats is a desire to live her values and invest in her beliefs. For Dasgupta, working with and developing people is her life’s goal, and she is prepared to sacrifice more than most of us to make this a reality.

Born in Calcutta, India, Dasgupta first came to the United States to study at Smith College, with only an aunt to her name far away in California. She double-majored in computer science and studio art, two seemingly unrelated fields. “Being Indian, I was told I need to do something practical and majoring arts was not going to cut it so I did computer science, which was up and coming. But really it made sense, I was drawn to the problem solving and elegant algorithms.”

Fresh out of college she became a programmer analyst for a decision-support software provider for the healthcare industry. After four years and looking for something more interesting, she moved from application and systems development to a management role. For the next 15 years, Dasgupta held various management positions in the software industry, rotating from managing R&D teams and call centers, to developing strategic partnerships and consulting services for different blue-chip companies in Massachusetts and California.

In the lead up to the tech bubble burst, Dasgupta started thinking about changing careers. “I had worked the entire lifecycle of the software product, done the whole rotation. I wanted to do something new and fresh.” With much foresight, she launched into a 1-year Integral Coach® training and certification program while still working at Lucent Technologies. “In all of my management positions, what I loved best was working with people, setting a vision and creating opportunities for them to excel and advance in their career … coaching seemed like a good fit.”

In a-not-unwelcome turn-of-events, Dasgupta was laid off from her job in 2002. Well prepared when she got the news, she put all her energies into finishing the coaching certification program. “The training was really aligned with my interests. The methodology takes an integrated approach to the multi-dimensional individual, we looked at the whole person, cognitive, and physical, and the cultural, social and environmental context in which they find themselves. All of these are critical components of coaching, the end goal of which is not to solve the problem, but rather develop the person.”

She started her own coaching practice shortly thereafter. “Even though I had a lot of experience in business, being a small business owner was really different … the first year was a lot of learning-by-doing. I found it difficult to promote myself, attending events and generating leads was challenging.” But not one to shy away from a challenge and noticing she was not alone in her discomfort for business networking, she started a blog to coach herself and others, which led to a book on the subject entitled Effortless Networking.

In fact these evolving career transitions have become a theme and pattern in Dasgupta’s life. As she explains: “Most of us set a goal and move towards it. It’s a linear task. But training as a coach introduced me to another option … it’s called improvisation. You have a map, you know how you will get there, but on route life throws you curveballs. I try to keep my goal in focus but adapt along the way. Coaching has taught me to look at the opportunities that arise and use them to propel me towards my objective rather than seeing them as a distraction.”

After the birth of her second child in 2006, she decided to put her practice on hold as the family relocated to Ohio and finally Pennsylvania for work. For about two years, Dasgupta didn’t actively seek out clients. When she began to think about working again, she found herself at a crossroads. “Should I restart my business? Do something different? Take a salaried position?” she wondered. While thinking about all the possible options, a digital communications and marketing position opened up at nearby Franklin & Marshall College. Although she has been working there for six years and it’s interesting work, Dasgupta admits, her passion lies in working with people.

And so comes the next transition or, more precisely, expression of who she is. Attending an event where Muhammad Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, was speaking, Dasgupta was intrigued by the idea that one can create a for-profit business with the intention of solving a social problem. As an entrepreneur, her interest was piqued and she started to look around for inspiration while doing her day job at F&M.

upohar2Dasgupta learned about the refugee population in Lancaster City and felt a connection. Her own family had been refugees from Bangladesh and she had grown up with stories about how difficult it was to start over in India. At the height of the economic crisis, it was tough for refugees to find work. For the women, it was close to impossible. Thinking about how she could create jobs for these Bhutanese, Iraqi and other female refugees, Dasgupta hit upon the idea of  starting a catering business. “These women may not be able to speak English but they can cook!” she realized.

She found a commercial kitchen that rented space on an hourly basis and worked with about four women, who – for practical, mostly language, reasons – cooked what they knew. The enterprising Dasgupta launched the ethnic catering business as a proof-of-concept to see whether she could use a for-profit business model to hire women who otherwise could not find a job, whether the women could do the work, and whether she could pay a living wage.

“All of this was hypothetical. On paper, everything looked great but usually the problems you anticipate are not the ones that show up,” she recalls. “During the first year, I learned all kinds of things and hurdles emerged where I never expected them.”

Apart from the language barrier, a key issue was that the refugees are on welfare. When they get a job, their benefits are cut. But as the catering upohar3business is erratic … one day they may get a gig, the next day not. So the irregularity of income wreaked havoc with the calculation of women’s welfare benefits. “Sometimes they had cash, sometimes they didn’t. It was almost easier not to work!” Dasgupta stopped hiring new employees and tried to stabilize the hours of those she already worked with but the problem persisted.

And so, making a decision that no one in their right mind facing a similar challenge would make, this past March, after three years of solely catering, she opened a restaurant. Entirely self-funded and managed all while still working a full-time job in F&M, this remarkable woman is determined to make a go of it. Upohar (which translates to gift in Bengali) opened its doors for lunch and takeout only and offers catering services. Dasgupta’s right-hand man, Stephen, does the deliveries, inventory, and shopping and her staff of five cook and run the show. Dasgupta breaks even but pays for the advertising and marketing campaigns out of her own pocket. She has yet to give herself a paycheck. She is hoping each month she will generate enough revenue to pay her staff and the rent for the following month. So far, so good!

Why all the risk and stress? “I was called to do it. It was the only way I could generate steady employment for these women. Upohar was conceived as a gift for employees, who get the opportunity to work, a gift to the community to try all these new different foods, and a gift to myself. Through working with these women who are starting over, working hard to rebuild their lives from scratch, I have been given the gift of perspective. My problems don’t seem that big anymore.”

And so Dasgupta takes it one day at a time. She now hires not just refugees but also disadvantaged women from shelters. She is hopeful that Upohar will become a place where people come not only come to enjoy the food but also to appreciate all that they have by meeting those who make the food and who have overcome great challenges.

If you are ever in Lancaster City, Pennsylvania, explore the world through food and visit Upohar.

Believe in Srirupa Dasgupta’s work and want to support her efforts? You can make a donation at http://www.upoharethniccuisines.com/contact-us/support-us/

Srirupa Dasgupta’s Tips for Success:

  • Ask for help. No one does anything alone. Acknowledge your strengths and find help in areas that are not part of your skillset.
  • Pay attention to your gut reactions and your behavior (what you actually do, versus what you think you do or want to do) – to different situations, events, and people – and use this information in your decision-making process.
  • Know your limits so you can set and maintain your boundaries. This can help you focus on what matters most and avoid over-extending yourself.


Have you ever considered putting your career where your heart is by creating a social enterprise?

Viv Oyolu: Giving Women’s Stories a Voice

Viv Oyolu-3 (hi res) (1)London-based Viv Oyolu’s infectious laughter vibrates down the phone line, compelling you to smile along as she shares the twists and turns of her extraordinary life. Even through the scratchy Skype connection, you find yourself gravitating to her voice, drawn in by her larger-than-life personality. Being profiled on Career 2.0 is rather ironic for Oyolu because, as a radio presenter and audio and podcast consultant, her “thing” is to give other people the opportunity to share their words, “My purpose is to give people’s stories a voice! I am in a position to do that but really it’s a gift to me to resurrect my life.”

Born in the UK to Nigerian parents, Oyolu returned to Benin city in Nigeria at the age of four. She studied marketing at Rivers State University and worked for about five years at Citizens, a commercial bank in Nigeria. In 1994, the adventure-seeking Oyolu relocated to the UK with her best friend to do an MBA at Durham University, “It was something completely different.”

Post-graduation, Oyolu oversaw marketing for a London business school. She eventually became a free agent and shopped her marketing services to big brands like BMW, Walt Disney, NatWest, and Barclaycard for many years.

It was all going swimmingly until she hit her 39th birthday, “I think I was having a mid-life crisis. I guess I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I knew something was off. I just felt so dissatisfied.”

Around the same time, she read Bill Wilson’s Whose Child Is This?, a harrowing book about abandoned children in New York’s projects. Fascinated viv-oyolue-2by book, in 2005, on the spur-of-the-moment  Oyolu rang Wilson’s Metro Ministries in Brooklyn, a faith-based organization which works with inner-city kids. Discovering they offered internships, she saved up for six months and raised funds from generous friends to support her stay in New York.

It was a decision that would forever change her life. Working for five months at the hardest job she had ever done, Oyolu recalls, “I had never known people living in such abject poverty in a developed country. It just changed my whole perspective. For no reason whatsoever, I was born into the family I was born into …. That’s given me opportunities, given me a life I can be proud of. These children haven’t done anything right or wrong, they’re just born into poverty … after seeing that, you really appreciate what you have.”

She returned to the UK a different person. With the help of start-up business grants, Oyolu decided to establish a social enterprise, Divine Communications Trust. DCT offered the Bina program designed to teach young people (11-13 year olds) about integrity and making good decisions. She also developed workshops lesson to help 16-19 year-olds headed for the workplace.

After about six years of operation, DCT lost a huge contract due to the economic downturn. Licking her wounds out one night with friends, Oyolu got chatting to a guy sporting a rather large camera. “He had a job but was training to be a better photographer so he could become a travel journalist later in life which I found really interesting. He asked me ‘So, what’s your thing?’ I was about to say, ‘I love to read’, but then surprised myself by blurting out ‘You know what? I’ve always wanted to be a radio presenter!’ ‘So why aren’t you doing it?’ he asked. I shrugged my shoulders, saying ‘I don’t know’ but thought, ‘Yeah, Viv, why aren’t you doing it?’”

And where did this come from? “Back in Nigeria when I was young, I always loved music. I listened to the radio all the time, made my own cassettes, created my own playlists. And, as you may have noticed, I love to talk … I always knew those two things went well together. Being a radio host is something I knew but I always felt it was so far out of my reach.”

A few days later, at a meeting with a friend to “resurrect” DCT, Oyolu recalled the conversation at the party. Serendipitously, her friend knew of a radio station looking for non-experienced presenters. She knew immediately what her pitch would be, “The focus would be on someone like me who had a dream and wanted to follow her passion.” At the interview, which turned out to be a live radio show, Oyolu came into her own: “I was talking as if I had done it all my life. I went on and on and on. [The presenter] barely got a word in. I had found myself, my voice. I never knew I had what it took to do the show, but I did.” And Dream Corner was born.

viv-oyolue-3In its third year of operation, Dream Corner profiles female entrepreneurs, mostly “ordinary women doing extraordinary things, in a small way, big way or however. But no one will hear about them if I don’t interview them,” Oyolu explains. The 300 stories shared to date are mostly by referral only. She is not paid for the show and, despite its revenue-earning potential, she has no intention to turn it into a business. “The women on my show have built me up, opened up my world. It just makes me love my job even more. If they have never believed in themselves and I have allowed them to communicate who they are in a way that they are proud of and begin to see themselves in a new light, I think that’s just amazing. What I have gained non-monetarily is exceptional, their journeys have inspired me. I cannot quantify this,” she adds.

Interestingly, Oyolu observes that while her radio show is a platform where women can talk about themselves without any interruption, most of them have to be guided into the conversation. “Women can talk endlessly about their job, being a mum or a wife, but they never focus on who they are or what they have achieved personally. Dream Corner allows them to do this and reconnect with who they are.”

The multi-tasking Oyolu edits a radio show once a week and runs an audio and podcasting consultancy, Audio Byte that helps clients build a rapport with their audience and communicate better through audio channels. She is also starting to promote the Bina program again. “Because I am not solely reliant on it, I feel liberated to work on it. My ultimate goal is for independent schools to buy it and use it as a tool.”

And why not go after the high profile stories on Dream Corner? “I like the ‘ordinary’ woman who is just like me, who can believe in her dream and be successful. Success is what you make it to be. Some people would say I am successful. In a way I am because I am doing exactly what I want to do. It brings me so much joy to share people’s stories … Sometimes I interview a guest and go lie down. I want to keep the warm, fuzzy feeling I get from talking to these amazing women as long as possible.”

At the risk of being redundant, the common theme running through all of Oyolu’s projects is clearly her mission to help other people. “I think it goes back to my experience in New York. I’ve learned so much and been given so much why not give back? It’s rare for someone to find what they love and do it but giving people’s stories a voice has done just that for me. If I died tomorrow, that’s what I want on my tomb… ‘Here lies Viv Oyolu, she gave people a voice’.”

Here’s hoping Oyolu’s no predictor of the future and sticks around to draw people out of their shells, bring a smile to their faces, and act as an inspiration for others to follow their dream and find success.

Interested in learning more about Viv Oyolu? Listen to a 6.37-minute- audio version of this interview … learn why she does what she does and how you too can find your true purpose.

Watch an introductory video on Vimeo. Subscribe to her iTunes channel, or follow Audio Byte on SoundCloud.

Viv Oyolu’s Tips for Success:

  • You never know the fullness of your potential until you stretch yourself.
  • In hindsight, I should have made it easier for myself and had a job or other source of income when setting up my business. I was under a lot of pressure to succeed.
  • Being a risk taker does have its disadvantages. I recommend not trying to do too many things at the same time.
  • Surround yourself with people who will cheer you on – rejoice with you for good news and cry with you when things don’t go according to plan.


Have you ever considered doing some significant volunteer work as a means to find more fulfillment in your life?