Julie Jakopic wants you to know there are others like you out there. Women who have given up job security and prestige to go out on their own. Women without security nets and a lots of responsibilities but also with aspirations for something more. “Take comfort that you are not alone and go after what you want to be doing. In all my previous positions, I had built something and moved on, this time round I decided to build something for myself.”
Jakopic grew up in an entrepreneurial space where her parents worked for themselves. Her father launched multiple retail stores, and her mother took over the business when he committed suicide, leaving a wife, son, and teenage daughter behind. But Jakopic initially took a different path, working mostly for and in service of others.
With more working experience than most of her peers, the 20-year-old put herself through college at University of Maryland by working days as a retail manager at Bloomingdales and Estee Lauder. Communications and psychology degree in hand, she left retail and headed for something more meaningful in the counselling world. Her first steps were to manage a crisis intervention program for the DC Hotline and built the organization’s child abuse and neglect program.
“I liked what I was doing but I wasn’t changing the world fast enough. I believed I needed to reach more than one person at a time and so I decided to return to school. I started in social work but ended up in sociology. I wanted the credibility to bring research to policy and practice,” Jakopic explains.
While I wasn’t driven by money, I was aware the money I wasn’t making, wasn’t helping anybody.” While in grad school, she took a better paying position with the National Association for State Community Services Programs representing and supporting state directors of Federal poverty Programs like the Community Services Block grant and the Weatherization Assistance Program. She spent the next eight-and-a-half years with the organization, supporting organizations serving low-income, at-risk families.
Jakopic recalls enthusiastically, “It was a great, great opportunity. We built a whole series of training and technical assistance work around performance measures, looking at results of programs in all 50 states. At that time, there was a real shift in the human services sector from counting the number of people you served to counting what happened to them. It was exciting to be in the space of helping people to figure out how that could be measured, how we could tell a clearer story about the families we were serving, and how we could serve those families better.”
It was a lot fun, Jakopic says and when her boss retired she was given the chance to apply for the job. She was interim Executive Director for over a year but never went for the position. “I could do the job but I couldn’t figure out what was next. I was in my late 30s, I had a lot of career left. It felt like a career-ending job. It didn’t feel like the right next step. I cared a lot about the program I was running and wanted to go back to running it. It was the best decision I ever made. We ended up hiring a wonderful new Director who became a mentor to me. He taught me how to grow and trust a team. How to help others take responsibility.”
Recruited away for probably the only job she would have left for, Jakopic joined The Welfare Information Network to run a project that was all about helping States implement welfare reform. Once again, Jakopic found herself teamed with a great mentor, Barry Van Lare: “In the two years, I worked for Barry, I learned more than I did during all my time in grad school, for sure, and in school ever. I learned all about how to get things done in the legislative world, how to think about rules and regulations in a different way and make them work. It was a phenomenal experience.”
And then she got another call. This time from a small consulting firm looking to apply for a government contract on how to make community services programs work better together. With a lot of experience in the area, Jakopic was a natural choice and found herself being wooed for the position. “I asked for a lot and got it all and then I asked for more until they finally said no. They were offering everything I could want, so how could I turn down the job? And so after 13 years with non-profits, she returned to the private sector.
“Four years later, I was sitting in my corner office, with my name on my parking place, busy but bored to death. Once everyone was happy, there wasn’t anything fun to do except review invoices and negotiate contracts. At that point, I had moved so far away from where the work was getting done, I wasn’t motivated anymore. I mean I cared about my clients, but I was way far away and, worse, was negotiating work with consultants to do work that I wanted to do!” Jakopic recalls with some frustration.
It didn’t take her long to realize these consultants weren’t taking in much less than she was, albeit with more risk but hands-on involvement in the work she wanted to be doing. She decided to go out on her own at 47. She recruited a big client before leaving her job so that she would have at least some income in place but it wasn’t easy: “There was no safety net for me but a lot of responsibility. In the interim, my husband had died. I was supporting my mom and was helping my brother’s family. For all intents and purposes, I was the matriarch of my family. The First National Bank of Julie was keeping everyone afloat,” she jokes. “But in the back of my mind, I thought if I fail, I can always get a job.”
But she didn’t fail. And Jakopic’s firm, iLead Strategies, has been in business for more than seven years now and going strong. She moved on from that original client that got her into the world of facilitation, coaching, and training to develop a consultancy that focuses on organizational change and leadership development. And she is still growing the business, launching an event series helping executives transform their passions into how they live and lead.
“In the beginning when I moved from the non-profit sector, I was afraid I was abandoning ship. But what I’ve learned in working across the non-profit, public and private sectors is how to build on the best of each sector. When I have the opportunity to help leaders strengthen how they lead and how they do that while having a life, I also have the opportunity to have a positive impact for those they work with and those they serve. And that’s as true of a private sector service business as it is a non-profit or public sector agency. I get to do what I love and have the privilege of working with leaders who are changing the world and making it better for those that follow us. If there is anything I regret, it’s that I didn’t figure all this out sooner.”
Jakopic has come full circle, returning to her entrepreneurial roots but still working in service of others. This time round, however, she’s doing it on her own terms.
- If you are aiming to launch a consultancy, recruit a big client before you leave your paid position
- Find great mentors and learn how to become one
- Be yourself not who others want or expect
- You only get one life and “later” never arrives. Live the life you desire.