Starting a new business is hard enough. Leaving an entire life behind and moving to a foreign country in order to do so would be nearly unimaginable for most of us. And yet that is exactly what Yael Benamour did. “Every single day of this process was a leap of faith,” she says. “Nothing was easy.”
So what made her do it?
Yael Benamour began her career in France as a singer and songwriter. “After performing for many years, I decided to become a producer. I’d always been interested in the production side of the business and having had the experience and perspective of being a performer ultimately made me a better producer.”
So Benamour worked as a producer for several large studios as well as smaller independent labels. “While working in-house, I was approached by Marie Paule Belle, a well-known French singer. She had become disenchanted with the music industry, and asked me to manage her career. I had no intention of turning down such a wonderful opportunity, but I couldn’t do it while working at another label. So in 1998 I created my own label, Beny Music.” (more…)
For as long as she can remember, Juliana Maio has nurtured two identities: her creative side came with a love of literature and storytelling while her more practical diligent self longed for bringing greater justice and harmony to the world. As a child, she kept her classmates rapt with invented tales and plays and yet, as a refugee, it was impossible for her to remain untouched by her circumstances. “It was amazing to see even as a child how powerful words could be, what language was capable of, but equally I was also very much in touch with what was fair and unfair. I wanted to change the world and I thought maybe I could do this through words.”
Maio was born in a suburb of Cairo known as Heliopolis, City of the Sun. During the Suez Crisis, her third generation extended Jewish-Egyptian family was expelled from what had been a very pluralistic and tolerant country. Some went to Brazil, others to Italy, Canada and the United States, but thanks to her mother’s French passport, the three-year-old Maio immigrated to France. “We were basically refugees. My life was uncertain and unstable growing up. I never really knew if we were coming or going or where we might move. I went to boarding school from about 5 years to the age of 12 because my parents had to work full time,” she recalls.
After many years, Maio and her family took up an invitation from her uncle to join him and his wife in California. Eighteen years old at the time, Maio was less than positive about the decision, especially as she had just been accepted to study acting with a troop: “I ran away from home. I wrote a letter to my parents explaining I loved them but couldn’t join them in America. My sister was supposed to deliver the letter at 7pm. In the meantime, I had arranged to meet my boyfriend at 5pm so we could leave together. He never showed up due to a mix up with the meeting point and so I frantically ran home with my suitcases hoping my sister had not yet delivered the letter. Arriving just five minutes after 7pm, I was confronted by my entire family … I mean my entire family, my aunts, uncles, everyone was there. I was immediately locked up and that was the end of it!”
Initially the move to the US was very difficult as Maio did not speak English very well. “All of a sudden, language was no longer available to me. It was a huge handicap, both in practical terms but also in terms of my identity. I couldn’t express myself.”
Thrown into the deep end, she enrolled at the University of San Diego and to her credit, did well enough to transfer to University of California at Berkeley. “God bless their hearts. I will be forever grateful to them for accepting me. I remember my first year. I was basically taking PE, French literature, Spanish, and maybe one English class. I studied very hard and wherever I went, I carried a dictionary.”
Maio graduated from Berkeley with a degree in Political Science, but realized she could not fulfill her dream of becoming a writer, journalist or even an actress due to language constraints. So she leaned into her other side, the wanting-to-change-the world side, and decided to go to law school. “I got in to UC Hastings, again I couldn’t believe my luck. I did very well as a student but I must admit I chose my classes carefully,” she laughs. “Finally I felt like I was on equal footing with everybody else. It was a new vocabulary for everybody. It was a new way to write and think for all the students.”
Realizing her English skills might somewhat limit her ability to be a litigator, Maio decided to become an entertainment lawyer. It was a natural extension of her love of the arts. “If I couldn’t be a writer or actor myself, then at least I could represent them.”
She interned with international law offices O’Melveny & Myers and after graduation, nabbed a plum job with a top entertainment law firm, Schiff, Hirsch & Schrieber. “I was drafting contracts for the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Dick Clark, Cliff Robertson, Walter Hill, you name it. But even more lucky for me was my mentor Gunther Schiff, the head partner who himself had immigrated to the US as a teenager. To this day, Gunther is like a second father to me.”
Although women were starting to make inroads into the law profession at that time it was not easy for the less-than-conventional Maio. “I found it difficult as a woman, especially a woman with a French accent. Some clients crossed the line and asked me out. It was always a dance in terms of ingratiating yourself to them as a professional and yet making very sure you did not alienate them when trying to make it clear you had no interest in them in a romantic sense. Maybe because I was single and French and refused to put my hair in a bun … people made assumptions,” she says.
When the firm broke up, Maio followed her mentor Schiff to new offices where she continued to practice law for five more years. But the pull of the entertainment business was too strong and she briefly left law to indulge her creative side. She joined a studio, Triumph Films, a joint venture between Columbia Pictures and Gaumont Films, as VP Worldwide Corporate & Business Affairs, where she was involved with the acquisition and distribution of foreign and indie films. She loved it but it was hard going. “There was a tremendous amount of internal politics, and I was not comfortable in that environment. Law firms are much more businesslike. Even if you have issues, as long as you do your work, people treat you professionally. To be a lawyer is probably the safest profession in the entertainment industry. It’s a cocoon,” Maio explains.
The division was eventually dissolved at Columbia and, after the birth of her daughter, Maio returned to the safer soil of law, founding a new practice with her partner Leanna Heath. “Before we knew it, we were representing major talent like Frank Darabont as well as production companies like Vestron and New World, and even banks.” They ran the business successfully for five years until Maio decided once again to try her hand at the creative side of the industry. She teamed up with her husband, Michael Phillips, Academy-Award-winning producer of films classics like The Sting and Taxi Driver, to set up Lighthouse Productions. Maio was the business affairs manager and her husband’s “lawyer with benefits”.
“It was wonderful to finally get so close to the creative process. Representing talent was the first step but as part of a production company, I was finding the books to turn into movies, seeking out authors, working with writers. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to launch myself more completely into the process and began writing myself.” An established lawyer with a husband and child, she finally felt she was in a safe enough place to take the time to work on one particular writing project close to her heart that had been consuming her for some time. She explains, “People would ask me where I was from. I always said France but at the same time I knew I was Egyptian. My family often spoke Arabic at home, I grew up on Egyptian food. I kind of poo-pooed it and yet my past was so complicated, I never quite understood it. Why were Jews living in Egypt? Why was my father Italian but spoke English, French, Arabic, and Greek? How did my mother get her French passport? I was simply curious and motivated by a deep desire to understand where I was from.”
When she started reading, she discovered the fascinating world her parents grew up in. “Egypt had hundreds of thousands of foreigners. Cairo, in 1941, was ten times more exotic than Bogart’s Casablanca. It was the tail end of the Golden Age where all these communities – including Arabs, Jews and Christians – lived together so peacefully. I couldn’t stop researching, I couldn’t let go of it. If I was so fascinated by it then others will be too. So it gradually it became the kernel for a book.”
She was elated to learn her agent in New York thought the first chapter had potential. She wrote five more chapters and waited on pins and needles for the response: “I was on vacation in Montana when I called her to hear her thoughts. All of a sudden, there was a bear and everybody was screaming, ‘Run! Get out of the way!’ and I remember just standing there with the phone to my ear as all hell broke loose around me. All I cared about was what this agent thought about my work. My heart fell at her words, ‘This is promising’, because I thought I had it done.”
And so basically for the next ten years what kept Maio going was ‘This is promising’. While still practicing law and working at Lighthouse, she wrote and rewrote, did additional research and tried to find that delicate balance between thriller, love story, and real history. “If becoming a lawyer was difficult it was nothing compared to becoming a writer,” laughs Maio.
Published in March this year, City of the Sun tells a tale of life in Cairo – “Paris on the Nile” – during WWII. To Maio’s delight, the book hit number 1 on Amazon’s bestseller list for eBooks on the 4th of July weekend. As NY Times best-selling author, Nicolas Meyer, says this work of historical fiction “weaves a tangled tale of espionage, wartime romance, political intrigue, and action in a city crawling with all four. If you liked Casablanca, this story is for you.”
With plans for a sequel, Maio is obviously undeterred by the time it took to write the book. “I had a passion, I had a dream and had to get it done. But also I thought my book would make a difference as it portrayed how Europeans, Arabs and Jews lived peacefully together in an extraordinary society. It’s so disheartening to see that it’s gone forever. The hatred today is completely political. Politics hijacked the hearts of the people. But if it was possible before, maybe it is possible again.”
Tips from Juliana Maio:
Listen to your own voice and put blinders on (don’t compare yourself to others).
Who among us hasn’t fantasized about tossing away their corporate job for something more fun, more glamorous, more … more of anything that you’re not getting at your current job. Sometimes, the opposite of where we are seems like just the place we want to be.
For Cathy St. Denis, that fantasy was sparked when frustration at work and a longing for something totally different collided during a 2001 spring vacation through in France. The wheels started turning after a day hike through Provence, when St. Denis and her tour group stopped at a charming bed and breakfast.
An early evening of chatting with the innkeepers while sipping wine and drinking in the scenery culminated in learning that each year the inn hired an apprentice to help run the show – a nine-month position where you could learn the “inns” and outs of the B&B business. Et voilà! The seed was planted.
St. Denis returned home to her demanding corporate communications job in Washington, D.C. but continued to mull over the idea … could she be the next apprentice? She was energized by thoughts of chatting with guests from all over the world, perfecting her baking and cooking skills, and exploring Provence in her free time. But not one to rush into things without careful planning, St. Denis planned a fact-finding trip to Napa to visit two women-owned and run inns. But the trip, planned for September 12, 2001 was postponed due to the tragedies of 9-11, an event that helped cement St. Denis’ determination even further. If life can change on a dime, why waste another moment fantasizing? Just get on with it.
So St. Denis charged ahead, applying for, and securing the internship due to begin on March 1, “shoulder season” in the inn business. Although she knew her adventure was certainly not going to be a fortune-making one – the B&B offered a small stipend and room and board, but no salary – it also carried little financial risk should it not work out.
The innkeepers were clear on her responsibilities: preparation of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “The duties were openly discussed, but the actual length of the working day was not,” says St. Denis, who noted alarm bells started going off shortly after she arrived. “In the first couple of weeks on the job, it was apparent to me it was going to be a slog.”
Her day began at 6 a.m. when she was instructed to turn on the warmer for the frozen pastries, by 8 a.m she was scuttling between serving breakfast, making fresh croutons and other items for the menu later in the day, and stripping the guest beds – six rooms worth – many with multiple beds. By 10 a.m. when breakfast had ended and the communal table was cleared, St. Denis began the laundry, which involved 2–10 loads depending on the number of guests. This was not a simple process as the sheets had to be hung out to dry. “The owner was, how shall I say, very particular about how the laundry was done, and if you didn’t do it precisely, we’ll, hell hath no fury…”
In between loads, on most days St. Denis would get started on dinner and dessert, a task that took most of the day. And while the guests were eating, she would race upstairs to do the turn-down service, quickly returning to take care of any post-dinner needs. By around 10 p.m. she was ready to tackle the kitchen – a restaurant-sized kitchen that had to be cleaned from top to bottom each night, including the dishes, some of which were too delicate for the dishwasher. After that, she set up for the next morning, returning to her room just before midnight, like Cinderella, to get a quick night sleep before the next day.
While St Denis took care of everything at the B&B, the innkeepers took daily siestas, and despite one of them being a classically trained chef, they still relied on their apprentice for most of the food preparation. For St. Denis, there was little chatting with guests, few trips exploring the nearby towns, and little-to-no camaraderie with her fellow innkeepers. Instead she developed dark circles under her eyes and lost 22 lbs. despite being surrounded by creme brulée, rich cheeses, and paté.
In June, she knew she needed an exit strategy and, within a month, gave her notice for September 1, a more-than-fair amount of time for the owners to find a replacement. Their response? “But who will watch the inn while we go on holiday?”
Sometimes you fantasize about a life change or a new job, and it turns out to be just that … a fantasy. “I knew within a month, I had no desire to ever own an inn,” says St. Denis. Even the owners, who relied so heavily on their staff, were tied to their B&B for nine months a year, a responsibility that didn’t seem appealing, despite the one positive experience of chatting with guests, 95% of whom were lovely, she says.
“You know, I realized I had a really good life in Washington with good friends, a great house, a successful career, and I owned my time.”
Today, more than a decade later, St. Denis is happily still in communications in the transportation industry…although she still occasionally fantasizes about perhaps working at a winery.
Tips From Cathy:
If you are considering a drastic career change, minimize your financial risk. Don’t invest any of your own money until you’re sure about the switch.
Do your research! If a potential employer dangles a shiny object in front of you, be sure to ask about the downsides! Or better yet, ask to speak with someone who previously held the position.
Go for it! Things may not work out but the experience can still be rich.