By the time her two daughters were in their preteens, Pam Shields realized that the frequent travel her job in the IT industry demanded no longer worked for her and her family. She wanted to be home more, more available to her kids. So in 1999 she left a high-paying, fast-track job in the corporate world to pursue something that had always interested her: personal fitness.
She also knew she had good managerial and leadership skills, and so by January 2000 she had already started her new physical fitness business. But it wasn’t without trade-offs. “My income,” she says bluntly, “decreased by about 95%. I went from a six-figure salary to almost nothing.” (more…)
So many little girls dream of becoming ballerinas, and Julia Erickson was no exception. But unlike most of us who eventually shed that dream, Erickson trained from the age of seven and worked her way up to become a principal dancer with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.
Unlike many of the stories we share at Career 2.0, this one is not about leaving a job to pursue a passion, because dancing is Erickson’s passion. “Ballet is the love of my life,” she explains. “I would not leave my dance career for anything at this point.” Unfortunately, a ballet career is a finite thing, and there will come a time when Erickson will have little choice but to hang up her pointe shoes. So when inspiration struck, she was not about to look the other way. (more…)
It began, perhaps, with a fitness competition, which Caren Magill did not win. She finished, she says, “in the middle of the pack”.
Or maybe it began further back, when Magill was a teenager. “Growing up, healthy living was not a part of our general household conversation. I sustained myself on canned soup, white Kaiser buns, and processed cheese. From the time I got home from school until the time I went to bed, I was on the couch eating. By the time I left high school, I weighed over 200 pounds.
“I realized in my early 20’s that not only was being overweight uncomfortable, but it was going to limit me in all sorts of ways. When I finally lost the weight it made me realize I could do anything I set my mind to. It raised my level of self-efficacy, my pride in myself. It really did change the course of my life.”
Tina 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…)
Like the Gold Rush that drew people California in the 1800s, there are indeed many people in a rush to capitalize on the biggest and most burgeoning business in our country since the birth of the Internet – legal marijuana. But for Brooke Gehring, it wasn’t so much a rush to make a profit, as it was being in the right place at the right time and being ready to apply her hard-earned skills in an industry she cared about passionately.
At only 34 years old, Brooke has a full and successful career in commercial banking behind her and is now one of the preeminent pot entrepreneurs in the state of Colorado. But her journey began in the conservative Midwest, growing up in Columbus, Ohio. Although she became “socially familiar” with marijuana around the age of 15, she never imagined she’d turn it into a career. Initially her sights were set on law. And after graduating from Miami University of Ohio, she moved out to Boulder, Colorado, hoping for some good skiing to fill her free time while she put away some money for law school working for a national mortgage brokerage firm. (more…)
Sometimes our career paths feel winding and unpredictable, and yet in the end they seem to lead us exactly where we’re supposed to be. Such was the case for Anne Marie Cassella.
With a public relations degree in hand from Utica College in upstate New York, Cassella’s first job was as PR Director for The Arc, or the Association for Retarded Citizens, as it was known at that time. The job was a good fit and Cassella enjoyed her work, but soon decided to go back to school to earn a second degree in graphic design.
In order to keep her on while she went to school, The Arc offered her a position more compatible with her student hours. “The Arc owned forty residential care homes, and I became a floating manager, going to various facilities to assess their needs and make sure they were being properly run. I had no experience in this area, but they gave me all the training I needed.” (more…)
If truth is stranger than fiction then Janee Pennington, two-time breast cancer survivor and 20-year-veteran-of-the-hospitality-industry-turned-author, should certainly know. Pennington has scribed a funny, fast-paced fictional novel, Meeting Eve, loosely based on her own experiences as a sleep-deprived international event planner, juggling crazy client demands and friends in crisis, all the while trying to figure out her own future. While the fictional Eve might entertain and distract you from the day-to-day drudge, the real-life Janee will inspire you to do what you love, follow your dreams, and live passionately.
“There are so many people working for the sake of the salary but they don’t love what they do. I hear all the time, ‘I don’t know what I should be doing’ but I encourage them, ‘You do know what you should be doing, you just need to dig deep in order to find what it is.’ Writing proved to be the prescription that kept me moving forward and excited to wake up each morning,” she says. (more…)
Rare 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…)
Chef Hollie Greene makes a mean cornmeal-crusted sautéed okra. And she is pretty sure she can teach you how to too and convince your finicky vegetable-phobic 8-year-old to try it and even love it. “Have you ever seen the delight in a child’s eyes when they discover they love a blanched green bean or a stuffed zucchini boat? It’s magic. That’s what I love doing most, unleashing the joy in exploring fruits and vegetables for kids and their parents. I don’t start with a ‘get healthy’ objective. I start with joy. Good health and feeling great from what you eat is a natural outcome.”
Fresh out of grad school and armed with an undergrad degree and Masters in Human Resources (HR) from the University of South Carolina, Greene was recruited by Citigroup to join their management trainee program, which promised her a global rotation in HR. The fluent French speaker and lover-of-all-things-foreign was first posted to NYC but quickly transitioned to São Paolo, Brazil, where she worked on various projects. “I appreciated that CitiGroup sent me to a place where I didn’t speak the language. I had to learn very fast and rely on other skills. It stretched me to be out of my comfort zone. If you are worried about being an expert all the time, you lose a lot of learning opportunities. I embraced the idea of fitting in but I also learned patience and how to adapt to a different way of thinking. Brazil taught me you don’t have to stress about everything all the time to get things done. There are times to stress but most of the time, really, everything is going to be tudo bem. You’ll end up a lot less tired if you can take on this way of living.”
After a year in Brazil, Greene returned to NYC where she was a HR business partner, overseeing offshore banking investments for non-resident aliens for one-and-a-half years. After 9/11, her partner had trouble finding work so they moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where Greene worked in pharmaceutical sales for a year. “I quickly learned it wasn’t for me. I really missed HR. I had always been more of a consultant as people were asking me for ways to improve their business.”
So when Citibank re-recruited her for a position in its regional office in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Greene jumped. The bank even went as far as to help her then husband find a job, kind of a “two-for-one special”.
After seven years with CitiGroup, Greene moved to competitor American Express in South Florida, which was known for its leadership development program at the time. On a professional level, everything was going great. On a personal level, the situation was far from ideal. She and her husband decided to part ways. It was a life change for her: “It’s something that shifts you. You’re going along and everything’s fine and then something happens. For me it was the personal relationship not working out. My planned trajectory hit a bump in the road.”
Free to make her own decisions and finally do something she has always dreamed of, Greene went on a cooking vacation alone to Tuscany, Italy, in late October. Staying just outside the idyllic town of Lucca, she cooked from 10-1 every day in the kitchen of the 15th century estate and toured the countryside in the afternoon. Being immersed in the experience was therapeutic. Greene recalls, “There is something about getting your hands into food, it’s very healing. In a corporate setting you are using your mind a lot but in the kitchen, you take something from a raw ingredient and you working with it to create this beautiful outcome that gives people a lot of pleasure.”
The return journey to the US was nothing short of disastrous. Stuck at Pisa airport for 24-hours and again in Milan for even longer, Greene used the time to write in her journal. The trip had triggered some self-doubt about whether she was on the right path. She made a list of what she could do in life, what she is good at and what she liked. “It dawned on me that everyone on the trip had been in their late 50s and 60s and yet it was the first time they had experienced extremely simple healthy cooking that was delicious. I kept coming back to the same thing. I teach people leadership development, I connect them with information to improve their lives. Why couldn’t I do this with children? Why couldn’t I teach kids about the joy of understanding what a balanced relationship with food is like. It’s as simple as that. When you are in that place in your life where it could go any which way, you are just crazy enough to think of the possibilities. You are open to change.”
Greene had been with Amex for only one year, so it was with some trepidation that the then-33-year-old approached her manager, Janice Carulli, to tell her what she wanted to do: “I know this is not your problem, but this is just what I have got to do. I need to make a change. I’m going to move to NY and attend culinary school and I’d love to stay with Amex so if I could get a transfer to our NY office, that would be great. And if you can’t help me, I understand but then we need to start talking about my departure.” A 20-year veteran of Amex, not missing a beat, Carulli replied, “Hollie, most people at some point in their life will say ‘I wish I had done X’. If this is something you really want to do and I can help you in any way, then I really want to help you.” True to her word, she rang the NY office and – serendipitously – there was a position open in leadership development.
Within three months of her trip to Tuscany, Greene was in NY with Amex. Two months later she started 9-months of night classes at the French Culinary Institute. It was pretty grueling, but she loved it, “I worked 45-50 hours a week and then headed off to culinary class around 5.30 and stayed until 11.30. It was very physically demanding but I thrived on the intensity in the kitchen. Once you find your tribe of where you are supposed to be, you will take off. Yes, you have to cook dishes over and over again until they are perfect but unlike business, where you talk circles around the elephant in the room, in cooking this is not possible. You learn by making mistakes. You may have a good night or a bad night in the kitchen but you know where you stand.”
With no plans to be a restaurant chef, Greene took her newly minted skills to the not-for-profit world and volunteered with the Sylvia Center and Wellness in Schools while she still continued to work Amex. “Amex was exceptional. They wanted employees to give back to the community so were very supportive of the work I was doing in afterschool programs. There was no risk for me personally in doing this work, I just wanted to grow myself as a person.”
But then the magic happened! When teaching her first class of inner city kids about cooking with fruits and vegetables, Greene was amazed at their enthusiasm. “They absorbed it like sponges. Even if they didn’t like the food it didn’t matter because they were having fun in the kitchen, having a positive experience. It was really fulfilling to be giving them a window into this new world, helping them to see fruits and vegetables in a new way. Planting that seed of possibility.”
As her volunteer work became more serious, the non-profits offered her paid hours as Education Director at the Sylvia Center and a school chef at Wellness. It was an offer she couldn’t refuse despite Amex dangling the potential of a promotion. “The universe was really tempting me, but I told Amex I really needed to do it and it was now or never. I had to explore this path and see if this was my true calling. I figured I’d give it a year and I could always go back to the corporate world if it didn’t work—like a year-long anthropological study of me!” So she resigned.
The move from corporate banking to non-profit was most definitely a step back financially but she had savings and her partner to support her, “Up to that point, I had always been the breadwinner and so definitely it was very scary to take that step to the side – but it was calculated risk. But I am very thankful I made that move. I’ve never been happier.”
After a few years, Greene and her husband moved to San Francisco for his job and Greene had to rebuild her community. “The best way to meet people and build you base is to get involved! I consulted with some non-profits as a chef to improve nutrition in schools and with families at home for about a year.”.
Last year, she started writing a food blog, Joyfoodly, targeted at parents to promote eating seasonal fruits and vegetables throughout the year. But importantly she didn’t want it to be a pet project and toyed with turning it into a business. So she hired a business consultant, Stella Grizont, founder of Woopaah and former co-managing director of Ladies Who Launch, to map out her brand identity and spent six months doing lots of research to uncover the biggest “pain points” around food in our country today. After many surveys and lots of brainstorming, Greene hosted an ideation session with parents, community thought leaders, and educators.
“I didn’t want to take something and just do it better. I really wanted to fill a need,” she explains. “A couple of themes emerged, the first being that their children’s health is the number one priority for parents, they want to feed their kids well even if the culture doesn’t support children eating healthily. They also lack the time and the skill to put healthy and tasty meals together quickly. I thought ‘I know how to teach kids how to love fruits and vegetables, I’m good at it.’ So my plan centered around engaging kids in ways parents would not necessarily think about and sharing my simple yet proven techniques both in cooking and exciting kids to love trying new foods.”
Because Greene’s key goals in launching JoyFoodly had been to make learning how to cook fruits and veg easy and fun but also economical and readily accessible to a wide audience, a tech solution seemed the best way to go in terms of scale and ease of use. Greene’s Creative Director, Michelle Venetucci-Harvey brought the design perspective and together they developed a prototype of the Joyful12™ concept last Fall at the San Francisco Food Hackathon.
An online Kitchen Learning Lab, the Joyful12 is a web-based cooking crash course for families that teaches them how to love cooking and eating 12 vegetables and fruits each season. A members-only site, it features video tutorials with Greene, allergen-and-gluten-free recipes, a time-saving shopping list generator, and a community forum to share successes and challenges with like-minded parents.
“Everyone can learn the basics of cooking fruits and vegetables and when you ask your kids to be part of the cooking process, that’s when they start to feel confident to explain how to make the food better…or at least taste better from their perspective. The Joyful12 is a self-paced course that guides you through each season and, depending on your constraints, let’s you try basic-to-adventurous recipes of in-season items. I believe it’s brings together the best of what’s out there in a unique and family-friendly way. It really is a true learning lab.”
The learning lab has been live for less than a month but subscribers are growing and Greene has created partnerships with companies like WholeFoods.
“We’re trying to do it the right way. Spring and Summer are built and I’m working on Fall and Winter. Basically I’m building the train and the tracks as I go along.” But it’s going well. Although all the recipes are gluten-free, she has hired Chef Annie Rose Hanrahan, a Natural Gourmet Institute graduate and former Sylvia Center and Wellness in Schools colleague, to re-test her recipes keeping an eye out for vegan, nut, and egg issues and to ensure any potential allergens are highlighted and substitutes are offered.
“I always look back at what I learned in culinary school. You learn by failing and clearly everything hasn’t been perfect, but I trust my instinct,” Greene says. “I’m surrounded by great people, people who stand by me, believe in what I’m doing, people who open doors for me. But I’m still learning, I have to have a lot of patience with myself. I still have that thread within me that wants it perfect today and wants it yesterday. That’s my journey … patience. If the intent of what I’m trying to do is good and the intent is for people to have a more balanced and enjoyable relationship with fruits and vegetable then it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen in its own time.”
You can sign-up for the Joyful 12 here and learn how to make a subscriber favorite: Japanese roasted green beans with a sriracha mayo dipping sauce.
Tips from Chef Hollie Greene
Figure out your value, don’t undersell yourself.
Believe in your intent, keep your head down and do the work: you’ve got to be in it for the long game.
When you do your own thing there are no checks and balances so be sure you have the support around you to give you a reality check.
Keep going because you have to complete the story!
Ferrall Dietrich has fond memories of growing up the daughter of a US Naval officer in Europe, moving every two years, and being home schooled alongside her younger brother by her mother, for whom adventure and family time was the priority. While her father commanded a US Navy ship that patrolled the coastal waterways, her mother commanded the family’s Series Land Rover that toured the windy coastal roads waiting for the ship to dock so the family could reunite.
“She would load us in the car and we would study in the backseat as she drove all over Europe,” recalls Dietrich. “We drove from port to port around the Mediterranean as well as up into England and Scotland.”
The car was old. There was no defrost, no AC, a heater that warmed only the driver’s right leg, and the windshield wipers were manual at best, but it didn’t matter. “It was such an adventure – driving all over Europe, staying in pensiones, exploring new towns, doing things a bit different,” Dietrich laughs.
In between trips, the family was stationed in Southern Italy, but, for Dietrich, the road trips were the most memorable times. Her mother — long before the days of cell phones and satellite navigational systems — managed to track the ship, route a path to the next docking station, and teach the children at the same time. For her mother, the hard work was a love story. “She couldn’t bear to be without my Father,” recalls Dietrich. But for her daughter, the lesson was “You learn a lot on the road, you take risks, life is an adventure.”
When Dietrich was in ninth grade, the family moved back to Washington, D.C. for good. Although now settled, Dietrich was left with a permanent sense of adventure. After high school, she attended Colby College in Maine where she majored in Russian and Soviet Studies, motivated in part by a desire to enter the clandestine world.
“Hands down, all I wanted to do was be a spy,” says Dietrich, who envisioned the career would come with a built-in travel and adventure schedule similar to the way in which she grew up.
But when she went down the path – from being interviewed to taking polygraphs – a realization seeped in that she hadn’t expected. Being a spy may come with adventure, but it also came with a structure and lack of freedom that was not appealing. “There’s a lot of control over your life that I wasn’t willing to give up. When it came down to it. I wanted freedom.”
So Dietrich settled on what she called a “very D.C.” career path — meaning she worked on Capitol Hill as a legislative correspondent and an assistant on the staffs of both a U.S. Congressman and Senator. From there she moved to the Japanese Embassy as a political consultant, the only woman at that time in a non-administrative role. Finally, she left the political world for small business, joining her father, who had built a financial engineering company after he retired from the Navy as an Admiral.
In 1999, now bitten by the business and entrepreneurial bug, the then-32-year-old decided to pursue a full-time MBA program at the University of Maryland to strengthen her business management and financial skills. Upon graduation, Dietrich decided to give a more traditional career path one last go, and accepted a position with Arthur Andersen in the Office of Government Consulting: “Amazing people and experience, but I knew within a year that the job was not for me, and I started to search for that next step, for inspiration for that next chapter.”
She and her husband, who had a similar upbringing of living overseas and traveling decided to hit the road. Amazingly, both of their employers agreed to give them one-year sabbaticals. “We put together a bucket list of places we’d always wanted to see and took off, spending a full year traveling the world. We spent a lot of time in Western China, climbing in the Karakorams and to the base camp of K2 from the Chinese side, and explored New Zealand, Bhutan, and Australia for months. We climbed and trekked and camped our way around the world and loved every minute of it.”
When the year was over, Dietrich returned to an Enron-scandal-plagued Arthur Andersen, and the company dissolved, relieving her of the decision to return or not. The adventures of the past year had solidified Dietrich’s resolve to move away from corporate life and seek a more entrepreneurial path. As such, she moved to the National Historic Trust for Preservation to run their start-up Corporate Good Neighbor Program. In the next couple years, she also became a mother to two boys, moved with her family to Boulder, Colorado, and then back to D.C. Throughout these years, she stayed rooted to the adventure of the outdoors through adventure racing, endurance riding, and trail running.
Dietrich always wanted to give her boys a taste of the kind of upbringing she and her husband had experienced. Starting when the boys were 5 and 7, every summer after school ended, she put them in the car with the dogs, threw a tent on top and hit the road. They camped their way across the country, with the West being the perennial favorite, and racked up 10,000 miles each summer. “I wanted to try and recreate my own childhood experiences as best I could for the boys. And selfishly, nothing made me happier than the freedom of no schedule, being outside, exploring and seeking adventure at every turn. It is so amazing and for the boys, such a wonderful way to grow up.”
All those miles on the road proved an invaluable incubator for entrepreneurial inspiration. As she drove (and drove), an idea started brewing. She knew she wanted to go back to work, but the idea of an office job in a big company was no longer appealing. She kept wondering “How do I bring a little bit of what I love about the West — the outdoors the energy, the laid back feeling of it — how do I bring that home?” One thing that always struck her upon returning to D.C. after a summer on the road was the lack of diversity in the women’s activewear and lifestyle market. Her road trips, her time in small towns and cities across the country, and her love of the outdoors exposed her to so many unique women’s brands, none of which could she ever find in Washington. As a result, Dietrich started toying with the idea of opening her own women’s activewear store. Initially, the idea seemed daunting – mostly from a financial perspective. However, after significant time spent researching the industry, its trends and the marketplace, combined with a deep personal understanding, she decided that if there was ever a time to do it, it was now. She decided to go for it.
And so began core72, a local, women’s boutique that not only features all the activewear and lifestyle brands Dietrich discovered and loved over the years, but also encourages local women to get out and be active through sponsored in-store and community events promoted via core72 social media.
Launching the business was a team effort as Dietrich’s husband took a year off to help her put the business together. “We both needed to be 100% behind it so we worked together on the financial and business plan and all the marketing research,” she explains. To fund the business, Dietrich and her husband used their own savings structured as a personal loan to themselves. They backed that up with a SBA small business loan for unforeseen needs.
Years later, Dietrich credits her MBA as being critical to her success in terms of helping structure the business and understanding the financials. Another key to her success? Research, research and more research. Dietrich talked to as many other small business owners and local retailers as possible and tapped into the experience of brand representatives at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Utah. She also read every book available on opening a store (Retail Business for Dummies anyone?) and planned as much as possible in advance to understand the flow of inventory.
But Dietrich stresses that even if you have the idea, the desire and the start-up capital, a solid business plan is absolutely critical to credibility for potential landlords and suppliers. “Every vendor we work with – and even the landlord of our store – required a solid understanding of why core72 should represent their company. People want to know you’re positioned for success, that you’re going to do a great job representing their product and be a viable, successful storefront.”
Dietrich credits LivePlan, a business plan software program, as well as available data from industry associations, with helping her establish benchmarks for the business, although she admits that none of it truly makes sense until you’re in the thick of it: “Every month is a lesson learned,” she says “For example, I’ve never paid as much attention to the weather as I do now — literally the city shuts down when it starts to rain or there is any inclement weather.”
Despite a slow March, thanks to late in the season freezing temps, the store, now entering its second year is exceeding planned expectations, and doing well enough that she is considering opening a second location. It turns out, as Dietrich had hoped, that people in DC do want to get out and look great while doing it. And she’s the perfect adventurer to inspire them.
Dietrich’s Tip on Launching a Retail Store
Be passionate about what you are selling. I am intimately familiar with our brands and have personally “tested” many of them. I really believe in these companies, many of them women-owned and “Made in the USA”, I believe this knowledge translates into an authenticity that customers appreciate. While it is important that core72 is successful, it is also important to me to support these brands and introduce them to a new marketplace that I know will be as excited about them as I am.
Know your customer base. Throughout our business plan, we tied in the theme of “They are Us”. I specifically opened a store in an area with which I was intimately familiar and could service a demographic I understood and knew very well. This familiarity made the initial buying process a bit less daunting and somewhat less risky. We build on this foundation of customer knowledge every day, tweaking our inventory buys, and delivering, hopefully, a more tailored, personal shopping experience.
Prepare for rainy days. We opened the store in March, 2013 and met/exceeded planned financial projections every month that first year. We were confident in our business model, in the inventory we needed and our steady stream of customers. Then, in March, 2014, we met the winter that would never end. D.C. came to a screeching stop, and no one was in the mood to shop. People were done with the weather and either got out of town or stayed home. We had shipments of inventory coming in, bills that had to be paid and half the income we expected. It was a huge wake-up call. We made it through, but it was tight financially, very scary and I never slept. It was a reminder to keep the expenses down, rein in the big inventory buys (we can always reorder), and squirrel away as much as possible every month for that rainy day – because it WILL come.
Tracey Pontarelli sweat her way through college – not because she was anxious over grades, but because she realized early on in life that working out was key to her happiness and overall well-being. “My husband jokes that I’m nicer when I’m working out, and I am.”
Despite her love of the gym and devotion to a healthy lifestyle, her desire to put her Seton Hall University joint degree in journalism and business to use was stronger than the call to make a career in fitness. And inspired by a fortuitous meeting with a PR big wig when she was in high school, she was led down a path to a career in Public Relations.
Pontarelli, a native of Coventry, Rhode Island, was awarded the prestigious Horatio Alger award during her senior year of high school. The award, which honors students who excel in spite of adversity, matched Pontarelli with Harold Burson, the founder of global PR giant, Burson Marsteller, as her mentor, a friendship that continues today. Known as the Godfather of modern PR, Burson looked at the practice almost as a science, coaching his staff to analyze how to influence their client’s target customers through a carefully constructed process.
Throughout college, Pontarelli maintained contact with Burson, and while he surely helped illustrate what a career in PR would look like, he never offered her a job upon graduation and – true to the spirit of Horatio Alger – she never asked for one. She wanted to earn her own way.
“I thought I wanted to go into PR, but I didn’t fully know what it was until I got into it. Luckily it played to a lot of my strengths and I think I was meant to do it,” says Pontarelli. She landed her job first in New York City at Golin Harris and then at Ketchum PR first working on clients such as Nintendo, Evian, and Wisk Laundry Detergent.
As a counterbalance to the stressful working pace, Pontarelli continued her love affair with fitness and – spurred on by a YMCA director who was impressed with her natural ability to lead others – she got certified and taught fitness classes at the Hoboken, NJ, YMCA. By day, Pontarelli wrote corporate messaging and pitched reporters and led step classes by night. It was a balance that worked.
When her then boyfriend, now husband, moved to Boston, the moonlighting fitness instructor made another jump. This time she landed at Mullen PR and continued teaching at several gyms in the Boston area. Burson was there throughout as a sounding board. “He was just so amazing and told me to keep in touch, so I did, but neither of us ever discussed a job until I was ready to move back to NYC.”
At 26, the newly engaged Pontarelli returned to NYC, and now, with four years of PR experience under her belt, she was ready to show off her skills at her mentor’s namesake firm. Burson sent Pontarelli’s resume to the human resources department and Pontarelli did the rest. “Obviously it helps when Harold Burson calls you his protégé in public, but at that point in my career, I knew I would make him proud.”
She landed a position as a manager in the Consumer Brands division and started managing accounts ranging from Kellogg’s to Fidelity Investments.
Those who worked with Pontarelli understood that indeed she was destined for a career in PR – she thrived in the environment where she was able to creatively help clients through their communications’ challenges, while mentoring and training younger staff all while working towards the agency’s goals. The job was exciting and, at times, all consuming. Pontarelli worked her up way from Manager to Director and finally Managing Director.
Seven years, and two children later, Pontarelli got a wake-up call. It was a Saturday and she was heading into the office to finish a global new business proposal. “I got ready to hop out of the car, and my three year old said to me, ‘Happy Valentines Day, Mommy.’”
For Pontarelli, who loved her job, that was it. “You know that saying, ‘You can do it all, just not all at the same time’? That was the moment I realized something had to give.”
She resigned from Burson, but continued to use her skills by launching a consulting business. She did PR and branding strategies for friends who were starting small businesses and for a group of former colleagues who needed outside help with bigger clients.
“The nice thing about working in PR is that your skills are really useful for a lot of things, so I was able to pick up a lot of work.”
In 2012, one of those friends, Catherine Goodwin, came to her for PR help for the new gym she was opening, Exceed Physical Culture. Pontarelli had long ago let her fitness certification expire, but she dove into the project helping with branding and media relations. Much like the YMCA Director 20 years earlier, Catherine recognized talent and encouraged the 41-year-old to get re-certified which she did, this time in group fitness and personal training.
“Even when I wasn’t teaching classes, I was sort of a ‘half teaching’ because I just naturally want to help other people through things … I’ve always loved group fitness because it’s motivating to be in settings with people who are struggling along with you, but I also find working one-on-one to be motivating.”
In addition to maintaining her PR consultancy, she now teaches at least two group fitness classes a week and coaches a set of at least six personal training clients at Exceed on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
While Pontarelli came full circle to fitness, this time around she’s using her PR skills to guide her through the process.
“One of the first steps in PR is understanding your audience and getting to what someone’s true underlying motivations are – their anxieties and their desires. That’s how we started every assignment at the agency, and that’s how I come at every single person I work with – what caused them to come in the first place and how do we get them to a place we want to be?”
Pontarelli, now a 44-year old mother of three, finds the work particularly gratifying when she’s coaching midlife women. “We’re really hard on ourselves as a gender, and I am passionate about the fact that women should focus on being strong, happy and supportive of each other. That’s what’s really important.”
Citing an email she had received that morning that boasted proven methods to shrink thigh fat, Pontarelli, not a fan of spot reduction, practically shrieks. “You are never going to have someone else’s body, but what you can have is a strong and healthy body and be proud of your workout. I try to get people to focus on that, and then the other stuff tends to fall into place.”
For women trying to get into the habit, Pontarelli suggests a fascinating book she read this year, The Power of Habit, which unlocks the secret of how habits are formed and broken… hint: you have to replace a bad habit with something else to truly break it. But the upside to exercise? “The book has a whole section on it – exercise is a “keystone habit,” so when you exercise regularly, it creates other positive habits like eating better and working harder.”
The best part of Pontarelli’s Career 2.0? “I’m helping people, one on one. In consumer PR, I didn’t always feel this way – I was doing things that were fun and interesting, but now I feel like I’m really helping people and it’s very gratifying.”
While she continues to bring out the best in her clients, she’s working ceaselessly on herself as well. Next stop? Her first New York City Marathon.
Tips from Tracey Pontarelli
Do what you like and be open to where it leads you. There are endless possibilities for you out there, but the right ones can be found where your passions lie.
Get out of your comfort zone. That is where Career 1.0 was. Career 2.0 is probably going to require a bit of a leap!
Believe in yourself. You are a capable, smart woman. As one of my favorite instructors says, “Why not be this amazing?” Why not indeed!
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.
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.