Jenny Fulton had been a stockbroker at Morgan Keegan for 16 years when in January of 2010 she finally succumbed to a round of layoffs in the latest recession. Despite her confidence that she could probably land another job at a different firm in a few months, she was burned out, and before rushing into the same old thing again, she decided to try to figure out something different. “I was 39 and I was tired. Tired of doing the same thing for so long. I wanted something new.”
She thought about her friend Susan Cameron, CEO of RJ Reynolds. Susan had started out her career in the office equipment industry, going door to door selling goods, but one day she had an epiphany. Jenny remembers hearing Cameron say, “I wanted to work doing something I loved, and I knew I loved brown liquor, makeup, and cigarettes!” So with that realization, Cameron went and applied for a job with Brown & Williamson, which was eventually bought out by RJ Reynolds, and worked her way up to the CEO position.
Applying the same approach to her own job search, Fulton said to her husband, “I want to do something I love. What do I love? I know I love softball and pickles. My husband said, ‘Well, you do make good pickles.’” (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…)
Throughout time, history tells us that the only way to move forward is to persevere. Stay on the straight and narrow path with your eyes focused on the end result; that’s the only true way to find success.
Except of course when it isn’t.
In many cases, the path can be muddled over time. It takes a strong person to notice the path isn’t carved in stone; instead there are exit ramps along the way. If you fail to make the turn, your chances of true success may be limited for life.
Yet seeing the exit ramp and taking it are two different things. Making a big change can be a scary endeavor. How do you know when its time to let go and try something new? How do you know if your new ideas will succeed? So many questions; yet there may be simple ways your current situation is pushing you towards change. But only if you know what to watch for.
You are excited about the “New You”.
You’ve changed. You’ve grown. Yet people don’t recognize the new you. Instead, they expect what they’ve had in the past; the person you used to be. Even if you attempt to explain your new feelings, your new beliefs, they simply turn the other way and continue with life as usual. They refuse to recognize the new you, and would prefer if you forgot that person too. But you have other plans, because the “new you” is all you can think about.
You love the person you are becoming.
You used to love your job, the groups you’ve belonged to for years, the regular routines that were always a comfort in your life. Now even getting out of bed is pure drudgery. All of your new thoughts and ideas are exploding all around you, making you excited for what’s in front of you. But looking back at what you’ve had … you simply don’t know if you can survive one more day. It’s the new you that excites you most these days.
Your new direction is more in alignment with who you are meant to be.
You’re hurt by the littlest of things. Everything that impacts you takes on a life of its own. No matter how small the problem, it quickly escalates in your mind into a monumental setback. You’ve even considered calling in sick and skipping out on things you once enjoyed simply because you can’t bear repeating old things. And in some cases, those “old enjoyments” no longer align with your new views. If people don’t “get it”, it often makes things much worse in your mind than they are in reality; because you know that your new way of thinking is now aligned more than ever with who you are meant to be.
You are truly ready to change your current situation.
There is no longer attachment to what you do. You question everything. What used to make sense now simply makes you angry, hurt or upset. How could you have ever enjoyed this? You question your judgment over and over again, wondering how you ended up where you are today. You dream about changing your current situation on a continual basis; and deep down inside, you know its time.
You catch yourself living in the past.
Remember when times were good? You think fondly about days long ago. Yet more than likely, you remember being happy, not about what you did during each of those days. What gives us happiness and enjoyment is enjoying what we do. If you no longer find joy, even in something you used to months or years ago, it can change your perception. Living in the past brings up nostalgia, not reality. And no matter how hard we try, the past can never be experienced through excited eyes again. Instead, it’s time to find that same excitement you had during past great experiences, and project that excitement into your current direction.
You continue to see signs towards your new direction.
The law of attraction simply states that what you deliver out into the world comes back to you tenfold. What you think about becomes your reality. Where you put your energy is what is delivered to you. Those signs are clear; yet you may be ignoring or pushing them aside.
Your new desires keep you awake at night.
I know you. You wake up at 2 AM and quickly find a pen and paper to write your ideas down. Hour after hour clicks by while you breathe life into your thoughts, seeing them perfectly as they unfold before you, changing your life once and for all. Then 6 AM clicks and the drudgery begins. You channel your ideas to the back of your mind, until 2 AM rolls around once more. If only there was as way to turn it all around, and have your dreams become the best part of your day.
Do you see yourself in any of these situations? If so, its time to do something about it.
Change is scary. But the rewards can far outweigh the costs of putting change into your life. Yes, your life might be radically different than what it was before. Yes, the people and things in your life may adjust. But if you allow the real you to shine through, imagine the new happiness you’ll have from this day forward.
It makes it all worth it, right?
Lori Osterberg is a writer, photographer, serial entrepreneur and business coach. She has co-founded VisionOfSuccess.com with her husband, a site that is dedicated to helping women define their big ideas, pinpoint their exact target audience and develop a successful profit zone around her. Follow her at VisionOfSuccess.com.
It’s funny how life circles back on itself, offering us a second chance to grab hold of a skill or interest we had as a child but abandoned like a forgotten toy as we transitioned to adulthood and got overwhelmed by work and raising families. When struggling with what we are meant to do or what would make us most happy, we often revisit a younger, more carefree and rootless version of ourselves. Leeya Mehta is no different from many of us in this respect except that she has decided to take the leap. Stepping off the conventional career path, the former international development specialist has thrown herself full-time into writing: “When I write, I feel incredibly happy. It’s remarkably satisfying. I don’t find that any part of my life is missing, which is what I used to feel before I became a writer.”
Born and raised in Mumbai, India, Mehta grew up in an open household highly appreciative of culture and the arts. Her mother, an English Literature teacher, writer, and journalist placed few constraints on her only daughter and encouraged her from an early age to express her feelings through writing, acting and directing.
Despite her relatively Bohemian youth, Mehta’s sensible side propelled her onto a more conventional path and she enrolled in Mumbai University’s St Xavier’s College, where she studied economics and math. Surrounded by theories and algorithms, Mehta found reprieve and inspiration in poet and novelist Eunice de Souza, head of the English Department at her college. She also acted in a major role in a unique production of The Crucible by candlelight and started writing a young adult novel when she was nineteen, thinking that somehow she would be able to simultaneously pursue her multiple interests.
Awarded a Chevening scholarship, the British Foreign Office’s equivalent of a Rhodes Scholarship, Mehta did a Master’s in economics and politics at Oxford University in the UK. On returning to Mumbai at the height of the tech boom, she was recruited to run a legal services internet start-up, Legal Pundits, launched by family friends. She did the job for two years before moving on.
“I had started a young adult, semi-fantasy novel that I wanted to finish. I was young and adventurous so I quit my job.” Mehta lived at home with her mother and grandparents, as is the norm for single adults in India. But she was disciplined, writing every day from 7am to 5pm, and doing some consulting in international development on the side.
“This was a wonderful period! My poems and short stories were published and I wrote for newspapers. I was invited to read my work in New York and at the University of Michigan. Because of my private sector experience, consulting seemed the best way to earn a living and allow me the time to write, and I was trying to figure out how to do both when an exciting opportunity took me on a UN University (UNU) fellowship to Tokyo.” At the UNU Mehta researched and wrote a paper on how to make a profit from environmental stewardship. Her experience in Tokyo led to a series of poems set in Japan, but also strengthened her resolve to balance a career in international development with her writing.
Around this time, Mehta’s mother, who had remarried and moved to the US, became quite ill. Wanting to be closer to her, Mehta enrolled in Georgetown University’s Public Policy Master’s Program to study energy and environmental policy as her goal was to work for an international NGO. She was editor of the Public Policy Review, and, during her first year, she signed up with the World Bank as a consultant on energy and carbon finance projects in the Africa region.
Marrying a fellow Georgetown graduate, Mehta soon found herself with two small children, a busy job, and little time to write. It gnawed at her. “There was always the sense that I was missing something fundamental. I knew what it was. I had already had a test run, I knew what it felt like. I wanted to go back to it but, with a young family and work, it was hard.”
Mehta stayed with the international institution but took on a new position after a few years as an independent evaluator of the Bank’s gender mainstreaming policy in the poverty and gender group. “I had a great gig with two phenomenal managers. They allowed me to work from home and I had a lot of flexibility to operate,” she recalls.
At the end of 2012, Mehta took advantage of the flexible work hours and moved to an as-when-needed basis. She did some projects on the side but for the most part immersed herself in a new novel about three generations of women in an Indian family and how each one responds internally to violence in the home, how their own rage has unintended consequences.
And then, with her manuscript coming together, tragedy struck.
The family home caught fire in the middle of the night. “It was a full blown crazy fire. It was providential that I woke up in time for us to escape being trapped and we were able to walk away with our lives. But we lost everything. Absolutely everything. And we had very little insurance. It took a couple of months to get back on our feet. We stayed with friends during that period. We had to start over completely.”
While Mehta’s husband’s computer had melted and fused to the kitchen table, her own Toshiba, although burned, had the hard drive intact. She brought it to local consumer electronics firm, Best Buy, to back up the drive. Incredibly they lost the drive and it only turned up after several weeks of hounding them. Staying with friends at the time, a somewhat distracted Mehta unfortunately placed the back-up and original together in a box, which was promptly lost along with three other boxes and her husband’s tennis rackets when they moved into their current apartment.
“It was as if everything was conspiring to get rid of that book! January was very hard for me. The thought of starting the book again was depressing. I kept getting pains in my chest. I even went to the doctor for a stress test but she laughed me off. I knew I should not let this kind of stress get to me but it wasn’t that easy. Yet I knew where my contentment lay, and that I had to be tenacious; I set myself a goal to write every day and hit a certain word count. It was just a matter of getting started and then it felt so easy.”
Like a fairytale, occasion followed calamity. Mehta’s mother stepped forward, offering to cover childcare and other expenses so her daughter could focus more intensely on writing. “It’s the most amazing thing she’s ever done. She sat me and my husband down and said, ‘You’ve been through a really traumatic experience. I’m going to give you what you need to make this happen. I want you to get back your emotional and physical health. I want you to write your book because that’s what you want to do. I don’t want you to worry about money, and so for two years, you can count on my support. What are my savings for if not to help you?’”
And so she began again, this time without worrying about money and investing more time in her health and wellbeing.
In addition to completing her novel, the 38-year-old Mehta continues to write poetry and is invited to read and speak on panels. “The poetry was always easier to take off. Being featured in publications like The Beloit Poetry Journal has opened many doors and I have found that poetry publishing is a nurturing world. I’m driven to write fiction but I’m drawn to the creative process of both. I do one and come up for air and then I do the other.”
And if she is not successful with her novel? “I’m just going to write the next one. I’ve made up my mind. My mother’s two-year cushion is coming to a close but we’ll adapt to the situation. This is what I was meant to do. I’ve got to write.”
Leeya Mehta’s Tips for pursuing your passion
It’s hard to have every box checked off if you want to pursue something other than your job. It’s difficult to take care of yourself, your family, and find the time to focus. If you can, invest in help around the house, invest in exercise, sanity, nutrition…get help where you can.
I would encourage young people to stick with one thing if you can. It’s nice to have something you can develop, and get better and better at. Even if it’s a hobby on the side, be it technical or creative, one must be single-minded
Have confidence and be optimistic. Have the stamina to pursue what you are doing without getting bitter
Build a community around yourself, that enriches you and celebrates you and makes you feel secure
You can read some of Mehta’s poetry here. Below is one she selected for Career 2.0
David and the Hummingbird
For Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
Joyce tells a story of the day
the bird flew into the shed
and would not leave;
it beat its wings until it fell
exhausted to the floor.
But it didn’t end like that,
nor was this the beginning—
The morning of the Kill,
the hummingbird flew through the open door
and circled round and round the blood
“It was not interested to feed,” she said,
but just to see and understand.
It went up into the rafters
and then down again
towards the cement floor.
Its blues and greens dancing in
the light and dark;
the corners hiding it and then
like magic, letting it be seen.
David tried to make it leave;
first, sugar feeders lured it outside;
then, when it was noon, the
darkest noon they’d ever seen,
the thunder began.
He set the sugar water inside the garage door
“It must not starve,” he said.
The day was hurried, like the
wings—it beat and beat.
The world grew still behind the
murmur of the bird
as if to move, to breathe, would be too much.
The rain was sheets of ice;
it pierced the ground, it tore into the hillside’s heart
forcing the mountains to slide and the roads to close.
At dusk the rain stopped, bringing on a night that had not known a day.
The sky cleared and that was when she said she knew
the bird’s heart had begun to burst,
“You could hear it banging in your ears.”
The small buzzing body lifted up to the
ceiling one last time and dropped.
From where it lay the stag’s head was a foot away;
the eyes of the beast, strained and dead;
the bullet hole straight through its neck
revealed the moon in the night sky which shone
like a polished coin.
He picked it up to rest it for the night
in a shoebox with soft muslin cloth.
She said, “Its eyes brimmed with tears.”
Was it fear? It did not tremble.
Was it relief? Did it not know it was only David?
And he said, “It is bereft. It must be saved.”
Then began the longest night.
He left the bird to sleep beneath
the stars. It did not know
the inside of their house.
It could get disoriented in that space.
He lay beside her in
their bed, his ever faithful
heart racing beneath her hand.
Kindness cannot be measured by a single good deed—
a few here, a few there, some withheld.
Love measured out in spoons
as if it were a finite bucket of gold dust.
He would not sleep—
he tore the covers off
and shot down the stairs—
It would be cold, the raccoons might overturn the box.
The bird twitched and murmured in its sleep,
he put it on the garden table and
covered its feet.
Back in bed he tossed and turned—the coyotes would not spare its life
One a.m. and out he went again.
Carrying the box in, he saw its
eyes open and look at him.
What a strange look it gave, as if
there was no meaning there—
a still hard look, but liquid eyes,
as if it was not a bird to
speak of anything—
its mystery not a mystery at all
for it hid nothing
and revealed nothing both at once.
He sat beside it in the hall
he wrung his hands
he stood up
and paced and breathed
he towered over it, afraid of it
and yet he had to watch it once again.
It had been resting while he paced
now it turned its head
a movement so small an immeasurable dot in space
and looked up at him.
They stared into each other’s eyes
this grown man and this miniature creature of the flower world
Decades he had lived so well
this small bird seemed to know it too.
“What is the meaning of it all?” he asked aloud
The hummingbird closed its eyes and went to sleep.
He sat down again and prayed a while
As the bird’s breast rose and fell;
the morning light would bring it back;
he dreamed of it in his garden years from now.
As the sun came fiercely into the room
it was not clear any more who slept and who kept vigil—
the bird watched him as he slept
but closed its eyes again when he began to stir.
The hummingbird stayed with David until
the stag was gone, a day late, in the butcher’s van.
Their friends who’d shot the beast would send them some to taste.
David’s heart leapt with joy,
the sun was hot and the
little one was gathering its body and
shaking the sleep away.
He tried to catch its eye again but it did not look at him,
and then, as if the night was no time to go,
as if it had tried for David’s sake alone,
it died under a blazing morning sun at eleven o’clock.
We’re a dime a dozen….those of us who dream about writing The Great American Novel, or a children’s book or even a magazine article for that matter. But few do, and even fewer find a way to repeat the success of one book and turn it into a career as a writer. But Lisa Willet Becker did it even though she never actually fantasized about being a writer. “I do remember writing short stories and poems as a little girl, and I remember telling myself I’d write a book one day but never really knew what that would be.”
All through her time at the University of California, San Diego, the practical California native had her sights set on becoming a lawyer. She majored in English and American Literature, applied to law school, got accepted but then decided to defer for a year. She took a one-year position as a field representative with her college sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma. During that year, she traveled to 30 universities across North America, meeting with students, school administrators and alumni, to help further the scholastic and philanthropic goals of the overall organization. It was a year of introspection and growth which enabled Becker to make some career changes.
“I decided I would make an awful lawyer. I didn’t think I would be disciplined enough and I didn’t think I would enjoy the work. And I really enjoyed what I was doing in the moment.”
What she was doing in the moment she defined as public relations. Years later she realized it wasn’t really “PR” but it still turned out to be a fortuitous decision. “Never mind that PR turned out to be a lot more writing and strategizing and media relations than what I was doing which was more interpersonal communications. But it still turned out to be what I really enjoyed doing and what I think I was meant to do.”
So, again, always the practical one, she decided to hone her skills and back them up with a degree. Heading East, Becker applied for and secured a spot in Boston University’s College of Communications where she earned a Master’s in PR. She reveled in the coursework and her part-time job as a writing fellow and graduate teaching assistant. She loved Boston as well, but when it came time to graduating and looking for a job, she knew she had to look elsewhere.
“Boston is full of great PR firms, but it’s also full of talented graduates looking for local jobs. There just are not enough jobs for everyone.”
A professor of Becker’s suggested, “Hey, why don’t you move to New York and get a job at Burson-Marsteller? They’ll work you to the bone for two years, but then you can write your ticket.” Becker remembers thinking, “Gosh, I’ll never work for a big firm like Burson-Marsteller.”
Although the professor’s suggestion would prove to be prophetic, at the time Becker had no interest in living in New York or working for a big agency. “I was from California and I loved Boston, and while I didn’t need to go back to California right away, I didn’t really have any interested in New York.”
It was 1995 and the Olympics were heading to Atlanta, Georgia, that year. Becker smartly assumed that the city would be ripe with marketing jobs in advance of the events. So despite knowing just one person in the city, she moved there, crashed on a couch for two weeks and networked nonstop. Within three weeks she had a job and an apartment: “I wound up working for a small boutique PR firm called Cookerly and Company. It was just six people at the time so I got a lot of experience in the three years I was there.”
Becker believed she did everything at a small agency that would have taken her twice as long to learn at a large one. Responsible for everything from making copies to figuring out how to dial up to AOL (1996 remember), Becker also was responsible for managing client budgets, strategizing and writing communication’s plans for the year, and managing client relationships.
After three years, when Becker was feeling the pull of her native California, she felt equipped to go after jobs at bigger agencies that once turned her off. “My professor was right after all. I decided I really needed something different, and I wound up working in the Los Angeles office of Burson-Marsteller.”
Becker settled nicely into her career at Burson. She loved the people, the work and despite it being the boom years in California where job offers were aplenty, she stayed put for about 14 years.
During that time, Becker also met her future husband during the nascent days of online dating. “I figured people were married to their cell phones and laptops, so why not really use that technology to get married, right?”
After the wedding, she began to jot down funny stories from their courtship as well as stories from friends. For a while the stories seemed to be working themselves nicely into a novel, but with a full time job and two children they sat on her computer, mostly untouched for years.
But when Becker turned 40, she had a novel idea. “I decided that instead of buying a red convertible to symbolize my midlife crisis, I would quit my job.”
Although she stayed on for an additional two years as an on-call employee with Burson, Becker relished the idea of more time with her children and more time for projects that she had set aside in the crazy days of working and child rearing.
When she was cleaning out her files at work, she stumbled upon her old draft of a manuscript, called Click: An Online Love Story. The story is told entirely in emails between the heroine, her friends and the dates she goes on. She took it home and made the commitment to work on it a little bit each day. “I wrote at night or while the kids were napping. I like to say it was a year’s worth of writing spread out over the course of eight years.”
When the book was done, she shopped for an agent but found the process discouraging. “It’s a lot of waiting and a lot of rejection.”
But one person who read it suggested she self-publish and Becker decided she was ok with that. “I thought, I’m not planning on being a writer anyway. This way I can get my book out there, and my mom and dad can say their daughter wrote a book.”
Oh how silly she was.
Unlike many authors, Becker wasn’t intimidated by the idea of self-publishing because she felt her marketing background gave her an advantage in the competitive world of self-publishing. So with no agent or publisher biting, Becker went ahead and published Click, her fictional account of an online romance. She put a marketing plan together just like she would have for one of her clients and started promoting it.
“Surprisingly people started reading it and then people I didn’t know started reading it.” The readers came in droves, and they liked what they read. In fact, they liked it so much, and grew so attached to the characters that they wanted to know, “What happens next? When’s the sequel coming out?”
Becker responded and started work on a sequel, Double Click. When she completed the sequel, she assumed correctly that she might have an easier time landing an agent already having one book with great reviews under her belt. But after letting the agent shop the book for a year unsuccessfully, Becker decided again to self-publish. The second one did well enough that she wrote a third, at which point, Becker didn’t even look for an agent and went straight to self-publishing.
Becker’s third Book Right Click came out this past summer. And Becker made it clear to her fans that it was a trilogy, and that was the end.
But it wasn’t the end of her creativity.
“As the third book was being edited I had an idea for another book but when I started writing it, it seemed more like a screenplay to me.”
So Becker bought some software to coach herself through the screenwriting process for what became, Clutch, the story of a handbag designer searching for true love told by comparing men to handbags, i.e. “the Hobo bag” (the loser boyfriend who steals money from you) and “the Wallet” (the one who lavishes you with expensive gifts but nothing else.)
As she was wrapping up her screenplay, Becker got a call from a family friend who asked if she’d be interested in optioning her first book.
“I said yes of course, and sent him Clutch as well.”
The ink is still drying on the deal, but as of last month, Becker’s first book and first screenplay have been optioned by a production company housed at Sony. She is now working on her fifth screenplay and pursuing a career as a screenwriter. See you at the movies.
Some personal words from Becker on getting published:
As a graduate student studying public relations at Boston University, I was asked to interview Charles Rosen, a producer for the original “Beverly Hills 90210,” for an article in the alumni magazine. During our chat, he said, “Don’t fall in love with your words, because somebody above will probably change them.”
During my 18+ year public relations career, I’ve worked with some of the biggest consumer companies in the world including McDonald’s, Ford, Sony, and Gatorade. And, I’ve spent countless hours writing news releases, bylined articles, marketing proposals, brochures, advertising copy, public service announcements, radio copy, mat columns, fact sheets, photo captions, media alerts, pitch letters, letters to the editor, video news releases, etc.
I carried Mr. Rosen’s words with me every day as colleagues, bosses and clients have “changed my words” sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
When it came time for me to write something personal, based on my own experiences and initially for my own pleasure, I relished the opportunity to write what I wanted, how I wanted and when I wanted. It was only after I considered publishing the book that I nervously harkened back to Mr. Rosen’s advice.
But, I took the plunge and explored the traditional publishing route, getting feedback from multiple literary agents. One suggested that I rewrite the book into a typical format with just a few emails here and there. But, I wanted to stay true to the narrative that I thought worked best.
Another agent explained the current economic state of the publishing industry to me. Due to the large investment to edit, produce, distribute and market a work by an unknown author, many large publishers won’t take the risk. She recommended self-publishing as a way to get my work out there and allow me to control the process.
And, so, I decided to self-publish my novels. And honestly, I couldn’t be happier. For better or worse, this is the story I wanted to tell, the way I wanted to tell it. Thankfully, readers and reviewers seem to be enjoying it. And so, thanks to the popularity and ease of self publishing, I say to all of the aspiring writers out there, “Go ahead and fall in love with your words.”
When you look at Michelle Tenzyk, you see a very well-put-together, well-packaged individual. She’s a confident and successful business woman and feels comfortable talking about it. But like many high achieving professional individuals, there is a truth behind the woman that remains hidden. A truth that – up until now – has not been a topic of conversation in the business realm. Tenzyk aims to change all that. After a fulfilling career as a Human Resources Executive for 20 years, her second act is to help others realize their unique potential. “I want to address misperceptions. I want to take it down to the granular level and open up the conversation as to who really is the person behind the title.”
Tenzyk could have been a professional pianist. Discovering the keys at the age of eight, she played competitively throughout her school years and graduated from the College of St. Rose, New York, with a Bachelor of Science in Music Education. Knowing that pursuing a music career would be a difficult path to follow, she opted for business instead and headed to the University of Albany to get an MBA in Human Resource (HR) Management and Systems. “I miss music terribly, it was a big part of my life and enormously fulfilling but I didn’t see a future in it.”
Tenzyk held a coveted position at the infamous blue-box jeweler, Tiffany’s, where she spent five years as Director of Worldwide Training and Development. For the next ten years, she held senior HR positions in various industries until she landed a prestigious job with Condé Nast Publishing as the Senior Executive Director of Human Resources in 2005. Speaking frankly, Tenzyk says it was not a good fit from the get-go.
After parting ways, she went through a tough year, but equally used the time to consider going out on her own. With the support of her colleagues and confidantes she decided to move forward with the idea and in 2007 opened a full boutique consulting firm in Manhattan: East Tenth Group. “I wanted it to be a firm, not just a one-woman show. Seven years later, the business is going well. We offer strategic HR consulting, leadership development programs, and executive coaching services and I couldn’t be prouder.”
While Tenzyk is happy with the direction the business has taken, in recent months she’s been working on building up to something infinitely bigger, something she hopes will send waves through the corporate and business community and change forever the way we interact with each other in professional settings.
On October 1st, joined by a panel of women from a variety of industries, Tenzyk will launch “The Truth Behind Our Titles™”. This movement is dedicated to shifting the belief that in order to be professionally successful, we need to hide or disguise our inner struggles and difficulties. Tenzyk firmly believes the opposite to be true … our greatest challenges are often the key, and the door, to our greatest successes. The event will address the difficulties many executives face, personal challenges – such as depression, illness, burnout, domestic violence and more – which people tend to shy away from discussing or even acknowledging in a corporate setting.
“The Truth Behind Our Titles™ has been a ten-year dream. The concept is born out of a deep belief I have that, especially in the professional setting, there is a need to talk more openly about some of the struggles we face as very high achieving women and men: doing it in a way so that there is no fear of ruin of reputation or that this is somehow seen as a sign of weakness,” Tenzyk explains.
This not just pie in the sky and HR fluff. Tenzyk is speaking from experience …
“My own story is one of a deep adversity after being diagnosed in 1994 with clinical depression. I’ve been hospitalized many times and have had this illness as the undercurrent of my career for the last 20 years as a successful business woman. Depression can be misunderstood and carries a stigma especially when it falls into the category of major depression, which is what I have and live with. The illness is not always physically noticeable yet we suffer very deeply. And it’s not something people are as comfortable talking about in the corporate world. It is often treated as a weakness or something we should get over quickly and certainly not something to speak freely about.”
Yet, Tenzyk confidently states her depression has not prevented her from achieving great success because she was able to employ strategies and solutions to show up at work living a more balanced and integrated life. “I’ve had to find ways to cope, to keep a balance and be mindful of when there is too much stress on me. My depression definitely has a genetic component but can also be influenced by multiple life stressors. I tend to throw myself into everything I do. I can be very intense sometimes.”
Tenzyk’s story is a powerful one, but she is not the only woman courageous enough to share her story. She will be joined by a collection of powerful women with inspiring stories about their personal struggles in the workplace and their ability to overcome. Among others, Nikki Johnson-Huston will talk about her experience growing up homeless and Wendy Samuelson will share how she copes with Usher’s Syndrome, a debilitating hearing and sight condition. “We will speak to issues the corporate and professional world doesn’t like to get into, the messy bits, and how we have contended with these challenges in our careers. We want others to understand how we live our lives today, more integrated, well and wholly in the professional world and give those who need it hope that they can do the same. In other words, empowering others with strength and resilience through our common experiences.”
The launch event will perhaps be a personal challenge for Tenzyk as it is the first time she will speak so publicly about her experience. “It’s important for me to bring down the curtain of shame. To show it’s okay to talk about what I have gone through and speak proudly about what I have achieved over my career in spite of my illness. I want to inspire and make it possible for others to feel as capable themselves.”
The goal is not just to help individuals who might feel isolated in their working life but also to change how HR manages these issues and how we deal with each other more broadly in working life. A positive reflection of the HR community’s belief in Tenzyk’ s vision, CHRO of Global Business Travel at American Express, JoAnne Kruse, will make the opening remarks of the evening. Some prominent HR executives will be in the audience, along with CEOs, while other companies are bringing staff members using the event as a learning opportunity. “The turnout speaks for itself. People want to have this conversation. This is resonating. The idea of the truth. To know your truth and feel empowered, building a sense of community to know you are not alone.”
People can be inspired after events like this and many want something afterward. In anticipation of this, a LinkedIn Group will be available and other resources and support are in the works. There are plans to bring the event to Philadelphia in 2015 and other cities shortly thereafter.
Tenzyk’s timing couldn’t be better. Considering the growing debate around how to manage mental health in the US, there seems to be a momentum and sense of urgency to get these issues on the table. But regardless of the broad appeal an event like this might have, for this woman at least, the journey is personal.
“The Truth Behind Our Titles™ is my life’s work. My view is go big or go home. I’m going for it. I am acting in faith that this will gain traction and we will tour the country, possibly the world. If that doesn’t happen, I know I will have given it my all. And you know, what is most important is having one person that next day [the day after the event] to put down their shoulders and say ‘I am not alone.’ In all my years in business, I have yet to hear my story. I am not aware that we have looked behind the corporate door before in this way, but now it’s time to go there.”
Advice from Michelle Tenzyck
Michelle is often asked what women can do to support themselves more wholly in the workplace. She identifies some common traps women should avoid:
Not asking for help. As high-achieving women, we often “go at it alone,” as if making our own way demonstrates strength. This has many truths to it – but the real truth is, strength comes from asking for help – and regularly. We have many different sources – from those who have expertise you don’t, the same expertise that I do have for better insights, from people with different POVs, and those more junior to my experience, more senior – you get the picture. In doing so it makes us more efficient, productive and happier. Often, our strength stems from support.
Not confiding in anyone. This pattern must be broken. Whether it is someone internal to your company or external, but someone who is not only a good listener, but a great listener. Someone who is willing to give you input and objective guidance. Someone who is genuinely empathetic and compassionate. As Brene Brown says, “someone who really has your back, no – really has your back”. Hope, once found, is one of the most powerful tools.
Not utilizing support systems. Whether you go to HR, your EAP (employee assistance program) or an external group; find a group of like-minded, kindred spirits where you can share your struggles and challenges openly and honestly. This could be just 2 of you or 10 of you. But a group with whom you can share the truth without fear of repercussions or stigmatization. Resilience is born from the realization that you are not alone.
Tiina Zilliacus’ last name brings to mind the long-gone days of gladiators and Greek warriors. And in many ways, the Finnish tech entrepreneur has launched herself into a battle of sorts. Leaving the security of the corporate world, with three years of hard work and preparation behind her, Zilliacus has suited up to enter the male-dominated fray of gaming. “What I have initiated is not currently in the scope of most game developers. Within the next five years, instead of Coke and pizza, I hope more of them will become genuinely interested in health. When this happens, we’ll be there with cool employee opportunities,” she adds with a smile.
Following the career path her parents valued, Zilliacus knew she would go work for the big brands. After receiving a business degree from the Helsinki School of Economics, Finland, the dutiful and driven daughter did just that and spent 11 years at the Finnish tech giants, Nokia and Sonera, focusing purely on business-to-consumer (B2C) services such as management of online shops. A consistent thread of supporting consumers in mobile, online and digital environments has run through all her positions.
And yet, despite a clear future of fulfilling and secure corporate opportunities, Zilliacus knew her personality type was meant more for the smaller start-up environment. “I’ve always had something of a fearless adventurer attitude and love a certain amount of risk, so by my early-to-mid 30s I started seeking out CEO roles in the start-up world.”
For the next five years, she moved seamlessly among three start-ups, one mobile phone photo and video service (Futurice) and two gaming firms (Apaja Online Entertainment and Ironstar Helsinki), where she was Managing Director and CEO, respectively.
During her corporate life and especially the stressful years of start-up management, Zilliacus turned to yoga as a form of release. “First it was just a hobby, but quickly became a way of life. I’ve always made time for yoga and been on a lot of retreats. I’m even certified as an instructor.”
The gaming sector in Finland, as in most places around the globe, is male-developer driven. While this bothered Zilliacus, who herself is not a developer, she saw a clear opportunity: “They make games that they would like to play although 55% of casual and mobile game customers are female. I realized that I actually could use my professional competence and understanding of what women like in terms of entertainment to fulfill the needs of a major target audience that the market was not addressing.”
Zilliacus decided to start a business driven by her own values and her devotion to yoga provided the spark of inspiration. “Not many people have the digital and management experience that I have and understand yoga and the well-being world as much as I do. I decide to merge my professional knowledge with my passion to create a gaming business targeting women 25 years and older.”
And so as the next iterative step in her career, she set out once again but this time to found her own gaming studio focused on fun mobile “free2play” games aimed at women with the unique underlying theme of wellness.
The last three years have not been easy. They were spent building a strategy, laying the groundwork, seeking angel and seed investment, and recruiting former colleagues to the team. As the 40-year old Zilliacus explains: “I’ve been married to this company. It wakes up with me on Saturday morning, my weekends, my nights…when you are so invested in bringing something like this to life, you give up not only your time but your mind space. As a yogini and wellbeing enthusiast, it took me two years to accept that there is a time that I just need to let all of this happen to me even though it’s work. But because it relates so much to my personal experiences, I can never describe it as work. It will simply take as long as it takes as long as I am where I want to be. That’s the attitude and mental model I needed to adopt and once I did that, everything fell into place.”
But the hard work has paid off. Gajatri Studios’s first simulation or management game, Yoga Retreat, is just recently available from the Apple App Store. Along the lines of Animal Farm, the mechanics of the game are familiar. Zilliacus has intentionally aimed to keep it accessible and not so difficult that it becomes hostile for the user. Players can access yoga poses, unlock small daily meditations, and challenge friends as they manage, expand, and customize their very own yoga retreat on a paradise island.
Zilliacus’ company has attracted the support of two Finnish female angel investors and a family-owned investment office that are drawn in by the health features within games. Her two co-founders are from Rovio, the makers of Angry Birds: “Games guys are open minded. They like to do stuff that reaches out to people so the first motivation is that they like the plan that there is a different type of business strategy and therefore also leadership style in what you do”.
Gajatri Studios’ business model is sustainable and incorporates a wide theme of health and wellness that can molded into different content. Future games will look at food for instance and there is an opportunity for synergies with the forthcoming IOS8 platform and its Health Kit. “As the Apple platform evolves, we plan to utilize different opportunities in our games. For example, we could offer yoga challenges that we can verify have been completed because the user is wearing an iWatch or something like that. Essentially integrating some real life activity into a game, that’s the wider idea,” Zilliacus explains.
The female gaming entrepreneur, one of few in Finland, is optimistic of what lies ahead but acknowledges with these types of companies, funding must be sought out all the time. “It’s a continuous process and depending on which stage you are in, you know the sums are dependent on that. That’s part of the entrepreneurial life, until you are successful, you are every once in a while almost out of funding and when you are successful, you don’t need it any longer. You just need to go on until you reach that certain critical point.”
Zilliacus will know in a few weeks if she has hit that critical point as sales stats from Apple App Store are reported. But regardless the journey is what counts and of that she can surely be proud.
Tips from the Finnish gladiator of gaming:
Really be clear that the core of what you interested in is what you strive towards. It’s so much hard work to launch a business, make sure you like what you do and that you are good at it. Understand your strengths and weakness. If those elements are present, then it will be easier. Be grateful of what you get to do, not many people have the same opportunity.
Be persistent. Don’t get easily discouraged. There are so many people who are not going to help you, you need “sisu” (uniquely Finnish expression for grit) to get past the non-believers and be able to do things on your own. You won’t always get approval, but you must sustain.
Surround yourself with people with integrity.
Find a way to relax every day, clear your head in an efficient way. This enables you to focus on what is essential the next day.
Any active foodies hooked on travelling out there longing for a stroll through Aix-en-Provence and a great bowl of Daube Provençal? Montreal-born Carolyne Kauser-Abbott has got something for you. The former project and operations management specialist has launched her own food and travel blog that dips into cultural traditions and the history of cuisine around the world. And in case you get lost while on location or are just looking for some local hidden gems, she’s also created an App to guide your way.
An economics graduate of Queens University, in Kingston, Ontario, Kauser-Abbott took her first job as a runner on the floor of the Toronto stock exchange. She moved “upstairs” to become an equity trader for Wood Gundy (now CIBC Wood Gundy) and worked in the stock market for about five years, trading through the 1987 crash and pocketing what she refers to as “some great learning moments”. (more…)
If the key to success in any task is practicing more than 10,000 hours, then it’s no wonder Angela Parker’s jewelry company Olive Yew has gone from a small hobby in her den to an international business in just three short years. The artist, who has a self-described minor case of OCD, attributes her success in selling her designs to 80 boutiques around the world to her obsessive pursuit of perfection in everything she does. It was the very same devotion to an unfulfilling corporate job, where she was paid to master the all-powerful search engine optimization (SEO), that partially paved the way for her accomplishments with Olive Yew.
Growing up outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, Angela always knew she wanted to work in a field where she could do something with her hands. She studied sculpture in college at Appalachian State University and then, after graduation, got a job illustrating children’s books at a local publisher.
Although she loved that job, as it fulfilled her need to create, after 15 years and a promotion to creative director, she saw the writing on the wall: the print industry was not doing well and a small publisher like HighReach Learning was unlikely to make it. She was right but fortunately she had lined up another job – this time as a graphic designer at a large company: “I moved on to web design but never really liked it. I didn’t enjoy coding and I didn’t like working in a cube. I knew I had to do something more creative.”
As she was considering what that creative pursuit would be, her to-remain-unnamed company enrolled her in a web design class and also paid for professionals to come in and teach the designers SEO. The year was 2009 and, although not “new”, SEO was still being discovered.
“Although a Fortune 100 company, it was awful – the room we worked in was above the servers which made it hot in the first place. But also, the air conditioning would go out frequently, and the roof was made of metal. It was sweltering and we had a lovely dress code that featured sweater sets. But the one good thing I can say is they spared no expense in hiring the best and brightest to train us in SEO. It was painful working there but I learned a lot more than in any other company.”
After 15 years of broken AC and other challenges, Angela finally decided to make a change. She left the company, but continued on as a contractor. With a little more time on her hands, she signed up for a local metal smithing class: “I didn’t have anything in mind other than the fact that I wanted to make something – I needed to make something – with my hands.”
The class was not the kind of place to inspire the launch of jewelry empire: “It was held in a place that was part pawn shop and part jewelry repair store. It was in sort of a rough part of town, and there were bars on the windows, but they taught me the basics of what I needed to know and I loved it.”
It was April 2011, and Angela was still committed to her SEO contract, but in her spare time, she started buying equipment and set up a little studio in her house. Four months later, when Parker was 39, she quit contract work all together and with a small personal loan, and the money from sales that were already starting to come in, she started making jewelry fulltime. For Parker, “fulltime” meant sometimes staying up until 1 or 2 in the morning crafting delicate cursive and block letters and the bangles made of rose-gold-filled and sterling silver that would become her signature pieces.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people that these big changes come around the time when you’re turning 40 and for me it was definitely true. I had climbed the corporate ladder and gotten to the point I wanted to, and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t what I signed up for…it was meaningless to me. I had to do my own thing.”
Parker started slowly with a few styles. She could see the “internal eye roll” of her family and friends when she told people she was launching a jewelry business. “Everyone and their cousin seemed to be making jewelry,” Parker laughs. “So I just sort of trudged along and didn’t say much for a while.”
But Parker’s business training had taught her something critical. “You can make something all day long, but if it doesn’t sell, then it’s a hobby. If you think there’s a market for something, then there’s marketing for it that has to be done.” Fortunately, Parker found the marketing for her business just as much fun as the making of the jewelry. So during her days she spent hours crafting the metal, and then she spent just as many hours optimizing her site online, studying the analytics and figuring out how to improve them. “There were many 20-hour days. It was crazy and it was definitely hard on my family,” she remembers. “But it paid off.”
Parker, who had taken a personal loan from her husband to fund the initial start up costs, paid the entire loan off by December of the same year she launched. At first she was selling just on her website and in an Etsy boutique. But in December of 2011, a pair of her earrings was featured in a holiday gift guide in Self Magazine, and the rest is history: “Pretty soon I was up to five employees, and we expanded from the den to the dining room to the living room, and then my husband politely suggested that it might be time to look for a facility.”
The Self Magazine mention was indeed a boom for Parker’s “little jewelry business.” That article combined with a follow-up feature in Women’s Day “really started everything.”
Parker expanded her product line, and opened a facility to house her employees more comfortably. Despite the boom in sales, it wasn’t all easy: “Growing the business was a headache,” she says. “We had to go through several accountants, a few lawyers and others before we found the people that were right for us.”
Just eight months after first taking the metal smith class, Parker was able to replace her annual corporate salary. In two years, she quintupled her annual sales, and the next year she tripled them. Three years in, she is starting to breathe a little easier. For Parker, that means, only working 12 hours a day instead of 20. “I used to be a lot more of a workaholic than I am now. Today, I give myself the freedom to take mental health days just to do something else for a bit. But I do like to stay busy.”
Despite all her hard work, the rapid path to success in a creative venture that Parker adores surprised her but her staff even more. “It was funny to watch my accountant when I hired him. I could also feel him patting me on the head and saying, “Oh you and your cute little jewelry business.”
With three years of dramatic growth behind her, her accountant has taken notice. What’s next? “I have a number that I keep to myself where we’ll cap the growth. We’re close but we’re not there yet.”
Tips from Angela Parker
Look at your collective experience (jobs, school, hobbies) and how they can aid you in your new business. I majored in sculpture but wound up in marketing/design. Both help me daily in my current role.
Invest your time in marketing. You’ll be able to invest the dollars in it later, but at the beginning, you have to market your product to sell it. In this day and age, that means learning a little about SEO & SEM.
Follow the proper steps in setting up your business. If you have employees get a worker’s comp policy and all of the proper insurance & legal documents in place (business bank account, business license, etc.).
Finally, have a good lawyer & accountant to whom you can refer when questions arise.
Have a question or comment for Angela of Olive Yew? Post it here.
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!
Remember those friends in college who incited envy because they had their career path all worked out … in eighth grade? Well, relax. That’s not Julie Eisenberg. “I had no plan,” she shares. “Really, no plan! I don’t think I ever thought about the future when I was in college, or even now,” she insists.
But despite her claim that she was never one to look to the future, when you listen to her story it’s clear that she always paid attention to the, perhaps subconscious, need for community participation in her schooling and career choices. Lending her voice and skills to those in need and helping build communities is a thread that’s woven throughout her varied career, one that goes from union organizer to yoga studio owner.
In the early eighties, after the Linguistics and Women Studies major graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Eisenberg spent a year backpacking through South America, getting up close and personal with the people and politics she had been studying the past four years. Her attachment to the region deepened and she headed back to Madison, Wisconsin, to add a Master’s Degree in LatAm studies to her resume. Shortly thereafter, she returned to South America, this time to Chile.
Eisenberg cites a string of family and friend influences that led her to work in the union movement but it was her own experiences that played the biggest role. “I got a job on campus my freshman year at Madison and signed my first union card then,” she says. She felt strongly about the issues and felt close to that community. So when she went back to Chile, she landed a job as a community organizer, where she began to hone the skills she had begun to develop in her union.
“By the time I came back to the States three years later, I had been a card-carrying member of a union for years,” she added. “So it seemed like a natural fit to take a position as a union organizer for a teachers’ assistant union.”
She was young and had lots of energy for the job and she excelled at it. She would stick with this career for nearly 20 years. After five years in Millwaukee, where she worked for teachers’ and other unions, she was offered a job in DC working for a division of the AFL-CIO that represented some of their affiliate unions. Her division assisted unions seeking analytic research to secure financial data and anything else necessary to make their case in negotiations.
“It was a fantastic job. I loved it, but it was also very high pressure.”
Eisenberg was on the road a lot, working long hours, and representing everyone from airline to healthcare workers, but she spent the most time with meatpackers.
As real evidence of her passion for worker’s rights, the life-long vegetarian worked with the meatpackers union for years fighting for better work conditions. “It was challenging for me for sure. The smell of death around the meatpacking plant is brutal, but it’s a horrifically dangerous job for the workers and there are lots of injuries. When you talk about workers that need a union, meat and poultry workers are at the top of the list.”
Eisenberg’s Spanish-speaking skills were vital to help her communicate with many workers and get a real sense of the conditions. Despite the long hours and challenging conditions, Eisenberg didn’t consider a change. “That would have involved thinking about the future,” she jokes. Instead, she found another outlet – yoga.
Soon after she moved to DC, Eisenberg reluctantly started practicing yoga thanks to “a hippie neighbor from California who taught classes out of her apartment.” The natural athlete was skeptical at first: “I sort of went kicking and screaming … there was lots of stretching and I wondered if it was really doing anything, but I kept going back.”
After four years of practicing yoga, she realized she was getting more serious when she sought out classes on the road while traveling for work.
“I went to a class in Omaha, Nebraska, once that I loved. It totally resonated with me. I also had a teacher in North Carolina. I was practicing all over the place.” So, Eisenberg began taking teacher-training modules on weekends and immersion yoga weekends whenever her schedule allowed.
Upon moving to the Petworth neighborhood of DC, she found a new studio teaching Kundalini yoga. “It beat the crap out of me,” Eisenberg recalls. “It worked on postures but also a lot of breathing and chanting. It was very powerful and different from anything I had ever done. I found it so challenging but I loved it.” She loved it so much she became certified as a Kundalini teacher.
It was right around this time that Eisenberg’s longtime employer decided he needed a change. “He was a wonderful boss and had given me so much opportunity, but when he decided to shut down the office, I realized I was tired too, and I didn’t want to go work for another union. It had been nearly 20 years and these campaigns really sap you.”
So Eisenberg decided she was just going to teach yoga and see where it led her.
“The financial transition? Oh my gosh — it was crazy. The things you take for granted when you have a full-time job, like going out to dinner, that all had to go, but the teacher training itself is powerful and gives you the sense that you can go off in a different direction and make it work.”
Eisenberg, who was single at the time, realizes she was very lucky to have severance and unemployment to get over the transition hump. She had a very low mortgage which was also a help but, “without the severance, I don’t think I would have been able to make a go of just teaching.”
It was just enough of a cushion to give her a couple months to develop a steady slate of classes. She picked up students whenever she could at a variety of locations and then – fortuitously – a friend who worked at Miriam’s Kitchen called and asked if she’s be willing to teach yoga to the homeless there. She loved the volunteer time trying to “bring a little bit of peace and tranquility into the lives of the homeless men and women.”
It was through her work there that she connected with another instructor who was launching a non-profit to provide outreach yoga to underserved areas. Eisenberg was offered the executive director position and took it. Finally, through the combination of the office and the teaching jobs, she felt like she was back on her feet. But fundraising, a key part of her new job, was not really a natural fit. So, eighteen months later when a friend mentioned a space in Petworth that would be perfect for a yoga studio, she jumped at the chance.
Eisenberg initially partnered with a friend, but now runs Lighthouse Yoga Center on her own. At first, the overhead and rent were low, so the transition was smooth. After two years in the first location, she has moved the studio to a more central space in Petworth and expanded its offerings.
And in a way, Eisenberg has come full circle: no longer an official community organizer, her business has become the heart of her community: “My favorite thing right now about running Lighthouse is that we are becoming a great part of the community. Our students say all sorts of people feel comfortable coming here and we take that role seriously. We want to be there for the people in our neighborhood, providing a break from the stress of everyday.”
Tips from Julie Eisenberg:
Let go of your material needs. Stop shopping for things that aren’t critical, for example.
Develop a good network of friends and colleagues who will support you in your new venture. Don’t be shy about emailing them to invite them to classes or events.
Don’t get overly hung up on how much income you need to bring in each month. Build a little cushion and then realize that some months may be better than others, so you can make it through the slower months without freaking out.
In fact, try not to freak out in general. Everything works out in the end.
For Lisa and Allen and Trish Drennan, it took a dramatic life event to make them recognize it was time for a change in their personal and professional lives. For both, the death of a mutual friend was a wake-up call that brought them together to support each other in becoming healthy and strong and to make it their lives’ work to help others to do the same.
A graduate of the University of Delaware, Lisa Allen had had a long-term career in communications, representing various trade associations in D.C. The work was interesting – everything from issues management to crisis communications – but when she had her first child at age 31, she decided it was time to work for herself and “own” her time a bit more. For years after she hung her own PR shingle, she found herself being able to devote more time to working out, something that had played an important role in her life since graduating from college.
Allen remembers herself as a chubby kid, who put on even more weight in college. “I had an “a-ha” moment soon after I graduated and realized I needed to do something different. I started running a lot and lost the college weight and was actually pretty proud of the fact that I got and stayed fit. Ever since then, exercise has become a real passion of mine.”
But Allen never really intended to make a career out of her love of health and fitness until she met Trish Drennan.
Drennan also worked in the field of communications after an unexpected detour as an engineer. After graduating from Wittenberg University with a degree in international relations, she thought she would pursue a career on Capitol Hill. But when she found herself jobless between election cycles, a temporary job launched her into a new career as a wireless technology expert.
“I got placed at this technical engineering company, and it was at the time when wireless was really booming. It was a brand new trade so the company invested in training us. Within a year, I went from being a liberal arts girl to a wireless engineer trainee at George Washington University.”
Soon, Drennan was shipped off to Germany and found herself designing wireless networks for LCC International. She stayed there for almost five years but when the company decided to go public, they looked internally for people who understood good communications in addition to the technical side of the business. Drennan found herself tapping into those liberal arts skills in the sales and marketing department and later in investor relations.
In all, she spent nearly 22 years at LCC, eventually managing a team of 300 communications professionals around the world.
But with each promotion, the former college athlete found her commitment to fitness woefully waning.
“Once I started working, I went hard and heavy into my career. Unlike Lisa, I never had a weight problem until I had kids. By the time my third child was a year old, I was 45–50 pounds overweight. I was travelling internationally, juggling the needs of three kids and had a husband who also had a big job. It was a crazy time in my life and I was really soul-searching.’”
Although she was coaxed into contracting with the company to help them through another transition, Drennan, like Allen, decided to go out on her own. Now that she too owned her time, she started working out on a regular basis with her new friend.
In the Fall of 2009, for Drennan’s 40th birthday, the two decided to train for a marathon. With loads of time to chat during long training runs, the “what if” conversations intensified as the pair discussed how they might make a go of it in the fitness industry.
During that time, a friend who ran a local boot camp in Ashburn invited Allen and Drennan to help her run the boot camp a couple mornings a week. This was the opportunity they had been looking for – running an already established fitness class and seeing how it went. At this point, the two friends had become such health and fitness junkies that they not only ran marathons but also competed in triathalons and spent the rest of their spare time reading up on the latest health, nutrition, and fitness trends. Drennan had lost forty pounds and was feeling fabulous, and Allen was determined to continue to help other people meet their fitness goals.
So donning their marketing hats again, the pair branded their own boot camp, Motiv8Me, and launched a new program.
“My husband joked that I went from an expensive clothing habit to an expensive equipment habit,” said Drennan.
In March of 2010, they launched the business with eight clients, each of whom had to commit to an eight-week session. It was important to them that their customers follow through with their commitment to the program and their own personal goals. The closer they worked with their clients and researched what was out there, they more realized they had hit on an idea that added value in the fitness world. “As students in lots of fitness classes ourselves, we were really frustrated with the fact that you could be doing moves wrong to the point of hurting yourself, but no one would tell you because the group fitness instructor was incentivized to come in and teach, not to take care of the people.”
Allen and Drennan took their plan a step further and became certified fitness instructors, quickly realizing what they really wanted was not just a boot camp, but a full-service gym that was different from any of the other fitness offerings available. Something that would offer everything they had learned and believed was critical to a lifetime of fitness – high intensity interval training, core work, strength training, and yoga. On top of that, they wanted a gym that didn’t sell shakes or powders or any hint that weight could fall off easily with short cuts. “Although we are not certified nutritionists, we wanted a gym where we could talk with clients about the importance of long-term good nutrition habits, and where we would commit to them if they would commit to the program,” explains Drennan.
With those goals, the pair came up with a tagline that would be the centerpiece of their gym: Sweat. Nourish. Commit.
Again, the fitness junkies found themselves leaning on the skills they honed in their former lives to ensure their new venture was a success. “We really come into this industry from a very different perspective. Most people who want to open gyms are former trainers, but we take a business perspective. We wrote a business plan, we did a competitive analysis, we knew how much money we had to raise to make it work.”
They opted to turn to their own families to borrow the money rather than taking out a small business loan. Each side put in equal amounts, and Allen and Drennan have opted not to take a salary until the loans are mostly paid back. They also decided to rebrand the company to something stronger and came up with BlackBench Fit, in reference to the eight black workout benches they purchased during their earlier outdoor bootcamp days.
Three years later, and BlackBench Fit is humming along and the two are ahead of schedule based on the original projections in their business plan. “We were able to make a small dent into loan repayment this year, AND put a little bit of money each into our 401ks.”
But more than feeling satisfied at their business savvy, Allen and Drennan count it a blessing that they’ve been able to launch careers in a field that is so meaningful to them.
“One of the most rewarding parts of our job is also the most surprising,” shares Trish. “I had no idea I had a teacher or a therapist in me, but I love that part of the job.”
“I feel like what we’re doing now is a real calling for me,” adds Lisa. “It’s so gratifying to help people reclaim their bodies because I’ve been there and know what it’s like.”
Have questions for the owners of BlackBench Fit on their success to date? Write a comment and we’ll be sure they see it.