Chanel Turner: Giving the Vodka Industry a Shot in the Arm

Chanal Turner
Courtesy of The Washington Post

To say that Chanel Turner broke the mold in the vodka world would be an understatement. She pretty much smashed it to pieces.

The spirits industry is fairly staid, with few new formulas being created. Most vodka companies get passed down through families for generations. But Turner developed her own formula, started her own company from nothing. She’s a woman in a field where there are very few. She’s African-American; also highly unusual in this business. She was only 25 years old when she started the company. And, oh yeah, she sells her vodka in a lightning-bolt shaped purple bottle.

Turner works as an IT specialist at the Pentagon. She attended Bowie State on a full basketball scholarship, majoring in business administration. After briefly working in the private sector doing web design, Turner began her job at the Pentagon, where she still works today.

The idea for starting a vodka company came to her while sitting around with friends, drinking vodka-based mixed drinks. When they ran out of chaser, no one wanted to go to the store to get more. And there was no way they were going to drink it straight. “When people drink vodka, they want to mask the taste, the harshness, the burn,” she says. “I thought how great it would be if there was a vodka that you could actually enjoy on its own. We all laughed about that, how someone really needed to make that vodka.” By the next morning, most people would have forgotten all about the idea. But not Turner. (more…)

Danielle Tate: Savior of Brides Drowning in Marriage Red Tape

DanielleTate_0181-XLGetting married? Thinking of changing your name but not sure? Sure but overwhelmed by the name-change process? Unsure on how to get a marriage license? Wondering if your fiancé has ever been secretly married? Just kidding on the last one but online entrepreneur, Danielle Tate, has made almost anything possible with her trio of websites aiming to solve information and paperwork challenges facing soon-to-be newlyweds.

But Tate wasn’t always a wedding-red-tape buster. As a teenager in Bedford, Pennsylvania, she had planned to go into medicine after working summers at a local doctor’s office. She enrolled at McDaniel College in Maryland and studied biology and psychology. The decision to specialize in cardiology came her second year when she received a Howard Hughes grant to spend a summer working in Ohio State University Hospital’s cardiology department.

But a career in the medical field was not meant to be. She just missed the mark in the final interview round at Baylor College of Medical in Texas. “I was pretty disappointed but I refused to move back to small-town Pennsylvania so I took the first job opportunity that came my way, selling Canon copiers and fax machines,” Tate recalls. She did the job for about a year but applied in the meantime for more senior sales positions as well as a place at Johns Hopkins’ nursing program. (more…)

Susan Fletcher: From Writing Algorithms to Nurturing Absorbent Minds

tophatHow would personality-typecaster Briggs-Meyer classify a problem-solving, puzzle-loving woman who spent 20 years in computer programming only to leave the sector in her early 50s to open a Montessori childcare center? Is there a personality that combines being analytical, systematic, and detail-oriented with a sensitive, spontaneous and playful side? If so, then Susan Fletcher surely would fit that bill.

“I loved working in IT but I’ve gone from logical and impersonal to warm and intensely personal. I get such a kick out of watching the children learn and grow. It’s not just about reading and writing. Little kids are learning to put their dishes away when they are finished eating. They are learning about nature, geography and art. I had to smile the other day when the mother of a 3-year-old told me the response she got to ‘How was school?’ was ‘Great! We painted Starry Night by Van Gogh.’ We are accomplishing what I want. The parents are seeing it and they are excited by it.”

Fletcher’s career in IT got off to an early start. In the 9th grade, she joined her father after school in his lab at a hospital where she programed a new computer they had just purchased. “Keep in mind this was the 1970s so I’m talking the early days of computing. I would sit and write programs to teach the computer to draw graphs. I just loved it, it was so much fun.” Fletcher’s path was clear and she went on to study computer science and mathematics at DePauw University in Indiana.

She married and, joining her then-husband in Washington DC where he was studying law, Fletcher took a position with government contractor SYSCON developing custom applications for the Navy for five years. “I found out recently they are still using one of the systems we wrote in 1986. I don’t know what that says about the Navy, but for me it was kind of exciting to hear I wrote something they are using today,” she laughs.

Fletcher took a two-year “break” to have kids while doing Masters course-work in computer science from the University of Virginia. From there, the family moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she developed software applications for a variety of mid-sized telecoms, hospitality, and retail businesses. Moving again in support of her husband’s career – this time to Atlanta, Georgia – Fletcher briefly stopped working until her marriage came apart and her husband relocated to Hong Kong following their divorce. “It was tough. I was working as a systems analyst for a large agriculture cooperative and the kids were only 4 and 7 years.

With parents living in DC, Fletcher decided to return to the nation’s capital and look for work. She landed a position with USA Today supporting advertising department applications and, after three years, moved over to the Bureau of National Affairs (today known as Bloomberg BNA) building websites and managing content delivery. Seeking more seniority and a supervisory role, the ambitious Fletcher did an MBA at the University of Maryland while working fulltime.

Anthony Susan at Malia's weddingThe new degree paid off and Fletcher signed on as VP Operations for a small publishing company. It was all going swimmingly until the market crash in 2008 and the 44-year-old mother-of-two-bound-for college found herself unexpectedly laid off. After six months, she joined the Federal Trade Commission as an IT project manager but it was a morale-breaking three-year stint. “All the fun of solving puzzles and writing software that people would use was gone. There was lots of politics, a lot of hand-holding, making sure people were doing their job. It was frustrating. My life had changed. I had gotten remarried and the kids were gone. I wanted to do something more personal, feel again like I was contributing more.”

Searching around for inspiration, Fletcher thought back to earlier days when her boys had attended a Montessori, an experience she loved. But as a busy single mom it has been difficult to juggle before- and after-care, and the spring and summer camps that were always needed while she worked. “I thought if I had wanted the best experience for my children during the day – with stimulating activities and a warm and supportive environment – and without interruption during summer and other breaks then of course others would too. I wanted to have a Montessori like the original founder intended as true childcare facility supporting working families from drop off in the morning to pick up in the evening. Just because you have to work fulltime, you shouldn’t have to accept a lower quality program.”

Fletcher hit the ground running. She did a lot of research on childcare licensing and regulations, and started looking for locations. She finally got to a point where a decision had to be made, one way or the other: “It seemed like the right time. I found a commercial realtor and partnered with a Montessori teacher. But then the hard work began as Maryland has very specific staffing and facility requirements. Ideally I would have bought land and built a school but the cost was prohibitive at $2–3 million. At one point, I almost gave up because I found the perfect location but then ran into zoning issues and had to abandon the process.”

But she persisted and using personal savings, a home equity line of credit, and a loan from her parents, Fletcher signed the lease on an old gym in Gaithersburg, Maryland. While construction got underway, she began recruiting Montessori-certified teachers as state licensing rules require having sufficient staff on hand (1.5 teachers to every child for a 12-hour day). Fletcher kept working at the FTC until the summer before Top Hat Montessori opened in 2012 and since then has been onsite except when out taking courses on child development, curriculum and planning, emergency preparedness, and childcare administration to name just a few. “There’s a lot of training involved,” she emphasizes.

“For my mid-life crisis, instead of buying a sports car, I opened a school. It’s been difficult and I’ve made some expensive mistakes. Even with an MBA, I don’t know anything about running an early childhood education business so I have struggled with staffing, navigating the complex regulations and licensing requirements, and marketing to young parents. In hindsight, I realize I was naïve, but I absolutely love it. It is fulfilling in a way that my IT career never was. Even knowing how hard it’s been, and how little I knew when I started, I am really grateful that I have had this opportunity.”


Tips from Susan Fletcher:

  • Be prepared but accept that no matter how many people you talk to, no matter how much you read and how many classes you go to, there are just some things you learn from being in an industry for a while.
  • Use a business consultant from the very beginning if possible. I worked with a childcare specialist to help me turn things around recently but her help would have been even more valuable from the get-go.
  • It’s never too late for a second career. Feeling passionate about my work is rewarding, and makes all the problems seem worth while.

Lola Akinmade Åkerström: The GeoTraveler Who Finally Found Her Niche

Lola_Pic2As a young girl, Lola Akinmade Åkerström had dreams, big dreams that wandered far from the traditional path she was expected to follow as a girl in her native Nigeria. “I wanted to write fiction, to be a geologist, an artist. I wanted to do what I loved instead of what I was expected to do. But mostly I wanted to work for National Geographic because I thought it would be a means to travel the world and document it like the vividly stirring images I was soaking up from the magazine’s pages.”

Her love of geography saw her through a “true grit” boarding school in Lagos, Nigeria, where as a student she experienced food rations by day and stayed up nights studying cities and their hinterlands via candlelight. On finishing school at 15, she moved to the US to stay with extended family. She pushed aside dreams of working for the famous yellow-framed travel magazine, pursuing instead the practical field of information systems – a more “stable” choice in the eyes of at least her parents – at a local community college before transferring to the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).

Graduating at 19 years, Akinmade Åkerström won a spot to study for a Master’s degree in Computer Science at the UK’s prestigious Oxford University but lack of funding barred her way and so she headed into the job market as a programmer, specializing in geographic information systems (GIS) – developing and integrating applications that work with interactive maps – and her old love, geography. She later received a Master’s in Information Systems from UMBC.

Photography and writing remained a serious hobby and, in 2002, she volunteered with the Eco-Challenge Expedition Race in Fiji as a field journalist, covering the route and the teams as they raced through adventurous courses.

For the next ten years, Akinmade Åkerström worked as a GIS programmer and system architect for Ohio-based Woolpert, a design, geospatial, and infrastructure management firm. “I really enjoyed my work but honestly I felt no true passion for the job. It was not what I felt I was put on this earth to do.”

To offset that feeling and bring some balance to her life, on the side of working full-time she started freelancing, building her portfolio as a writer and photographer. She was able to stretch her vacation days while working fulltime to travel as far and wide as possible. She also created an umbrella company called Geotraveler Media to house all her activities, including web design and social media. The client base and bylines slowly started to accumulate as she submitted to airline magazines, travel magazines and blogs, lifestyle journals, and newspapers. “I was never afraid of rejection because what was the worst that could happen? Either they said no or completely ignored my pitch. I never let that dampen my spirit and just forged on.”

The final springboard for change came in 2009 when Akinmade Åkerström relocated to Sweden with her husband whom she met in 2006. It was a now-or-never turning point. She gave up a stable, well-paid career as a programmer to become a photojournalist but, with numerous writing and photography accolades under her belt, felt confident she was making the right choice.

10629461_817831601582971_7283979387677093891_o“My main concern was having to start from scratch again and prove to people that I knew what the heck I was doing and talking about. Some people understood it. Many thought I was just pursuing my ‘hobby’ and didn’t take me seriously even after I sold my condo and gave up the corporate life. Before becoming my biggest fan and advocate now, my mother used to tell me: ‘If people ask you what you do and you say you are a photographer, remind them that you have an advanced degree as well!!’ Of course she was coming from a place of concern and now in hindsight, she knows it wasn’t necessary. I didn’t live my life to please others.”

And then the big day came.

“When my first batch of photos were finally loaded under my name on National Geographic Creative, I called out to my husband to come see. ‘See! See…’ but the words couldn’t make their way out. They were choked by tears that this could finally be happening. That this long held dream of being a National Geographic photographer could actually be unfolding before my eyes.”

Not a typical photo agency, National Geographic Creative actually seeks out and approaches photographers. It represents roughly 300 photographers, only about 150 of whom are active.

Akinmade Åkerström’s photography finds beauty in the mundane. Her work has appeared in numerous media, including National Geographic Traveler, BBC, CNN, Lonely Planet, The Guardian, Travel + Leisure, and National Geographic Channel. She is the editor-in-chief of Slow Travel Stockholm – an editorial site which encourages travelers to explore Stockholm deeper and more slowly

Sugarcane harvester in Mauritius
Sugarcane harvester in Mauritius

She is featured in a 1-minute vignette about South Africa called “Through The Lens” and has volunteered as a photojournalist with the Swedish Red Cross, World Hope International, and CHIEF, a Nigerian-based NGO promoting grassroots health development, HIV/AIDS awareness, and the empowerment of women.

Five years into her new career, the confident 36-year-old considers herself blessed. She is working toward becoming an assignment photographer, to move over to what she refers to as “that list” of a select few talents. But she knows it will take hard work and time and is constantly exploring and evolving her own personal style of “a human geographer who connects with people”.

“Photography is a way I communicate and connect with others who seem so vastly different from me. It enables me to reach into other cultures respectfully to find our similarities and those fleeting moments of absolute joy and contentment in being alive. I still have many dreams for my career, but I’m grateful for my personal freedom and the opportunity to keep traveling. For me, success is not about financial achievements or finally breaking into some high status clique, but it’s about having the flexibility to live life on my own terms and in a way that’s emotionally and spiritually fulfilling.”

Akinmade Åkerström’s Tips on Following Your Passion:

  • Life really is about committing 100% to moving to the next stage. You can’t move on in life if you are constantly looking back.Casablanca
  • There is a thin line between following your passions and being selfish. If you have other important responsibilities you’ve accumulated over the years, find ways of balancing them while trying to follow your dreams. Get rid of unnecessary responsibilities.
  • Learn to say no. You’ve got to pause, reassess your life, relationships, and projects, and then take proactive steps towards decluttering your life so you can actually start focusing on what you really need to be doing.
  • Sometimes leaping out in absolute faith regardless of the outcomeis the answer; trust that every risk taken is a natural selection process; unveil true friends and those who are willing to go that extra mile on your behalf.
  • Hard work will only get you so far and we truly can’t reach where we want to go in life without others. We need their support and love to carry us through those last few steps. We need tolet go and be truly vulnerable.
  • Follow your heart. While you may not be able to successfully communicate the importance of your passion to others sometimes, that doesn’t make it any less real or important to you. Don’t expect everyone to be excited about your passion as you are.
  • Do not fear rejection. You will meet it several times along the way when following your passion. How you handle rejection will only build character and make you more tenacious and resilient in the pursuit of what you are meant to be doing.

Angela Parker: From Sweater Sets to Signature Pieces

oliveyew3If 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.”

oliveyew4 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 toliveyew2aking 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.

Jere Brooks King: Redefining Retirement for Herself and Others

Jere King Portrait 2014Jere King is speaking from personal experience when she tells you there is more to retirement than sitting on the porch or playing golf every day. “At the age of 56, I wasn’t ready to retire in the traditional sense.  I was ready for a chance to reimagine what my next career would be. ”

In 1977 when Jere graduated from Kalamazoo College with a liberal arts degree, she thought she would have a career in medicine or education.  When weighing her options, a family friend (a physician) advised against pursuing a medical degree. “He said, ‘it’s a huge commitment, and the medical field may soon become very bureaucratic … why don’t you try something else first just to make sure there’s nothing you are missing out on?” And it was hard to find a teaching job at the time.

Encouraged by the president of a local software company, King went to work for a burgeoning IBM. “The high technology field was creative, innovative, growing, and fast paced.”  Thoughts of public service vanished quickly in the golden era of technology, where King forged a path as a skilled technology marketer at a range of high tech companies – first IBM, later SDRC and Autodesk.  She even got an MBA along the way before finally landing at Cisco Systems in 1996.

King had what she describes as “a fabulous career” at Cisco, grateful for being part of one of the most influential and high-profile companies of the Internet Age.  She liked the work and her colleagues, but as 2012 approached, King started thinking about retirement…but not in the traditional sense.

“I thought, ‘I’ve had a great career, but I need something different.  I wanted to spend more time with my family and work fewer hours, but I also wanted to contribute back and do something for the local community.”

She was determined to shape a second act for herself, one where she could return to one of her early career aspirations. “I needed to return to where I was when I got out of college and transition into public service. I had already served on several nonprofit boards.  Perhaps my best work was still ahead of me.”

As luck would have it, someone else had the same idea in mind for her. Literally on her last day at Cisco, a colleague approached King and asked,  “Have your heard of the Encore Fellowship Program?” King had not but was intrigued by what she heard. An Encore Fellowship is a one-year program for those who have been in long-term careers and have a desire to engage in the nonprofit world. The program offers a structured “bridge” to the nonprofit world by facilitating a 1000-hour internship supported by a $25,000 stipend.

King investigated the program, and – when she learned more – jumped at the chance. Many of the people in the Encore program were like King and had retired from corporate careers, or just had a deep desire for a significant change and needed support through the process.

After considering a number of worthy local organizations, King was placed with Abilities United, a Palo Alto non-profit that has been working on inclusion programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities for 50 years. It was a mile and a half from King’s house and everything she had hoped it would be – giving back and playing an active role in her own community.

She began her fellowship in February of 2012 and completed her 1000 hours of service nine months later. “With all my years in the high tech sector, I had the executive skill set to lead the design and completion of many projects effectively. Still, I had to learn the ropes within the nonprofit world, with its wide range of stakeholders and strong mission orientation. It was at times both frustrating and exhilarating to be charting new waters.”

Upon completion of her internship, King continued with Abilities United as a member of the Board of Directors

For King, the internship proved to be invaluable in helping her launch what she calls “the next stage of life.” Rather than being retired, King views this as “life reimagined” – a movement that’s gaining traction as life expectancy increases, and people have a desire to stay in the workforce longer.

This year, Stanford University approached King to ask if she would serve as an advisory board member for their inaugural Distinguished Careers Institute.

“It’s a year-long residential program of personal renewal in an academic setting for those who have already experienced a successful 20–30 year career,” says King of the Stanford DCI program.  With the inaugural class beginning in January of 2015, King is helping Stanford recruit 20 Fellows who will spend a year on campus while attending classes, shaping their own curriculum, and networking with luminaries about how people with “distinguished careers” can embrace new fields and help change the future.

King remembers what someone said to her when she took early retirement from Cisco to participate in the Encore Fellowship program. “What? You’ve had a long successful career in high tech, and you’re shifting into nonprofit? You should go relax and take a break.”

There are rich rewards in launching a second act. Lucky for Abilities United and all the future fellows of Stanford’s Distinguished Careers Institute.

Tips from Jere King

  • Rethink what retirement means for you.  Start now!  The accepted norms around length of career and age of retirement are changing fast.
  • Reimagine a second act that gives you the chance to pursue your passions.
  • Realize that what we regret most in life is not what we did, but what we did not do – so go for it!

If you are interested in the Stanford Distinguished Careers Institute, which is currently accepting Fellows for its inaugural 2015 program, you can learn more at If you would like to try an Encore Fellowship, be sure to visit the site.

If you have more questions or comments, add them below and we’ll be sure to get them answered.

Lisa Allen and Trish Drennan: Friends, Partners, and Sweat Gurus

BBF co-ownersFor 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.

Christine Bienvenu: Reinvention in the Face of Adversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christine Bienvenu Tips for Surviving Tough Times:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Believe in Srirupa Dasgupta’s work and want to support her efforts? You can make a donation at

Srirupa Dasgupta’s Tips for Success:

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


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

Inn Sync: Sherri Fickel and Kevin Kraditor Spreadsheet Their Way to a Dream

Innkeepers(Special guest appearance in this column by a man (!), a critical partner in this Career2.0er’s dream come true.

As if it were yesterday, Sherri Fickel recalls the conversation she had with her husband Kevin Kraditor as they celebrated their one-year wedding anniversary back in 1998. It’s likely a conversation many people have had while on vacation, away from all the stress, relaxing over a glass of wine. “We had been hiking, which we love to do, and were in this cute little town, discussing how we had always wanted to do something different … we both really loved to entertain, Kevin wanted to garden more, and I wanted to renovate an old house. And then it hit us, why not run a B&B? We were both really excited and it felt right.”

Although the time wasn’t quite ripe for such a move, the hardworking, and risk-averse pair, then in their early thirties, didn’t abandon the idea.  When they returned home, Sherri and Kevin agreed to look for a property, renovate it slowly and possibly use it initially as a second home, while continuing to save money. The plan was to work towards establishing a second career as innkeepers, years down the road when they reached their early fifties.

They set their sights on Sperryville, VA, a small town near the Shenandoah National Park, just 75 miles outside of DC, close to the famous Inn at Little Washington. It was an ideal location. After all, they loved to visit Sperryville with its idyllic small town feel and great hiking. And they figured being just down the road from a world famous restaurant would be a good for business.

Following their first anniversary trip, they returned to Sperryville several times over the next couple years and in 2000 they started looking for a home. During their house-hunting trip, the couple stayed at another Sperryville inn. Over breakfast, the owner casually inquired about their plans for the day. Responding sheepishly that they were looking for a property with plans to open a (rival) B&B, they were shocked when she replied, “Nonsense, you wouldn’t be my competition, you would be my colleague.”  The genial response dumbfounded the couple who were used to cutthroat DC, and took it as another sign that they were moving in the right direction.

The innkeeper had another surprise in store for them when she suggested they look at a nearby property not yet on the market. With two large wrap around porches and at least seven historyfireplaces, it was ideal. Built in the 1820s, the building had gone through various identities, and was converted to rental apartments in the 1970s. It took six months for all the apartments to turn over, which gave Sherri and Kevin a chance to check them out before they were rented again.  At that time, they were finally able to make an offer on the building, which was once again full of tenants.

For some time after that, the couple continued to live and work in DC but spent their weekends in Sperryville to manage the apartments they had rented. The building was paying for itself and Sherri and Kevin focused on increasing their savings at home, with their sights set on the long-term goal of moving out to the inn eventually on a full-time basis.

But in 2004, they had an epiphany.  “Our lives were fine but there was no passion in them. We were both in jobs we had fallen into, paying the bills, making a nice living, and living in a cute house on Capitol Hill. But we thought, ‘What if we spend the next 10-15 years working towards this goal, only to discover we hate being innkeepers? Wouldn’t it be better to find out now?”

Shortly after deciding to “go for it,” they were crushed by the estimates of the cost to convert the property to a B&B, double what they had anticipated. The couple, who had a pact to never get used to a lifestyle that they couldn’t support by waiting tables, paused and agreed not to discuss it for a couple of weeks, both unsure if they were willing to take on a massive amount of debt to fulfill their dream.  “When we came back together, we unequivocally agreed, ‘Let’s do it!’ It was the biggest risk we ever took.”

kitchenflurrysmallIn August of 2004, the couple started a full-scale renovation on the Inn, a move that Sherri recalls required “significant lifestyle changes.”  Sherri quit her permanent job at the Red Cross as an IT project manager, instead becoming a consultant where the take home pay was much greater, but the benefits all but gone. They decided to live entirely off Kevin’s salary as a labor economist for the American Academy of Physician Assistant, so they could save all of Sherri’s: “We brought brown bag lunches to work everyday and only allowed ourselves to go out to dinner once a month.  We HAD to save money. We had spreadsheet upon spreadsheet upon spreadsheet with different plans for how to make it work. We just hated the idea of being stuck in our jobs to pay off the loans.”

They made further cuts by renting out the top of their house in DC and living in the basement, finally figuring out that if they sold their house in DC, and put all their equity into the Inn, Sherri could quit her job and Kevin could telecommute from the Inn: “At that point, my whole passion was in Sperryville, so we made the jump. It was a crazy time in DC real estate, the house went up in an escalation clause and the winning bidders allowed us to stay in the basement an additional six months for free,” Sherri happily remembers.

They sold their house and opened The Hopkins Ordinary, in June 2005. Sherri remained as a consultant to the Red Cross until August of 2005 and Kevin telecommuted until 2008, when he made the leap to work full time at the Inn.

Nine years on, the Inn is going strong. At two years beyond the typical “inn burnout” of seven years, the couple sees no end in sight. “We were ready for hard work and it was. For a couple years we did all of it and had no time off, but over the years we’ve been able to hire people to do some of the less attractive work like scrubbing toilets and making beds. Now we also allow ourselves two weeks off in January and two weeks in August.”

The payback for all that hard work? “We love what we do. We love making our guests happy, watching as they discover Sperryville. It’s really rewarding. We have many repeat guests and many guests have become very good friends. It’s not just a job. Its our life.”

And while they acknowledge they have foregone higher incomes, making the switch to inn-keeping has clearly given them a higher quality of life than they could have ever achieved in DC: “We love the flexibility and the feeling of freedom that comes from running the show. It may not be an extravagant life, but it’s a secure life.”

And they already have their sights set on career 3.0. The two are preparing to launch a “nano brewery” at the inn this Fall. As Sherri explains, “We love running the Inn but doing it for many years can get stale if you don’t give yourself new challenges.”

Their daily life and interaction on the day we spoke we spoke with Sherri sums it up perfectly. In her words: “Today, we made the guests breakfast, went for an 8.5 mile hike, came home, didlavender1 the laundry, ironed, prepped for incoming guests, and did some minor work for the brewery renovation. As I prepped for tomorrow’s breakfast, Kevin headed out to mow the lawn and we just smiled tiredly at each other. Then he smiled at me and said, ‘We’re doin’ it.’ The only response is a return of the phrase, and then we get back to work, but with a smile and new energy.”

They are living the dream, and for Sherri and Kevin, doing it together has made all the difference.

Sherri’s Tips for Success:

  • If you have to personally make a huge financial investment in your new venture, make a budget, run the numbers and make lifestyle changes. Even huge numbers may be possible with the right lifestyle adjustments.
  • Similarly, be willing to make short-term sacrifices on your quality of life to achieve long-term goals.
  • Don’t assume your life can’t be like the life you see on vacation. There’s no requirement that you have to live in a city and sit in an office. Think outside the box.



Have you ever fantasized about working in the travel or hospitality industry?





Lisa Eaves: Finding Zen

lisa eaves

Looking back at her younger self, Lisa Eaves realized she was a leader by example and pretty good at motivating others. Naturally athletic, she could relax, enjoy team sports, and play well. “Encouraging others, building their confidence and having fun helped everyone to play better. In sports, you learn about yourself, your role on a team, build mental skills, learn about strategies… the skills and experience I gained were a great foundation for any chosen profession.”

But Lisa was surprised when she fell into a career as an IT specialist. “Technology did not come naturally to me. I had to work hard to understand it, unlike technologists for whom the bits and bites made perfect sense.” After earning a BSc in business from the University of Maryland, Lisa secured her first job managing contracts for a consulting firm before moving to Fannie Mae where she spent the next 12 years. She moved up in the ranks, working long hours, which came with higher salaries but not more satisfaction. She liked working at Fannie Mae. The people were great. But she didn’t love going to work every day. It wasn’t fulfilling. It was a high-stress, demanding environment, and Lisa paid the price in terms of personal freedom and happiness. She toyed with the idea of acupuncture as a means to reduce her stress but never thought of it in terms of a career choice. She knew she needed to do something different but what? (more…)