Denise Roden: Loss So Often Leads to Gain

Denise RodenThe first line of Denise Roden’s scrapbook reads, “This is a book about me, for me.” You wouldn’t know it until you glance through those pages, but at one point in her life Roden weighed 265 lbs. It’s possible she weighed more but she can’t say for sure because she never stood on a scale until the morning of her life-changing bariatric surgery. Something else you wouldn’t know by looking at the confident blonde is that starting her own business at the age of 48 has been transformative – even more so than the surgery.

“I feel like I’m somebody now. I worked so many years in an unfulfilling job because I was following theDenise Roden money. Looking back I see how lost I was all of those years. Sometimes when you are overweight you lose your voice. Starting this business has given me my voice and self-esteem back. I did this. I left a well-paying job, but I finally took control. This is for me and no one else.”

Roden grew up in Alabama, north of Birmingham, in a typical Southern family. Raised on fried food and Hamburger Helper, weight was always an issue as she and her siblings rarely exercised and were not encouraged to spend a great deal of time outdoors. By high school, Roden weighed 200 lbs. She tried aerobics and played some sports, but the slow slide into obesity had begun, interrupted by spurts of yo-yo dieting.

Following in her grandmother’s footsteps, Roden enrolled in college to become an elementary school teacher, but her heart wasn’t in it so she dropped out after two years. Ideally she would have done something with computers, but it was 1983 in Alabama and there weren’t many options for that type of career, especially for a young woman.  She continued working odd jobs, toying with the idea of going back to school. She never did, though; instead marrying a soldier at the age of 23. The pair moved first to Virginia and then to Korea where he was stationed.

Weight gain continued to be a problem. “I tried everything. Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, that crazy grapefruit diet. You name it, I did it. But nothing worked because I was looking for a quick fix rather than being mindful about what I was putting into my mouth and actually changing my lifestyle,” she recalls.

After Korea, the couple moved to Massachusetts, but the marriage was on the rocks. Roden took a secretarial position and taught herself how to use the Wang computer (remember those?). “I did a lot of payroll and accounting, and generally picked up the skills of whatever needed to be done. I was like a skills sponge,” she laughs.

Following his tour in Massachusetts, Roden’s husband was accepted into nursing school with the Army’s support and they moved to North Alabama where the marriage continued to flounder. “My parents had been married for over 40 years.  I didn’t think divorce was an actual option and deep inside me, I really thought I could make it work. However, I just gained more weight.”

“I feel like I’m somebody now. I worked so many years in an unfulfilling job because I was following the money. Looking back I see how lost I was all of those years. Sometimes when you are overweight you lose your voice. Starting this business has given me my voice and self-esteem back. I did this. I left a well-paying job, but I finally took control. This is for me and no one else.”

After returning to school to get an associate degree in general studies, Roden held various office managerial positions and built her finance expertise. After several moves, the couple settled in suburban Washington DC, where Roden worked as Director of Finance and Administration at the non-profit Jewish Women International. She stayed for 14 years.

Denise RodenFour years after the move to DC and several counseling sessions later, the couple finally separated. When her husband got orders to go back to Korea, Roden declined to follow, choosing instead to do a BA in business administration while working full time. Around the same time, she began looking into bariatric surgery as a solution to her weight problem. She was suffering from a barrage of related health problems such as high blood pressure, sleep apnea and hypertension, and the surgery – a stomach or intestinal operation that helps obese patients lose weight – felt like the last option.

After a year of reflection, Roden decided to go for it. As she was still covered by spousal military benefits, the surgery, and accompanying tummy tuck and breast implants to adjust for excess skin were all covered. “I just had to buy the bra,” Roden laughs. “It was such a gift.”

Roden dropped 100 lbs relatively quickly and was transformed. She attended bariatric support group meetings and after getting certified by the Bariatric Support Center International (BSCI), became a support group leader, a task she enjoyed but found frustrating when noticing who was attending the sessions.

“It was the patients required by their insurance firms to be there as part of pre-op or the success stories. The people who really needed to be there, the ones experiencing what I call ‘the creep’ – the slow but steady weight regain – were not coming. I had always felt there was a number on the scale that, if crossed, would be a slow descent from which I’d never recover. So I vigorously fought off the weight regain by focusing on my own wellness and happiness.”

This proved to be challenging considering what she was experiencing at the office.

“I learned a lot in the 14 years at JWI but I also grew up during that time. I was 34 when I started working there. For many years, the salary and work motivated me, but when I hit my mid-40s, I was no longer happy. I didn’t feel valued and wanted something more fulfilling. I’d start crying on Sunday nights when thinking about work the next day.”

A way out finally presented itself when, about two years ago, Roden received an email from BSCI offering her the opportunity to purchase a license for their bariatric support curriculum. At this point, Roden was on meds for high blood pressure and anxiety so she felt she didn’t have much to lose. Her new “permanent fiancé” was encouraging Roden to make a change and was unequivocal in his recollection of those days, “He reminded me just last week, ‘Do you realize the first word out of your mouth every morning was shit! Do you know what it’s like to start your day next to someone who says that every morning?’ I guess it was tough on him too,” she says a little guiltily.

She considered the cost of the license, and determined that she could swing it with the income from her condo rental and some Army spouse benefits. She gave six months’ notice and filed for an LLC.

Today Roden operates the Bariatric Center for Success. She earned a health coaching certificate from Georgetown last year and offers several services targeted at weight-loss surgery patients. Her educational curriculums include “Success Habits™ of Weight Loss Surgery Patients” and “Back on Track™.”

“For me and the 200,000 Americans who undergo this surgery every year, it’s not the end of worrying about food. You think it is the solution – albeit a drastic one – to your problems, but unfortunately it’s not. You need to change your mindset too, otherwise it won’t work.”

Getting the business going hasn’t been easy. Although most insurance plans cover bariatric surgery they surprisingly do not cover educational support services prior to or after the fact, despite that about 50% of patients experience considerable weight regain between 3 and 5 years following surgery. They even pay for revisional surgery when patients relapse but don’t invest in the more cost-effective and less invasive approach of peer support on an ongoing basis. Roden is working to build up connections and partnering with local hospitals to get the support services covered by insurance.

“It’s taking some time but it’s so worth it. On Sunday nights now, I start thinking about the week ahead, what I am going to be doing. I get excited and that means more to me than anything. Especially because I am helping people defeat those sabotaging thoughts and behaviors that cause weight regain and be successful long-term.”

Tips from Denise Roden
  • It’s really difficult to do everything on your own. Working from home, I found it hard not to let personal demands eat into professional time. I joined a women’s co-working space (Hera Hub) to address both of these issues. I’ve met a lot of women who’ve given valuable support to my business, I’ve learned from others, and I’ve been more disciplined about my working hours.
  • Keep lines of communication open with those around you. They might not know how challenging what you’re trying to do is.
  • Also, be sure you have enough for start-up cost. For example: website, CMS, accounting package, etc. There are so many little things.
  • As the President of BSCI, Colleen Cook said, “Reach Further, Dream Bigger, Aspire Higher” That’s exactly what I aim to do!

Pam Shields: Fighting Alzheimer’s One Sit-Up at a Time

Pam ShieldsBy the time her two daughters were in their preteens, Pam Shields realized that the frequent travel her job in the IT industry demanded no longer worked for her and her family. She wanted to be home more, more available to her kids. So in 1999 she left a high-paying, fast-track job in the corporate world to pursue something that had always interested her: personal fitness.

She also knew she had good managerial and leadership skills, and so by January 2000 she had already started her new physical fitness business. But it wasn’t without trade-offs. “My income,” she says bluntly, “decreased by about 95%. I went from a six-figure salary to almost nothing.” (more…)

Ginger Miller: Once Homeless, Now Extending a Hand to Others

23041-banner-ginger-miller-forms-women-veterans-interactiveThere are 52,000 homeless women veterans in the U.S. on any given night. Ginger Miller was once one of these women. Only 18 years old when she joined the Navy and 22 when she received a medical discharge, it wasn’t a smooth transition back to civilian life for Miller or her Marine Corps veteran husband.

Miller met her husband, William, when the pair were stationed at Annapolis, Maryland. They married shortly after being transferred to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina, and decided that Miller would stay on to serve while William would get a federal job so he could accompany her wherever she was stationed. This decision was made easier by the fact that William, who had served in Liberia and Operation Desert Storm, was suffering from undiagnosed PTSD following the suicide of a friend and fellow soldier. (more…)

Ellen Reich: The Square Peg Who Found Her Hole

Ellen ReichEllen Reich has always struggled with trying to find just the right profession, something that would enable her to mesh her aesthetic side with her political leanings. It took her some time to figure it out, but today Reich is the proud owner of Three Stone Steps, a small import business specializing in “ethically-sourced” products.

“I never took a linear path, I meandered a bit, but that’s sort of what I do. And in the end, it all worked out. I like to think I’ve had an impact on making people more conscious about what they buy, where things come from and if they are fairly made. I don’t hit them over the head with it, but I find it really satisfying when it happens.” (more…)

Lakeisha Dunn: A New Business for a New Life

LakeishaDunn-outsideLakeisha Dunn spent ten years doing a job she strongly, strongly disliked. A job that left her miserable and depressed. But the pay was good and it offered job stability, and she didn’t think she was qualified to do much else. So she stayed.

Fresh out of high school in Baltimore, Maryland, Dunn enrolled in a program that trained nursing assistants but realized pretty quickly that it wasn’t for her. She worked a couple of different jobs as an administrative assistant, and while they were fine she wanted something new, something different. She thought that a job that allowed her to walk around some, maybe even go outside, would be ideal. And so she was thrilled when she landed a job as a correctional officer at a Baltimore City jail. (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…)

Julie Jakopic: Building Her Legacy by Helping Business Leaders Create Their Own

mt-vernon-portait-colorJulie Jakopic wants you to know there are others like you out there. Women who have given up job security and prestige to go out on their own. Women without security nets and a lots of responsibilities but also with aspirations for something more. “Take comfort that you are not alone and go after what you want to be doing. In all my previous positions, I had built something and moved on, this time round I decided to build something for myself.”

Jakopic grew up in an entrepreneurial space where her parents worked for themselves. Her father launched multiple retail stores, and her mother took over the business when he committed suicide, leaving a wife, son, and teenage daughter behind. But Jakopic initially took a different path, working mostly for and in service of others.

With more working experience than most of her peers, the 20-year-old put herself through college at University of Maryland by working days as a retail manager at Bloomingdales and Estee Lauder. Communications and psychology degree in hand, she left retail and headed for something more meaningful in the counselling world. Her first steps were to manage a crisis intervention program for the DC Hotline and built the organization’s child abuse and neglect program. (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.

Anne Manuel: from human rights defender to high school teacher, making a difference in people’s lives

Anne Manuel
Anne and her daughter

Anne Manuel has always valued human interaction and placed great importance on helping others realize their potential. This is what initially propelled her into human rights work and today makes her a high school teacher who – according to her students[i] –  “is patient and caring…presents her lessons in an interesting and informative way…and is tolerant and open-minded of others’ opinions”.

Albeit rewarding, the path from Deputy Director of the Americas’ Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW) to public high school teacher was not an easy one.

After graduating from Wesleyan University with a degree in 1980, Manuel married and moved to New York City where she worked temp jobs and interned at Inter Press Service, an international news agency.  Moving to Washington, DC to work for Inter Press, she spent 3 years covering international and human rights issues, a beat that became more than just a news story: “I figured out pretty quickly that I wanted to be an advocate and not an observer of human rights.”

So she left journalism and jumped into the field, joining HRW as a specialist on Latin America. She focused on research and writing and gradually moved up the ranks, becoming an Associate Director and finally Deputy Director of the Americas’ Division. Manuel travelled to countries where basic rights were routinely violated to uncover harrowing stories that she and her colleagues brought to the halls of power … Congress, the executive branch, the UN … and placed on the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post in an effort to stop the abuses and bring their perpetrators to justice. “While we often stared evil in the face, we were endlessly inspired by the determination of victims and their relatives. I got to work with human rights advocates in the field and my colleagues at HRW who were among the most committed, passionate, intelligent and creative professionals I’ve ever met.  HRW was a great home for me spiritually.”

And yet, despite being professionally and personally fulfilled, Manuel began to experience a nagging anxiety. “At 35, I started having a crisis about travel. I was geographically torn in two directions. When I was at home, I never wanted to leave. When I was in the field I felt like I needed to stay longer. I was profoundly attached to my work but also my family, and had a sense I was perpetually incapable of fulfilling my commitments, particularly to those in the field, many of whom risked their lives every day defending human rights.”

And yet still highly committed to HRW, Manuel truly wanted to be in the field more to do a better job: “The tension was immense. It was like walking a tightrope.” Eventually the pressure of staying away from family was too great and she stepped back.  She worked out an arrangement with her “very supportive boss” so that she no longer had to travel.  The immediate relief of finding balance was replaced by the realization that, with no travel or field work, she didn’t feel she was doing the job justice. “I started to become the person who watches the clock, and while I was no longer in crisis and still felt passionate about my work, I must admit there is nothing quite like the fire you get from interviewing victims and survivors of human rights violations in the field.”

And so, after almost 14 years working in human rights, Manuel decided to make a radical change.She had always been attracted to working in public schools, finding the diversity of the student body appealing, akin to a “mini-world cauldron”. A well-meaning friend tried to turn her off the idea of teaching by recommending some books exposing the underbelly of the public school system, but instead Manuel found herself even more intrigued. And after learning about Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, which has a diverse student body from Central America, Africa, and Asia amongst others, Manuel knew she had found her next calling.

Undeterred by the fact that it would take 15 years of teaching salary to compensate for what she was earning at HRW, Manuel launched herself into a Masters in teaching at Johns Hopkins, continuing to work part-time at HRW. Her husband and daughters were supportive and her employer incredibly flexible in terms of letting her work part time and later as a consultant. “I am so grateful to them for being fantastic colleagues and helping me with my transition.”

Manuel started teaching US history to freshmen, inspired by her favorite high school teacher who exposed her to apartheid and other injustices through a course in world history.  At first she was not confident that she had made the right decision: “Little things would take an inordinate amount of energy. Being around teenagers can be trying but it can also be invigorating. So many of them are eager to learn, vibrant, always on the cusp of new discovery!”

And drawing on her old career to build her new one, Manuel established an International Human Rights course at the school.  The course attracts a lot of students who are the children of immigrants, and several of her former colleagues, and even current students’ parents, participate as guest speakers (i.e., one father was a Burmese activist, another the sister of a “disappeared” from Argentina). As her students point out, Manuel builds understanding through activities and bringing history to life.

Sometimes she misses her former colleagues, the limelight, congressional meetings, and constant interaction with high profile media: “My dirty little secret is the ego boost I got from working at HRW.” As a teacher, Manuel feels almost completely anonymous and this has required some adjustment. “At HRW, I was working on issues that affected a lot of people but only in a small way, while teaching has the potential to have a big effect, even if it is on a few young individuals. I’ve been lucky as both careers offer the chance to make a difference.” And at 55 years, it seems she has just begun to make her mark, at least she hopes she has. “I will teach until I can’t go anymore. I just get so much juice out of my job.”

Anne Manuel’s lessons for a smooth transition
  • If you need an advanced degree, consider pursuing it part-time so you can continue to work.
  • Don’t let early doubts stand in your way. Its natural to second guess yourself when you’re leaving something stable. Listen to the voice that put you on the path towards change in the first place.
  • I had a lot of lucky breaks, I won’t deny it. I am glad I had the strong urge to become a teacher once I knew I needed to change careers. Some people search for ages and can’t find that strong desire. If it’s there, heed it!


Have you ever left a career you loved because of other commitments?

[i] Rate My Teachers. [Internet] Accessed 3/24/2014