Before she became a renowned personal-finance expert, Suze Orman waited tables for years at a local diner in Berkeley, Calif. The beloved Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, worked in the White House Office of Management and Budget in the late 1970s before launching her cooking and entertaining empire. Senator Fred Thompson was a prominent Hollywood player prior to entering the world of politics. And while two-time heavyweight champion George Foreman won Olympic boxing gold, he’s actually best known for his career as the spokesperson for the George Foreman “Lean, Mean, Fat-Reducing, Grilling Machine.”
No matter how long you’ve been in your current career, it’s not unusual to find yourself considering a change. Clearly, people do it all the time. It could be a fleeting thought that you have every now and then, or it could be a dream that you’ve been planning to pursue for a long time. You could be looking for a new opportunity for creative reasons or facing an unexpected layoff because of the country’s challenging economy. Whatever the case may be, attempting a career shift is both scary and thrilling. The possibilities of what you can become—both professionally and personally—are practically endless. Here, three successful Atlantans share their stories of professional and personal reinvention. Their reassuring experiences may be the catalyst you need to make—or make the best of—a career change.
Sonja Heck: Written in the Stars
Heading home, Sonja Heck picked up the phone and called her husband. She said to him, “That’s it. I’m going to start my own business.” It was June of 2009, and Heck had just been laid off from her fast-paced management position in the financial-services processing industry, a casualty of the country’s failing economy. But while she was sad about the turn of events, she was not surprised at all. She even felt a bit relieved. In fact, she had been waiting for that moment to happen for nearly 2 years.
“The downfall of the economy meant that most company employees were very concerned about possible layoffs, and there didn’t seem to be a day when this wasn’t at the forefront of people’s minds,” she explains. “I had been warned of the possibility and had made peace with it about a year before. And I had been thinking for years that I wanted to branch out on my own. The longer I worked, the further away I got from the areas that brought me the most satisfaction—creative writing, overall marketing tasks and presentation.”
What Heck, who is trilingual, had been doing was traveling around the world, delivering payment solutions and support to a wide client base. Her position took her "from Argentina to Australia, Croatia to Brazil, France to Hong Kong,” she says. The challenging work was very rewarding, and she enjoyed onsite projects that allowed her to adapt her skills within different cultures. However, the overall downturn in the market led to company and personal stress as potential clients became less inclined to take on an expensive business venture. In 2008, she began saving money—bringing her lunch to work, clipping coupons, upgrading her airline tickets with personal miles and cutting down on trips to the dry cleaner—all in preparation for what seemed to be inevitable. Then, when she finally received the news of her layoff, she recalls, “I was OK for the most part. The worrying was over—it happened. And on the positive side, I was treated very well by the company upon my layoff.”
She was ready for a new professional challenge. Although she has an MBA and 2 decades of management, marketing and sales experience, Heck decided not to pursue an immediate return to the corporate world. Instead, she set a plan in motion to start her own resume-writing business—Spot-On Consulting. “Since I can remember, I have always been asked to review documents, write creative materials and review the work of others. On many occasions, I have been told that I should pursue writing as a career. I wrote resumes for free for years, so I knew I was very proficient in the area,” she says. So, Heck researched the industry, talking to business leaders and hiring agencies to find out what they look for in a well-written resume. She also explored marketing opportunities and created a Web site. Soon, Spot-On Consulting was up and running and getting rave reviews from clients.
“The most gratifying aspect of owning my own business is that people tell me all the time how I have increased their confidence and given them hope through their new business documents,” Heck asserts. “Most people are not that confident in singing their own praises, but everybody is so pleased when they see how good they really look when the resume and cover letter are professionally re-written. And it may sound corny, but I am just as happy to see my clients happy.”
Today, Heck continues to build Spot-On Consulting through new advertising opportunities and social and professional networking sites. No matter what happens from this point on, Heck has taken a leap of faith and started fulfilling her longtime business aspirations. “You really have to be happy at work,” she maintains. “We spend so much time working that in the event we are not happy, our working lives become so tedious. If you have a passion, why not look into it and take some steps to see if your dream can become a reality?”
Kristen Lander: Looking Deep Inside
Kristen Lander worked in kitchens throughout high school. She loved baking, and her brother is a chef at a yacht club, so it made sense that she decided to pursue a culinary career after high school. She attended the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in the early 1990s and earned an associate's degree in Baking & Pastry Arts.
Lander then cooked up quite an impressive professional background, toiling away in Atlanta’s renowned Alon’s Bakery before working her way up to the position of Pastry Cook 1 at the Ritz-Carlton downtown, providing baked delicacies for its celebrated pastry shop and restaurant. Yet, while her 14-year career in the culinary industry was rewarding and fun, she come to a realization.
“I was just burned out on the schedule,” she says. “I was very focused and busy all the time. I usually had 6-day work weeks and typically worked on holidays and weekends. They were wonderful years, but I didn’t take much time off. I realized that I wanted some flexibility.”
But Lander didn’t go very far at first. She tried her hand at being an inn keeper, which kept her in a hospitality mindset and still gave her the opportunity to bake. Finally, though, it was time for a real change. And that’s when she considered the example set by another loved one—her mother, who was a nurse. “I had actually considered the healthcare field when I was in high school,” Lander recalls. “When I decided to make a change, I knew that I wanted to do something really meaningful. And I thought it would be nice to be a part of someone’s healthcare.”
Of course, entering the healthcare field required Lander to become a student again. “I wanted to choose something that would offer a realistic timeframe for going back to school—4 years max. I started talking to people and thinking about my options,” she explains. “My sister is a physical therapist, and I have aunts who are nurses. Then I thought about radiology. I had heard people say that if you can get into Grady, it will be so worthwhile because you will be exceptionally well trained. So that’s where I decided to put my efforts.”
In 2007, Lander enrolled in the School of Radiologic Technology at Grady Memorial Hospital and began the process of becoming a sonographer—a radiology technologist who specializes in taking and analyzing ultrasound images. It is a full-time program that requires her to be in class and clinicals 40 hours a week—a big change from her previous career—and she had to learn to be a student all over again. According to Lander, “There’s a lot of studying, and I have to be focused. On weekends, I have to study. It’s been very challenging, but I just have to do it.”
After her graduation in September and a much-deserved vacation on Cumberland Island, Lander will begin to look for a position at a hospital, doctor’s office or outpatient clinic. It might be a bit tough considering the state of the economy, but because there will always be a huge demand for ultrasound services, the outlook is quite positive. “I hope to find a job that I love. I would love to experience a hospital environment, but I would also love to work in a doctor’s office or clinic,” she observes. Of course, no matter where she ends up, she knows that the work she will be doing will be important and enriching. “The work I do is going to be a big part of people’s lives. And for me, it’s all about the patients. Being at Grady has been an eye-opening experience for me, and my interaction with the patients has been so rewarding. I have such an appreciation for them, and I like that I can help them feel more comfortable when they’re having testing done.”
In the end, this soon-to-be healthcare professional knows that she made the right decision for herself. “It’s hard and a little scary to take yourself out of a career where you feel comfortable and confident,” she concludes. “And believe me, there were times that I questioned myself. But it’s during those times that you have to keep going. You have to tell yourself you can do it. And it’s really neat to be starting something new in your life.”
Caroline King: How Sweet It Is
No stranger to career change, Caroline King understands the power of re-evaluation. Her early career as a second-grade teacher taught her how important it is to step back every now and then and assess where you are and what you’re doing. According to King, “As a teacher, at the end of the day, you always have to ask yourself, ‘What can I do differently or do better?’” She took that ability to question and examine herself to heart when she was halfway through her third pregnancy and still working as a teacher. With three children younger than 4, she understood that it was time to leave her chosen profession so she could focus on her little ones.
However, when her children got a little older, she knew that it was time to seek a new profession that would work with the life she had built. “My family is my No. 1 priority, so I had to find a career that would allow me to place my family first,” King notes. “I thought about real estate for a long time and then realized one day that it was time to go for it. I went into it with the faith that it would work out.”
And it did. For 6 years, King has been a highly successful producer for Harry Norman, Realtors in Buckhead. She has set herself apart from the competition by making sure that she understands the trends in the industry and provides clients with the type of service for which they’re seeking. She specializes in a number of areas, including the luxury market, and is an EcoBroker, which lets her help clients successfully market properties with green features. She also took on partner Mark Kale to expand her business into foreclosures and short sales. From schoolteacher and mother to real estate powerhouse, King has reinvented herself professionally and personally. Yet, with everything she has on her plate right now, including an everchanging and evolving business, she’s ready to reinvent herself yet again—this time as a chocolate distributor.
It may sound a bit unusual and not at all related to the type of work King has done in the past, but she sees it as part of the same process she has always adopted when it comes to her professional direction. “I’m always looking for ground-floor opportunities, and when I heard about this one, a light bulb went on over my head,” she explains. “The woman who founded the company sees trends before they are trends, and I saw the business potential in that.”
The company is Xoçai Healthy Chocolate, and it produces chocolate with the highest rate of antioxidants on the market. King was introduced to the products by a friend a couple of years ago and became a fan before she became a distributor. Initially, she treated the side business as a hobby, but when the economy began its downturn, she decided to “take it up a notch.” She observes, “If you treat it like a real business, then it will pay like a real business. And now, this is my retirement plan. Because of this business, I believe that I will be able to retire from real estate by the time I’m 50.”
Right now, her work with Xoçai Healthy Chocolate is part-time, but that doesn't make it any less gratifying. “It’s rewarding because I believe in these products," she says. And through all of the changes in her professional life over the years, King has simply done what she believed was right for her and her family. From that viewpoint, everything else has fallen into place. And as her husband told her, “You haven't changed who you are—you have just changed course.” For King, that is a vital distinction to make. She says, “It’s important to stick to your core values when you are cutting a new path. That has always been important to me.”