A Change is Gonna Come
One of my journalism professors once asked our class: What is your goal as a reporter? Some wanted to be foreign correspondents. Others wanted to edit magazines. My answer? I want to join the White House press corps and have the president call on me by name. In my 19-year-old mind, that was the ultimate achievement for a hard-core journalist. I would write about politics, and I would be damn good at it, good enough for the President to take notice of me.
Fast-forward more than 20 years. I have never run with the White House press corps. I never even made it to Washington. My path took me in directions I couldn’t see when I was only thinking about the obvious ways a person grows in her career. And to be honest, I think it took me someplace better. Years spent covering local politics turned me off from covering any politics, anywhere — including the White House. Staff jobs taught me that I chafe at working for someone else but excel at being my own boss.
The fact is that the idea of a career often differs from the actual experience of one. And so I, like the women profiled today, have evolved within my current profession to move closer to doing more of what I enjoy most. I started as a daily newspaper reporter covering everything from school budgets to homicides and today, I run my own writing and editing business and get to pick and choose the clients and topics I write about, which gives me a level of creative control I never had while working a beat. I’m still a writer and reporter, but far from the one I was when I started out. And thank God for that.
Here are six more women who have made their careers a journey, not a destination.
Jonatha Brooke, from Singer/Songwriter to Playwright
While at Amherst College in Massachusetts, Jonatha Brooke found herself drawn to singing and songwriting. She and a college friend, Jennifer Kimball, started writing music together and soon, it was music, not her original dream of dance, that took her to the stage. “I was not a trained musician,” she says. “I had never studied voice or composition or guitar. Songwriting chose me.”
In the early 1990s, as the band “The Story,” Brooke and Kimball released two albums. When Brooke was 29, they were signed by Elektra Records. “It was a really exciting time,” says Brooke. “We had a great booking agency. We were a top-five song on triple-A radio. I loved it.”
But as quickly as success arrived, it was whisked away. By 1994 their label dropped them, and the duo itself parted ways. Brooke found herself evolving from part of a songwriting team to solo artist. “It was scary and hard and people were angry (over the breakup of The Story),” Brooke says. “For the most part it was a great challenge. And as the best challenges do, they burnish your metal.”
She was signed by MCA Records only to be dropped right as she began touring for her second solo album, “10 Cent Wings.” Radio stations were called and told not to play any of her music. “I crawled up into a ball for a week,” says Brooke. “But then one night friends and I had way too much wine and celebrated the fact that this was a rite of passage.”
Instead of dealing with the idiosyncrasies of working for a record company, Brooke decided to start her own label, Bad Dog Records. “I realized I can crawl up and die or get back out there,” Brooke says. “I had to finish those tour dates. And the audience doesn’t care who’s putting out your record.” Under Bad Dog Records she successfully produced “Jonatha Brooke Live.”
Today she is evolving yet again, this time as a playwright. Through April 19th Brooke appeared at The Duke on 42nd Street in New York City in her one-woman show, “My Mother Has Four Noses,” the story of the time spent caring for her mother as she battled cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. During that journey Brooke, whose music has always been deeply personal and honest, couldn’t help but write songs about the experience. But as she wrote them, she also started to “see” them. And so she realized it was time to try her hand as a playwright and composer. But to do so, she had to summon more courage than she ever had before.
“You know in the pit of your stomach when you have to leap?” says Brooke. “This is the scariest thing I have ever done. I’m literally shaking in my boots every night. But why bother if you’re not terrified?”
Jennifer B. Bernstein, from English Professor to Academic Mentor
Jennifer B. Bernstein’s life was going just according to plan. She earned her Ph.D. in English from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, which led to a post-doctoral fellowship at the Macaulay Honors College and then a tenure-track position as an assistant professor at a college in South Carolina. She received grants for her research. She loved being an academic advisor and mentor to hundreds of students, helping them achieve scholarships, internships and get into graduate school.
And then she hit the apex — a one-year senior research fellowship at Notre Dame. This gave her an entire year to focus on just one project. It did not turn out as she had planned. “My 15 years of overworking took their toll,” says Bernstein. “I was totally burnt out. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t come up with ideas. I tried to buckle down and force myself to do what needed to be done but discipline and devotion weren’t working their usual magic.”
Instead, Bernstein used that year to determine what she really wanted to do as an academic — because trying to do it all was obviously not the answer. “A lot of people advised me to cut back on the amount of time and energy I put into mentoring,” Bernstein says. “But mentoring has always meant a great deal to me. It’s so inspiring to see what a significant difference it makes for young people to have an expert who can help them excel.”
That realization led to a serious life change. Bernstein left her teaching position and struck out on her own. Her business, Get Yourself into College Inc., allows her to focus on her true passion — mentoring students — while using her years of experience with the college preparation and application process to help students get accepted to college and then be their best advisor once they’re there.
“Lots of college consultants can give students good advice,” says Bernstein. “Getting them to put that advice into practice in their own lives and really knowing how to guide them through the process of implementing these essential strategies is a whole different story. This is where my experience as a professor really comes into play.”
Mary Wenzel, from Paralegal to Legal Copywriter
By the time Mary Wenzel graduated from law school, she faced the fact that while she loved the law, she had little interest in practicing it in the traditional way. “I realized I really enjoyed working with attorneys as opposed to working [with] the clients most attorneys have to deal with,” says Wenzel. “I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation and the fascinating legal process.”
So after four years of working full-time as a paralegal while going to law school at night, Wenzel found herself at a shocking crossroads: She needed find a way to use her degree without actually being an attorney. Her solution was to start a business that specializes in the marketing needs of lawyers and law firms. Write Law drafts website copy, ghostwrites blogs and conducts marketing boot camps and seminars for lawyers who want to learn how to better market their services.
“I had been doing copywriting for lawyers for fun on the weekends when my boyfriend said to me, ‘Why don’t you do this full time?’” Wenzel says. “I realized I could do that. And I made the leap. And I realized not only do I like working with lawyers, they like working with me because I speak their language.”
Wenzel uses her law background every day in her work yet is able to also pursue her passion — writing. Going through all the work of getting a J.D. and then not actually practicing law was a mental hurdle, but it’s one she does not regret. “You have to be a little bit scared and a little bit brave,” Wenzel says. “I told myself, ‘worst case scenario, I can always go back to the law.’ But I might as well give it a shot.”
Julie Kaylin, from Singer to Voice Artist
For the last 15 years, Julie Kaylin has been working as a singer and songwriter, performing soft rock standards and country cover tunes, as well as her own original compositions, at public and private events throughout Chicago. But while she loves performing live, there’s a part of her that enjoys working alone and without an audience.
So, she took her vocal talents off the stage and into her in-home recording studio. Kaylin now does voiceover work for a host of clients including TV and radio commercials, e-learning classes and guided meditation audio recordings. “As much as I love performing on stage I have moments when I love being locked in my bedroom,” says Kaylin. “And I’ve always been an entrepreneur type.”
Both music and voiceover work depend on Kaylin’s academic background as well, as an anthropology major and adjunct professor. “Anthropology includes the study of human emotions, motivation and behavior, which has given me the ability to more effectively interpret both song lyrics and voice over scripts,” says Kaylin. “And my college teaching experience has allowed me to make a smooth transition to recording eLearning narrations. That’s rewarding because I can use my voice while still being involved in the educational field, without having to grade student papers anymore.”
Shani Curry St. Vil, from Reporter to Financial Educator
It wasn’t until after Shani Curry St. Vil graduated college and got her first reporting job that she realized: I hate this. The hours were long and erratic. Being assigned to the police desk meant covering break-ins and homicides. Plus, the pay was horrible and made paying off her student loans seem impossible.
She knew that she needed a change, but she knew there were still things she loved about being a reporter. “I loved collecting and dissecting information and giving it back to the general public in a way that made change seem possible,” says St. Vil. “But I hated all the negative news I took in.”
So what if she could take all the things she enjoyed about her job, and get rid of the rest? Her inspiration came from Suze Orman’s book, “The Money Book for the Young, Famous and Broke.” “After reading it, I realized Suze Orman was doing exactly what I wanted to do,” says St. Vil. “The challenge was, how in the heck do I get there?”
To get the training she needed, St. Vil took a job as a bank financial specialist and learned what it took to help people create and manage a budget, apply for loans and build up their credit. In 2010 she decided to launch her financial literacy business Purse Empowerment and write a book, “10 Things Every Women Should Keep in Her Purse.”
Now she’s evolved from informing the public about local crime to informing women about how to manage their finances, improve their credit and weather a layoff. “I love connecting with people, sharing their stories and providing them with solutions,” says St. Vil.
Karen Bullard, from Interior Designer to Home Décor Entrepreneur
From upholstery to wallpaper to furniture, Karen Bullard is in her zone when she is reimagining people’s homes. Her dream job right out of college was to be a residential interior designer, but while the work was interesting the pay was anything but inspiring.
Bullard then realized that she can still help people make their homes beautiful without being the one picking each color and fabric (and double her salary at the same time). She was offered and accepted a job as a sales rep for a wallcovering company. There was lots of travel and she was able to work side-by-side with architects and designers to help them find just the right look for the areas they were decorating.
At 30 she got married and, wanting to start a family, had to find a job that required less travel. Her inspiration came when trying to find birth announcements for her second child. Nothing was to her liking, and so she did a few sketches and brought them to a local stationery store to be printed. “I realized I had missed being creative,” says Bullard. “The stationery store owner said my designs were pretty good, and so I had a bunch printed. Karen Cole Paper was founded in 2004 and I sold my invitations and stationery to stores nationwide.”
Six years later, Bullard had tired of dealing with the wholesale industry “and all the headaches that went along with it” and decided to shift her focus to online retail. She started Sugar Nest, which offers everything for the home from personalized notecards to placemats to coffee mugs.
“I do miss interior design but I feel that with this store, I get a sliver of it back by helping people with their décor,” says Bullard. “They’ll have a kitchen that’s black and white and will say they want a cool cutting board, and I can help them with it. I can select patterns and colors that will complement what they have.” Bullard still toys with the idea of going back to residential work but for now, the flexibility of running her own business while designing and being creative is the right fit for her lifestyle.
Cynthia Ramnarace is an independent journalist who specializes in personal finance, health and lifestyle topics. Her work has appeared in Reader’s Digest and O, the Oprah Magazine.