Reinvent Yourself on a Shoestring

How three women took big career leaps with small budgets.

By Marci Alboher
Photograph: Photo by: iStockphoto

Budget Your Career Change

Any big career change is going to involve moments of vertigo, which is why it’s nice to start out with a trust fund, a second home to leverage, or a spouse who earns enough to keep the family’s lifestyle intact. Nice, but not essential. You can still make big leaps without a financial safety net; it just takes more planning, creativity, and tolerance for sleepless nights.

Of course, the definition of safety net is subjective. A woman with a sizable 401(k) and a lot of home equity may refuse to invest those funds in anything other than a sure career bet. Another woman may be willing to max out her credit cards. Economic climate matters too. Rising home prices and stock markets make change easier; recession requires improvisation.

The women you’ll meet here are all successful leapers. Their best advice to their midlife peers is to cash in on the kind of wealth we all have in abundance: patience; deep, broad networks; a willingness to ask for help; and stubborn, resilient enthusiasm.

Leveraged Leaper

Robin Moorad, 52, Berkeley, California

Job then: Vice president of an established commercial-furniture and interior design company. Salary: $150,000.

Job now: Founder and sole proprietor, Imago Associates, a "green" office furniture venture. Her salary this year: $150,000-plus.

Scariest moment: Trading in her beloved BMW for a leased Honda CR-V. "In my mind, that BMW signified success," she says. Giving it up felt like a step back.

In 2002, Robin Moorad was an experienced executive with a solid career path. But her life had changed, and she came to the reluctant conclusion that jobs with most companies couldn’t give her what she wanted: more freedom and the flexibility to spend time with her daughter, then 8. She decided she would have to become her own boss.

Moorad put off her leap until November 2003, when the local economy was rebounding from a downturn. She gave her boss 90 days’ notice and negotiated the least restrictive non-compete agreement she could. She had cash reserves of just $30,000, and she didn’t want to tap into the retirement funds she and her husband had set aside. But she figured that her contact-filled BlackBerry would help get her launched. "I’m a big joiner and show-upper," Moorad says.

In the next few years, she would often turn to a loosely knit group of colleagues she’d gotten to know over the previous decade. One friend with a similar but non-competing business even showed her his financials. "I needed to understand really clearly what the money could look like," she says. His openness is typical, she adds, of how small businesses help one another.

Moorad named her venture Imago Associates (, using the Latin root of the word imagine. A green spin on her former line of work, the company refurbishes and resells office furniture, keeping it out of landfills. In spring 2004, Moorad opened for business, working out of her home to save on overhead. Her first $10,000 client signed on within three months.

But life was proving complicated: Moorad had hoped that redesigning her career would help redefine her marriage. Instead, it clarified the relationship’s flaws. Soon she was going through a divorce, putting up money to buy her husband’s share of their house and making other payments to him as part of a settlement. Her 18 months of COBRA-guaranteed health insurance ran out, and she bought a high-deductible policy.

Moorad began to borrow, refinancing her house more than once and putting every expense on plastic. Her credit rating fell from 780 to 680, and at one point, needing cash, she asked her mother to buy her engagement ring. She gained weight and lost sleep. One big help, she says, was tough love from her "take no prisoners" therapist, who helped keep her focused.

By June 2006, her clientele was growing, but Moorad felt so stretched, she was ready to give up. Then she got a crucial assist from Make Mine a Million $ Business (, a group that helps women-owned businesses reach $1 million in sales. She won a $10,000 line of credit from American Express and got a major boost in confidence. She paid off debt, applied for more credit from the Small Business Administration and hired a much-needed assistant. By late 2007, Imago’s revenues topped $1 million, the company was in the black, and her credit rating was restored.

Moorad still doesn’t sleep soundly every night, and she is working off a last few pounds. But she says she has a powerful new mind-set: "I realized that not only was there no prince on the white horse but that I was on the horse myself — and had been there for a long time." When her daughter goes off to college in four years, Moorad says, she has even bigger plans for Imago Associates.

No-Net Takeaway

  1. Ask for help from everyone, even your mother.
  2. Debt can be a good investment.
  3. So can therapy.

Level-Headed Leaper

Denise Polacek, 56, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania

Job then: On staff at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, helping scientists and doctors license their inventions. Salary: $100,000-plus.

Job now: Founder of a start-up firm that plans to market a device to relieve hot flashes. Income: Less than a third of previous salary.

Scariest moment: Realizing she had to tap into home equity.

Denise Polacek, who has a PhD in molecular biology from the University of Chicago and a certificate in business administration from Wharton, spent years counseling scientists who wanted to turn their discoveries into commercial ventures. As her expertise deepened, she often thought, I could do this. But it wasn’t until she suffered her first attack of hot flashes, in 2005, that she took her own advice.

Polacek was prescribed hormone therapy to fight the heat, but soon learned of the Women’s Health Initiative studies revealing increased risks from MHT. She threw out her pills — and saw a market niche: non-hormone relief for hot flashes. After brainstorming with engineer friends, Polacek came up with a prototype for a small, wearable device, similar in size and function to a heart-rate monitor, that tracks skin temperature and provides cooling. (She declines to disclose the details on how it works.)

Coincidentally, she and her life partner, Ronni Scheier, a manager at the Vanguard Group, had just reviewed their finances, set a target date of 2013 to retire and put aside a $20,000 emergency fund to make sure they would never need to touch their retirement savings or home equity. One year later, they sat down to discuss Polacek’s business idea and decided that developing the device qualified as an "emergency.’‘ That gave Polacek $20,000 in start-up funds. And she had an advantage that hadn’t existed before: Vanguard had begun offering benefits for domestic partners, so Polacek could be covered by Scheier’s health insurance. "Invaluable," she says. In the spring of 2006, Polacek quit her job.

Sure enough, she found that her experience with patents, product development, and marketing was invaluable. But securing funding proved more complicated. Polacek got help by spreading the word about her project. After she told a friend about it at the health club locker room one day, the friend connected her to a lawyer — also suffering with hot flashes — who agreed to do some urgent legal work and bill Polacek later.

Polacek also looked hard for local funding — the kind that often gets less press than programs that are run by national groups. Ben Franklin Technology Partners (, a statewide economic development organization, gave her a $15,000 matching grant.

Yet one year into the venture, Polacek and Scheier were feeling the financial squeeze. Looking for part-time gigs to earn some cash, Polacek found one at Vanguard in a program that trains and employs professionals to work with the company’s clients. She loves the five-hour-a-day job, her colleagues — many of them midlife women — and the opportunity to pick up the financial skills she needs for her business. Still, the couple has decided, reluctantly, to borrow a bit against their house.

Product designers are now creating a prototype for Polacek’s as-yet-unnamed device. She hopes to bring it to market later this year. Retire in 2013? She’s having too much fun.

No-Net Takeaway

  1. Look right in your neighborhood for start-up support.
  2. Network everywhere, including the locker room.
  3. Never underestimate the hot-flash sisterhood.

Leaper of Love

Barbara Saunders, 41, San Francisco

Job then: Recruiter for a consulting firm. Salary: $65,000.

Job now: Program coordinator, holistic veterinary clinic; writer. Income: $75,000.

Scariest moment: Taking a transition job in her new field that felt like a step down.

If there’s a holy grail for shoestring reinventors, it’s the part-time job that pays benefits. Saunders landed one in 2005, when her firm began retooling and wanted to hire a lot of people quickly. Knowing there would be no better time to strike a deal, she asked for a three-day schedule that would allow her to keep her benefits. Her boss agreed.

With two days a week free, she went after what she most wanted: time to write and a way to turn her volunteer work with animals into a paid position. Soon she was landing commercial writing jobs that paid well and could be done on a flexible schedule. Also, she had once worked as a personal trainer, and now she found a few clients.

In the meantime, she became a regular presence at the local SPCA office, walking dogs, writing for the SPCA magazine and assisting in treating animals, all the while letting everyone know that she was seeking a staff position.

A year later Saunders left her job at the consulting firm, and shortly after that the position of public information coordinator for the SPCA opened up. Saunders got it. It was a decent transition job, but with less money, prestige, and authority than her old work. Still, it brought her into contact with the wider animal-welfare world. Last September, she heard of a job she liked much better, managing a holistic veterinary program at Pets Unlimited, a nonprofit hospital and shelter. She was hired.

The new position pays $10,000 less than her recruiting job, but she earns $20,000 writing. She’s already mulling over the next stage of her dream: moving to the country, opening an animal sanctuary, and writing more. She’s sure she can make it happen.

No-Net Takeaway

  1. Use timing to your advantage.
  2. It’s okay to take one step back, then two steps forward.
  3. Call on all your skills to produce tide-me-over income.

Marci Alboher writes the "Shifting Careers" column and blog for the New York Times.

Originally published in MORE magazine, June 2008.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:04

Find this story at: