Reinventing for the Soul

Do you ever wish your career were more, well, meaningful? These women found new jobs that pay the bills—and also enrich their lives.

by Andrea Atkins
“In my previous career, I wasn’t nurturing the best in myself,” says Brenner, owner of Women of the Vine. “Now I feel connected to the land and the seasons.”
Photograph: Dustin Aksland


From |  Marketing Executive

To |  Wine Merchant

Deborah Brennerloves to stroll through Napa Valley vineyards, where the smell of ripening grapes mingles with the scent of sun-warmed earth. She adores the straight rows of tangled vines growing on verdant hills. Here, “Mother Nature is at work,” she says. “When you eat a grape straight off the vine, it bursts with concentrated flavors like no table grape ever could.” And when the time to harvest finally arrives (about 90 pounds of grapes will make five gallons of wine), the winemaker, drawing on science, experience and instinct, gets just one chance to produce that season’s vintage. “Vintners have to make decisions on the fly—when to plant, when to pick. If you screw up your timing, you don’t get to do it again. It’s such hard work,” says Brenner. “And yet they’re passionate about what they do.”

Five years ago, Brenner launched Women of the Vine, a company that markets and sells only wines made by women—small-scale, artisanal vintners whose products might otherwise never find their way onto dinner tables around the country. Brenner now represents seven winemakers and grape growers who last year produced 60,000 bottles, sold in retail stores in 21 states and via her website, Best of all, Brenner, a former marketing executive for a Manhattan high-tech firm, has found a career that feeds her soul. “It allows me to be the best I can be,” she says.

Brenner discovered her passion after a period of painful changes that started soon after 9/11. Her marriage ended abruptly when her husband asked for a divorce. A once-satisfying career began to drain her. “It happened slowly over the years,” she says. “I was very unhappy, but I needed time to figure out what I wanted to do.” In 2002, at age 36, she quit her job, giving up a -six-figure salary and benefits, and set up an office at her home in Rockland County, New York. She took on freelance marketing and public relations jobs while searching for work that would capture her heart.

Then, on a business trip to Napa Valley in 2005, Brenner met a group of women winemakers. Their stories about the land, the seasons and the art of winemaking, as well as their resilience in the face of wipeouts caused by frost and rain, “touched my soul,” says Brenner. “They opened me up to a world that I had never fully paid attention to. I was hooked.” To celebrate the women’s achievements in a male--dominated industry, Brenner wrote a book, Women of the Vine: Inside the World of Women Who Make, Taste, and Enjoy Wine. It came out in 2006, and the following year she launched her company with her first consignment of wine. The cost: $135,000, which she drew from her savings and a home equity loan.

In 2008, just before the release of her second batch—five premium wines priced from $25 to $75 per bottle—her distributor went out of business. “I had to arrange for a truck to get my wine out of their warehouse, and cover all the expenses,” she says. “I just put my head down on my computer and cried.” A loan from a relative for half of what she needed bought Brenner some time while she cobbled together the rest. “Then I hit the pavement to sell the bottles myself,” she says.

Brenner’s wines were served at a U.S. State Department dinner hosted by Hillary Clinton in October 2009. This boost to the brand’s credibility enabled Brenner to sign on more distributors and step up sales. Now, with $1.5 million from private investors, she’s planning to expand her management team and hire a marketing firm. She projects revenues of $1.5 million for 2012. Her personal income is still less than half of what she earned during her high-tech career. “But I’ve never been happier,” she says. “I’m living a very rich life. Every time I’m out in the vineyards, the experience totally refuels me. I’ve never felt more fulfilled in my work.”



From |  Property Developer

To |  Painter and Glass Artist

In late 1999, Judy Jacobs took a glassmaking class at Rainbow Glass, an emporium near her home in Sacramento, California. She was immediately captivated. Every evening, after a day spent working at a real estate–development firm, she applied herself to her new hobby. “I set up a kiln in my spare bedroom,” she says, “and created plates, coasters, necklaces and earrings.” The equipment and supplies cost $1,500, but Jacobs’s day job was going well, and the creative work helped her relieve stress. “I had taken all the art classes my high school offered, and more classes in college and workshops later on,” she says. “But I was programmed from a young age to believe that you couldn’t make money as an artist.” She became a real estate broker, manager and property developer instead, making “$100,000 plus,” she says.

A few months later, a local art gallery invited Jacobs to create a few glass masks for a show. Encouraged by how well they sold, Jacobs signed up for a five-day workshop hosted by the Arts Business Institute in Asheville, North Carolina, where artists and crafts-people study how to increase their profits. She learned a better way to price her work, how to approach retailers and the importance of producing on a large scale. When she returned home, Jacobs staged a show of her glasswork at her house, where visitors could see all her tools and materials, and she converted her garage into a studio so she could step up production.

Her art enterprise started to prosper. But the same couldn’t be said for real estate. When she first got into the business, she loved it, but as the economy worsened, job pressures escalated, and she began to suffer from insomnia and muscle spasms. Taking a painting class with Robert Burridge, an artist whose work she admired, seemed like the perfect vacation. Jacobs had studied painting in the past, but nothing had prepared her for the breakthrough she experienced in Burridge’s class. For the first time in her life, she painted with bold strokes of bright acrylic color. This is who I am, she thought. This is me.

In October 2009, Jacobs negotiated a part-time arrangement with her boss so she’d have a steady income while expanding her painting and glass-art career. She also began living more frugally. “I used to buy a lot of things to plug my anxiety and insecurity,” she says. In 2010, together with another artist, she rented a studio in Sacramento and started selling her paintings and glass art directly to the public. “I felt alive and directed,” she says. By 2011 she’d sold about half of the 150 abstract paintings she’d created, mostly acrylic on canvas and heavy watercolor paper, pulling in about $14,000. At the end of the year she quit her job, and now manages a few properties on a freelance basis.

For 2012, Jacobs has set a target income from her art of $50,000. Six stores and galleries in the Sacramento area now carry her art. She has set up a website, Coming​Abstractions​.com, and has just signed a licensing deal with, an art retailer. “I wake up at 6:30 in the morning with a smile and jump out of bed,” she says. “In the past, I would drag myself
out at 8 o’clock. Making art and creating beautiful things is the most soul-satisfying thing I have ever done. When someone purchases my work, I feel so happy. To think it can make money is a bonus.”



From |  Sales Executive

To |  Nonprofit Fund Raiser

As far back as 1972, when she was a freshman at Howard University, Debi Harris had the heart of a philanthropist. She joined Delta Sigma Theta, the largest African-American sorority in the country. “I committed to a lifetime of community service,” she says. “And I took that pledge to heart.” After graduating, she began what would become a successful career as a sales and marketing executive, and in her free time, she volunteered for her sorority, helping to raise money for its scholarship programs. Eventually, she became a sales manager at Sprint Wireless, in San Francisco. “I worked to earn money so that I could do the things I enjoyed, and part of my enjoyment was giving back,” she says.

From the outside, Harris’s life looked perfect: $125,000 in annual income in 1999, plus bonuses and benefits, a house in the Bay Area and a new wardrobe every season. But inside, “I was tired,” she says. “My mother had passed away, and there was nobody to be proud of me anymore. I was working just to keep up. I said to myself, You need to feel better about what you’re doing.”

She quit her job in 2000 and moved to Paris to start a company providing Afrocentric tours of the city. A year later, Harris returned to San Francisco, only to discover that an economic downturn had eliminated even those jobs she’d begun to dislike before leaving for France. She became a freelance marketing consultant to pay the bills.

One day she discovered that a client, the international nonprofit Women’s Funding Network (WFN), was offering a course that trained women of color to be fund raisers. Harris signed up—and felt totally inspired as the presenter described how raising money for nonprofits can lead to social change. Until then, she says, “I never understood that giving could be that powerful or that one could make a living by fund raising. I thought, I know how to do this, and I could make a world of difference.”

Harris went on to work full time at WFN for five years. As vice president of development, she secured -multimillion-dollar donations from the foundations of Ford, American Express, Levi’s and others while increasing donations from individuals. With an annual salary of $65,000, however, she had to adjust her personal spending. Gone were regular dinners out and expensive cuts and color (“I switched to getting my hair braided,” she says). But downsizing didn’t bother her. “Every day I felt better about what I was doing,” she says.

In 2009, Harris moved to Florida to take the helm of the Women’s Fund of Miami-Dade, a nonprofit that tackles such issues as sex trafficking, domestic violence, employment rights and women’s financial literacy. “Never during my high-tech career did I have a sense that I would change society,” says Harris, whose salary is now over $100,000. “I see girls become women, I see domestic violence victims being empowered. It makes me want to get up and go raise more money. When you invest in women and girls, you are investing in the improvement of communities. I feel that I was put on this earth to bring others along to this way of thinking.” 


ANDREA ATKINS, a frequent contributor to national magazines, lives in Rye, New York.


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First Published Thu, 2012-03-01 11:59

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