Her husband continued to work in finance while she poured her energy into caring for their kids and volunteering for community organizations in their town, Highland Park, Illinois. During that time, her oldest son’s health stabilized, her third son learned to walk, and Rotering gave birth to a fourth child. “I had a running joke that no one on earth was more efficient at emptying a dishwasher or driving a minivan,” she says. “But those tasks didn’t satisfy me.”
The idea for her second act took root in 2000, when she became worried about an intersection near her house. She organized neighbors and lobbied the city government to erect a stop sign, and in the process had an insight: Though she no longer wanted to practice law, she could use her legal skills to advocate for the community. When a seat opened up on the city council, Rotering filed a petition to fill it.
She didn’t get it, but she was appointed to two city commissions and volunteered for a challenger’s campaign during the next election cycle to gain experience. She also attended a program for women interested in pursuing public office, offered by the Illinois Women’s Institute for Leadership; it taught her the basics of running a local campaign. In 2009, Rotering went after the seat again. She won, defeating a 20-year incumbent.
Next, she decided to run for mayor. “I knocked on hundreds, if not thousands, of doors and talked to residents about what was important to them,” says Rotering, now 51. When the votes were counted, she’d become the first female mayor of Highland Park, a paid position she has now held for two years. “Volunteering was a great bridge between careers,” she says. “The skills I gained make me more effective in my work.”
Years out: 5
Way back in: harnessing social media
When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in 2001, Susan Scrupski, then unemployed, resolved to rethink her professional life. “There’s an image that haunts me,” she says. “After the towers collapsed, pieces of paper were falling everywhere—this huge wave of irrelevant stuff. I suddenly realized I’d spent my entire life on meaningless work.” Only a couple of months earlier, Scrupski, then 42, was working as a chief marketing officer for an Internet start-up; then the dotcom market imploded, and the company went belly-up. When the attacks occurred, she abandoned any thought of looking for a new job. “I said, I’m done. I’m not working anymore.”
Scrupski and her husband decided she’d stay home with their two young children in Ocean County, New Jersey; the family would make do on his salary as a construction worker. The transition was not easy. “Not only did the power dynamic in my marriage shift, but I didn’t know how to be a stay-at-home mom,” she says. “I found myself asking, ‘What’s a Swiffer?’ ” To fill her time, she volunteered, helping to get a playground built and pitching in on a local government race.
Five years later, in 2006, Scrupski and her husband divorced, and she found herself scrambling to land paying work she found meaningful. Blindly applying to jobs didn’t get her any interviews; she was contending with a substantial gap in her résumé and an outdated skill set. “It was scary,” she says. “I hadn’t done anything in tech in five years. I didn’t even know what a blog was.” So Scrupski vowed to get up to date. While doing research online, she noticed a field that not many people were talking about called the social enterprise sector, an arena that focuses on new collaborative Web technologies. After teaching herself how to blog using WordPress, she began writing about the new kind of tech.
In a matter of months, blogging allowed her to connect with other thought leaders in her field and build a strong social network, bolstered by LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. It was through that network in 2007 that she heard about a former business associate who was starting a company. After an e-mail exchange and an in-person interview, Scrupski was hired at the new company, nGenera.