The Cost of Passion: Following Your Dream

Straight talk from women who took the twisting path to meaningful work that pays. They followed their dreams to start businesses, find creative jobs, and make a difference, but what did it cost them?

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

Malarki Designs was born. "I knew I was on to something. But it was so labor intensive! All I did for a year was make rugs," Geldermann says. She found materials online and called on her parents and friends for free or low-cost help, including a nurse who wanted to practice her sales skills and a lawyer who helped with artist agreements. There were creative snafus too. "I’ve made some bad color choices," Geldermann says. "Who knew that so many people hate blue?"

After three years, Geldermann’s company is not yet in the black. "I’m at that point where I could easily be without a business," she says. She may do more custom work, which could simplify supply and inventory issues.

Despite the challenges, Geldermann is proud to show her kids the power of following a dream. "They love when we get a new shipment," she says. They do inventory, help figure out problems and offer design ideas. She gets moral and financial support from her husband, who sells real estate. His earlier career as a trader helps him shrug off losses.

Geldermann, too, takes the setbacks in stride. "Everything takes time," she says. "It’s not always about the money."

Profiting from Failure

Finding dollars in your dreams can take more than one try. Judi Henderson-Townsend, 49, took two jumps into the deep end of the passion pool. After 15 years as a sales executive for a Fortune 500 company, Henderson-Townsend was itching to set her own course and interact with more imaginative people. But when she quit to become a photographer’s representative, she faced financial disaster within two years. Looking back, she blames her "young cockiness — I thought I could sell anything." Ego bruised, she took a job in another big company.

But a few years later, Henderson-Townsend tossed off the golden handcuffs again to join a dot-com start-up, where she got new perspective on failure. "I was surrounded by serial entrepreneurs, and many of their ventures had not been successful," she says. "But unlike me, they didn’t assume that their business failures meant that they were failures. They just saw it as part of a learning curve. That got my entrepreneurial juices flowing again."

Henderson-Townsend also decided to do some homework. She took a 14-week management course at a community center, shoring up the skills she had needed in the first venture. That set the stage for some luck, or, as Henderson-Townsend explains it, "Intention combined with preparation leads to serendipity."

Cruising, she noticed a mannequin for sale and decided to buy it for a garden art project. But in conversation with the seller, she learned that he was the only source for renting mannequins in the Bay Area. "I had an ‘aha!’ moment," Henderson-Townsend says. She bought his inventory and took over the business. Since she had no prior retail experience, Henderson-Townsend planned to run Mannequin Madness part-time and keep her day job. But the dot-com folded, and she went full-time with her venture, relying on savings and her husband’s income. They altered their budget, cutting back on the services of a personal chef and a housekeeper.

Five years later, the company has exceeded her wildest expectations, with recognition from the Environmental Protection Agency for recycling discarded mannequins and a $100,000 grant from Intel. The company is in the black, and she can pay herself a salary. She says her story should reassure anyone who wants to turn a creative idea into a thriving venture: "I am living proof it’s possible."

Pangs and Payoffs

When Nancy Green, 46, of Cazenovia, New York, decided to give up her lucrative work as a stockbroker after 10 years, she did it carefully. She brought in a partner, who agreed to work with her for one year and then buy her out over the next three years. If there was any surprise, it was the reaction of colleagues, including the new partners. "She thought I was crazy!" Green says. "She loved what she was doing."

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