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 (imagoassociates.com), 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.

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