Small Changes, Big Results

One small step in a new direction can have a huge ripple effect in your life. Meet six women who weren’t trying to reinvent themselves, but still found a wonderful new path.

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Rebecca Hendrix

New York, New York Small Step: Served meals to the homeless Big Result: Now a psychotherapist Five years ago, Hendrix was earning $130,000 a year working as a luxury goods marketing director for a high-end design and retail chain. But "I began to feel more and more empty," she says. Eager to try something different, she volunteered at New York’s Coalition for the Homeless, and each week she’d give out cups of chicken soup, bagels, oranges and cartons of milk. For the first time, she felt a sense of purpose. As she set out to deliver the meals, her route took her past a line of limos waiting to pick up Goldman Sachs employees-right next to a line of homeless people waiting to get their nightly meal. That juxtaposition of extreme luxury with extreme poverty "gave me a reality check," she says. "It made me realize that I wanted to do more to help people." A year later, through a friend, she met a woman who had trained in spiritual psychology at the University of Santa Monica, in California. Struck by the woman’s serenity, Hendrix thought, whatever she has, I want it. She promptly enrolled in that same program and began flying to Los Angeles once a month for classes. For four years, she commuted cross-country because she couldn’t afford to quit work. But it paid off: In 2007, Hendrix became a licensed therapist. At first, she says, "I was afraid that I didn’t know what I was doing. But I got over my perfectionism and allowed myself to make mistakes." THE REWARDS Hendrix earns $160,000 to $175,000 a year and also leads life-change workshops and seminars ( She is so successful, she has a waiting list. "I realized there’s more to life than what I was doing, that I have more power to change my life than I thought. The key was in saying yes to something so different."

Alexanne Albert

Houston, Texas Small Step: Took a community college jewelry and metal arts class Big Result: Now owns a jewelry business As a struggling single mother and emergency room nurse, Albert could never afford to buy heirloom quality china, but "the beauty of it really touched my heart," she says. One day, she saw some cheap jewelry made with china, and she thought she could do better. She imagined how beautiful the delicate patterns would look if they were set into silver: "I could turn people’s broken china cups and plates into accessories they’d want to wear." The problem was, at age 47, she’d never designed anything and had no idea if anyone would buy this unusual jewelry. So she took a one-semester metal arts class and learned the fundamentals. "Many women get stuck by having too many obligations, but if you want to have a dream," she says, "you have to take time to discover what that is." Her first solo attempt during the course-a silver ring set with blue willow china-showed she had an eye for design and the skill to execute her ideas. It also kindled her entrepreneurial spirit. Unfortunately, the banks did not share her enthusiasm. When she went shopping for a loan, they all told her a version of the same thing: "We don’t see how you can make money selling this stuff." So while still working in the hospital, she made the risky decision to cash in a $17,000 retirement plan and racked up about $50,000 on credit cards, buying used jewelry-making equipment and random pieces of china from flea markets and estate sales. Next, she invited her daughter and daughter-in-law to join the business, which she named China Baroque. At first, Albert says, "the three of us worked in three different garages in three different Texas cities": Albert in San Antonio, her daughter in Austin and daughter-in-law in Houston. They coordinated their work, turning hand-cut china chunks into belt buckles, pins, necklaces and bracelets, which they sold for $30 to $260 at Junior League benefits throughout the South and at the Houston rodeo. Albert later relocated to Houston, and in 2008 the company grossed in the mid-six figures. They continue to sell original pieces at various shows and through their Web site (, and they take custom orders-many from people distressed after breaking a piece of their family’s valuable china. "We will do our best to turn your loss into a newfound treasure," promises the site. THE REWARDS "I’ve always been an optimist, and now the things I’ve visualized have come to fruition," says Albert, who still works two 12-hour shifts each week as an ER nurse in order to keep her health insurance. "And I have the honor of being involved in creating precious memories for families, starting with a dish that someone loved."

Babette Gladstein

New York, New York Small Step: Bought a cat Big Result: Now she’s a holistic veterinarian Tired of her work as a stockbroker and investment adviser, Gladstein needed a distraction, so she bought-and fell in love with-an exotic Cornish Rex kitten. Cats became her passion: Over the next five years, she purchased five more felines and started to breed and show them. Thinking she should stick with a familiar career path, she began working for her husband’s venture capital company and her family’s auto-parts business and eventually quit her job as an investment adviser. At home, Gladstein spent all her free time with her pets. When the kitties came down with chronic diarrhea and sneezing, Gladstein found a holistic veterinarian, who cured them with a diet of homemade food. Watching him work, Gladstein was intrigued. She’d discovered she had a special gift for handling animals, and she wondered what it would take to become a vet herself. At first it seemed like a crazy idea for a 43-year-old, especially after she found out that getting into veterinary school (typically a four-year program) was possible only if she took the required undergrad science classes, got A’s in most of them and aced her GREs-a lot of big ifs. Up for the challenge, she spent three years taking organic chemistry, biology, physics and calculus classes, while working at least 30 hours a week. One year later, she was accepted into vet school. She felt a little stunned. "I never thought I had enough academic ambition to do this," she says. "It amazes me that I had the stick-to-itiveness." THE REWARDS Gladstein now earns about the same six-figure income as she did in finance, but she’s far happier. "I get so much more satisfaction," she says, "and the animals are actually grateful. You get kisses!"

Jan Heaton

Austin, Texas Small Step: Photographed and cataloged the artwork she did as a hobby Big Result: Now paints full-time When Heaton was 55 and the creative director at an ad agency, her daughters gave her the Web site for Mother’s Day and encouraged her to start selling her pieces. "I’d been painting all my life, but I’d usually give my work away to friends," she says. Inspired by the gift, Heaton began cataloging the 20 or so watercolors she had stashed in her home studio (formerly known as the family room). It was sorting through her artwork that made her seriously consider the possibility that she could become a professional artist. She began to paint with a purpose. In the evenings, after she came home from her advertising job, she’d pick up her brushes and get to work, later photographing and recording the paintings’ dimensions for her Web site. "I was finally in sole control of my own destiny. Scary, perhaps, but liberating," she says. Then a friend, a former art teacher, recommended her to the Wally Workman Gallery, in Austin; less than a year later, the gallery hosted her first show. She sold all 15 of the watercolors she exhibited and pocketed about $5,000, a surprise success that motivated her even more. "I wanted to see where I could take it," she says, "but I preferred that a professional dealer sell my work." She started writing to dozens of galleries and art dealers but deliberately avoided the high-powered honchos in New York and Los Angeles: "I needed more credibility and depth to my résumé before I hit the larger art markets," she says. "I was sure they’d think I was a hick from nowhere." Some of the dealers she contacted never answered; one told her to "come back when you’re painting in oil or acrylic." Despite the setbacks, Heaton persisted. "The advantage of being older is that rejection is not as hard-hitting as it is at 30," she says. "At 60, you don’t need everybody to like you." In 2008, she retired from advertising to be a full-time artist and made over $100,000 that year-more than she’d ever earned as an ad executive. THE REWARDS She is now represented by seven dealers, and her work is sold in five galleries, including one in Los Angeles. "I paint whenever I can," she says. "When I see something, I have to record it."
Larry Kolvoord

Mary Robbins

Orange, Connecticut Small Step: Became a part-time Mary Kay cosmetics sales rep Big Result: Now heads her own beauty products business In 2004, Robbins-a clinical social worker who specialized in emergency counseling for suicidal and homicidal children-was feeling weighed down by the ongoing responsibility of making life-and-death decisions about troubled children. "Just when I thought nothing could be worse than what I’d heard the day before, it would be topped by something more horrific," she says. Then one afternoon, while watching her seven-year-old daughter in a gymnastics class, Robbins chatted with a mom who mentioned that she sold Mary Kay cosmetics for a living. Robbins blurted out, "Oh my god, I want to do that!" She thought the job sounded like fun, and could balance out her other one: "Nobody dies if you’re wrong about lipstick." Robbins signed a Mary Kay contract on the spot (the woman had extras in her car), and within three weeks, she had invested $1,800 in a company sales kit and a supply of cosmetics and sold $700 worth of makeup. She loved the products and spent around 15 hours a week-pleasurable and stress-free-selling Mary Kay. "It was so easy and fun," she says. Even her seven-year-old was into the cosmetics gig; she wanted to play with the products, but Robbins was careful to keep her away from the antiaging lotions, which she feared might not be good for young skin. About a year later, this concern gave her an idea: Why not make skin care products especially for young girls? In what she now admits was a fit of naïveté, she thought, if Mary Kay can create a business, so can I. She put together a plan, got her daughter’s friends to vote on their favorite name (Sassy), and hired a manufacturer to make shampoos and facial washes from organic honey, olive oil and chamomile extract. The copy on her recyclable bottles is designed to boost girls’ self-esteem: "If you believe you are beautiful, so will others! Look in the mirror, focus on the positive, and repeat, ‘I am beautiful!’?" THE REWARDS "Some of the girls I treat as a social worker can’t see their inner beauty, so they make terrible cuts on their arms," says Robbins, who regards her enterprise ( as a natural extension of the therapeutic work she still does with teenagers. "My hope is that I will help young girls by showing them they have both external and internal beauty."

Shelly Leer

Carmel, Indiana Small Step: Helped a neighbor reupholster a chair Big Result: Now teaches upholstery and sewing One summer evening, Leer spotted her neighbor, an upholsterer, working in her garage studio. Leer’s kids were already in bed, so she strolled over to check out her friend’s project-and to vent her frustration that she couldn’t find enough freelance work as a paralegal. Grateful for someone to talk to, Leer started dropping in nearly every night as her friend worked. After a few weeks, she casually picked up a staple remover and began to help, yanking huge upholstery staples out of an old chair. "It was a great stress release," she says. "It felt gratifying to pull something apart and have a clean slate." She continued helping her neighbor and liked the work so much that she ended up taking a $100 class at a local vocational school to get training in upholstery. It was transformative. She discovered she had a knack for redesigning furniture. Over the next 12 years, Leer worked out of a shop in her garage. She quit her legal work and became adept at a complex upholstery maneuver called button tufting. She reupholstered, or designed and built, around 300 pieces of furniture, such as ottomans and children’s rocking chairs, netting $15,000 a year, enough to supplement the household income. But it was lonely work, and she wanted to earn more. Craving companionship, Leer began to give free sewing classes at a women’s shelter. She taught the residents how to turn donated jeans into denim skirts and embellish clothes with gold lamé braid and feathers. "I loved how helping them learn one little thing boosted their confidence so much," she says. "That’s when I knew that teaching what I know was more important than doing it." Now Leer holds upholstery and sewing classes (teaching students to craft Halloween costumes, handbags, pillows) in her home studio. She also writes design blogs and a do-it-yourself column for an Indiana newspaper. She earned $20,000 in 2008. THE REWARDS "I realized I could teach people something that seems simple to me but is exciting to them. I value that," Leer says. "Giving up office work was the best thing I ever did. You should never think that the place you’re in is the end, because it always leads to something else." _Originally published in MORE, March 2010, as "The Power of Micro Change." Carin Rubenstein, a social psychologist, is the author of The Superior Wife Syndrome._ Go to Best Resources for Reinventors for more ideas about small steps you can take.

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