After 35 years in Corporate America, a layoff and big birthday were the catalysts for Nancy to reinvent her work life. She now enjoys her “slash” career working in nonprofit while doing some consulting and writing on the side.
Tell us a little about your background.
I’ve lived in NYC for 37 years. My partner, Peter Conrad, is a labor and employment lawyer and was born and raised in Manhattan. Peter’s adult daughter is also NYC based. My two nieces and a nephew add to the New York family contingent. A sister and brother live nearby in New Jersey. Other family members are in Northern and Southern California, New Orleans and Atlanta.
I’m one of six (middle child); my parents were first generation Italian-Americans. My mother prized education and held firmly to her Roman Catholic beliefs. I spent nine formative years in parochial school taught by nuns in the ‘60s, then attended a public high school and received a B.S. from Penn State in Fashion Merchandising. My five siblings and I had library cards in first grade and from my love of reading, I learned there was a big world beyond Hazleton. By age eight, I decided I would be leaving. Less than six months after college graduation, I won a spot in Lord & Taylor’s executive training program in New York. Later I became a buyer at Bloomingdale’s and held merchandising roles with other retailers in children’s and women’s apparel.
By the late ‘80s, department stores were consolidating and losing market share to emerging discounters like Target. I made a switch to brand licensing/marketing, initially working for a well-known fashion designer. In the early ‘90s, I found my dream job licensing the merchandise rights for comic strip characters, Dilbert and Peanuts (I revered the Peanuts characters and creator Charles Schulz as a kid). This allowed me to expand beyond my apparel expertise to market other products, such as toys, gifts, and books. I was exposed to international business in Japan, Europe, and Latin America and eventually took a role with the BBC to create consumer products for select TV programs. But the TV market was competitive and after a few years struggling to build a business, in the early 2000’s I returned to my apparel roots. I built and led a brand licensing department for Hanesbrands, a Fortune 1000 apparel company, for the next 11 years.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
During my 35+ years in corporate settings, I’d developed a strong set of skills in merchandising, licensing, and marketing within the retail, media, and apparel industries. Having executive roles at global companies gave me a broader perspective, thanks to my wide travel overseas and the opportunity to meet many interesting people. These roles provided good compensation/benefit packages, and I saved accordingly, providing a cushion I’d need later. I knew the time would come when I would leave the corporate fold for something different.
At various points in my forties and fifties, I yearned for a personal creative outlet. After I left the department store world in the late ‘80s, I started taking writing classes at The New School and NYU. When I was a girl, I’d fantasized about becoming a journalist and news anchor. However, as I was considering career plans and college majors, I was not confident about my abilities to get into a communication/journalism program. I had no interest in becoming a starving freelance writer. Instead I pursued retailing, because I loved clothes and at the time, the possibility of becoming a buyer-in-training at a department store in Philadelphia or New York was within my grasp. This was key in my desire to rise above my lower middle-class background.
In the early ‘90’s, I volunteered at a non-profit that placed business executives into projects at local arts organizations. Later, I joined the board of an affiliate Penn State alumni chapter for professional women. Graduate school was a consideration while I was in retailing (at the time, many senior execs had MBA’s). Given my experience building and running $10+M sized departments, pursuing an MBA seemed redundant. Around 9/11, I was accepted into NYU for an Independent Study Master’s program (I’d planned to do creative writing and media studies), but I decided to pass, given the jittery times and economic uncertainty as a result of the attacks in NYC.
After I joined the apparel company in 2002, I kept writing. My mother passed away in 2009 (my father died 16 years earlier). As I reflected on her life and all she had sacrificed to help her children achieve success as adults, I decided I should not wait to pursue an MFA degree. I learned of an MFA program at Stony Brook University I could do part-time in Manhattan and Southampton. I tested the waters as a non-matriculated student for the first two semesters and was accepted in 2010. By then, the recession and subsequent recovery had made for a difficult business environment. There were frequent restructurings at my company. I’d survived several rounds of re-organizations and layoffs, but eventually my downsizing day came in mid 2013 along with a big birthday (60!). It was then I had no choice but to change course.
What is your next act?
I am a non-profit staffer/business consultant/writer—what Marci Alboher, Encore.org VP and author of the The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life calls a “slasher.” “Slashers”, Marci writes, are “people who, like me had trouble describing their working lives without the use of a slash or two.”
I handle marketing and operations on a part-time basis for The Transition Network (TTN), a non-profit organization supporting women 50+ in transition, professionally and personally. I was tapped to become an Encore Fellow at TTN in late 2016 and, after completing my fellowship, was asked to stay on at TTN. Encore Fellowships are awarded to corporate executives age 50 and over interested in parlaying their business skills into social mission work.
I also am the Founder Elan Brand Licensing LLC, a consulting business I launched three years ago. This includes business development for brands and manufacturers, plus advising professional service firms and financial institutions about licensing and select apparel/retail segments.
In 2015, I received my degree in Creative Writing/Literature after five years of part-time study. My thesis, a memoir entitled Finding My Footing, centered on coming of age from small town to big city, with stories about family, work, love, and travel. Since starting my consulting business, I have also written business articles for various trade magazines, and blogs on apparel, retail and brand licensing trends.
I am currently working on a collection of personal essays, utilizing material from my MFA thesis. I had my first two essays (Check them out here and here) published this summer, received good feedback, and excited to keep writing and submitting my pieces this fall.
How hard was it to take the plunge? How did you prepare?
I did not wake up the next day after my corporate job disappeared and know what to do next. Fortunately, I was in graduate school, so I had my classes as an anchor. I was able to take a two-week writing workshop without the distraction of work issues while on vacation.
I was bound by a non-compete, and could not begin another role in my field until the following year, so I put my resume together and started networking. I had many lessons to learn on both fronts! I had been in career transition before, but much had changed by 2013, given technology and social media permeating job search. This meant using digital skills to network and job hunt. I sensed my age was also a potential barrier.
The next year was a confusing time as I didn’t know what to call myself (no longer an Executive, now a Writer, but without published pieces). I wasn’t clear I wanted another full-time job doing what I had done for 25+ years in brand licensing, although I started interviewing for these types of roles. I was reluctant to return to a 50- or 60-hour-per-week high-stress job. Plus, the changing landscape for the apparel and retail industries meant higher level positions in NYC were scarce and I was not interested in relocating for a new job.
I had learned about Encore.org a few months before I was downsized and filled out the fellowship application the week after I left Hanesbrands. Encore sent me out on interviews a couple months later but the assignments were not the right fit. Fellowships are competitive, given the strong pool of talented professionals over age 50 in the New York area. In early 2016, I decided to re-apply for an Encore Fellowship and by summer 2016 the opportunity at The Transition Network emerged.
To get more exposure within the non-profit segment, I decided to volunteer at Girls Write Now (GWN), a non-profit that supports under-served teen NYC girls by providing writing workshops. I learned about fund-raising at this small but growing organization focused on developing young women’s confidence and educational opportunities. It was gratifying to help solicit auction/gift bag items for the annual gala and to serve on the host committees in 2016 and 2017. This volunteer project also inspired me to write a blog post about GWN honoring Gloria Steinem and the teens’ reaction to her. I was glad to have the article posted on the Women in Communications website, another organization where I had volunteered.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My significant other, Peter was very supportive during my transition, but he gave occasional hints he’d expected me to take another full-time job. We’ve worked through that and I am now busier than ever! Friends were good sounding boards, as some were also in transition. One career coach, Bonnie Diamond, in particular, provided excellent advice and shared her thoughts about the realities of today’s job market for boomers.
What challenges did you or are you encountering?
When I first left corporate, it was difficult to figure out where I belonged and to no longer be considered an industry insider.
The next challenge was how to deal with “NO.” Rejection came in many forms, whether pitching for a consulting opportunity that did not materialize or editors passing over my writing submissions or pitches. As a writer, one has to develop a thick skin. This is also true for job seekers and career changers, entrepreneurs seeking investors, and so on. The rejection may not be about you, but about timing or the circumstances at a particular company. I have two ways of looking at rejection: “No” may mean “not yet”. Or, as Nora Ephron, the writer and filmmaker, has said, “I spend 2 minutes on no.”
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Patience. It takes time to make big life changes and let these new areas take root. I am inspired by artists who hit their stride later in life, like Alice Neel and Carmen Herrera (she is 100+ and had a recent exhibit at The Whitney). Frank McCourt, a Stony Brook professor, had his book Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir published when he was 66 and it won the Pulitzer Prize. People taking on new careers later in life should keep in mind that although it seems we are starting over, we bring a wealth of life experience, business acumen, and wisdom to whatever we want to do next.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
I would have allowed myself a mourning period after I was down-sized. Although I was busy with school and networking, I realized looking back, I needed time to heal before plunging into the planning of my next phase.
I would have kept up with my network more consistently and made more time to meet with friends, colleagues, and business associates outside the office, especially during my last corporate role. Cultivating relationships (personal and professional) is key to creating a support system and a strong network. I am grateful for friends and mentors I’ve met throughout my career and the efforts we’ve made to stay in touch. Speaking of mentors, I would have been more proactive about finding the right people to advise me during different stages of my career and a superlative Executive Coach throughout my peak earning years.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Get comfortable with your financial situation so you can develop plans and make choices fitting your situation. Married women should be well-informed about a couple’s holdings, real estate, wills, etc. Find a competent financial planner, lawyer, and accountant—professionals you can trust. Many people have to continue to work out of financial necessity and may need to take a bridge job while moving into their next act.
Accept that changes will take time, your plans don’t have to be crystal clear, and you may try paths that aren’t a good fit.
Join organizations where you can be with like-minded people (The Transition Network, for example!) and make new connections. Volunteering at an organization with a mission that resonates can fill time and add new skills. Mentoring others is another way to give back. I’ve served as an ad hoc coach for younger family members and colleagues and in turn, there’s always something to learn from them, be it their digital savvy or popular culture trends.
Learn how to use your laptop and smart phone effectively. There are YouTube tutorials, Lynda.com is available at many public libraries, and hands-on classes at libraries are free. If you live in NYC, Senior Planet is an amazing tech resource and also free. For more specialized info on social media, check out classes at your local college and high school. You don’t need to be coding, but you may want to keep up with family and friends on Facebook or various message services. For those starting their own businesses/entrepreneurial projects or pursuing another job, your presence on LinkedIn is a must. Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest use depends on your field.
What advice do you have and resources do you recommend in your fields of interest?
For those specifically interested in the non-profit world, take continuing education courses to learn about it. Many colleges focus on this area, whether single courses or certificate/degree programs. Classes are a great way to network with classmates and faculty. Consider a board of director’s role if your schedule and budget permit. Volunteer at non-profit organizations that appeal to you and list those assignments on your LinkedIn profile and resume to show new skills acquired.
Foundation Center: classes and webinars on fund-raising, grant writing, non-profits operations, and a trove of information on U.S. foundations and the non-profits supported by them.
Be the Social Change: NYC group with events and classes on social mission endeavors
The Encore Career Handbook: How to Make a Living and a Difference in the Second Half of Life
The B Corp Handbook: How to Use Business as a Force for Good
Kauffman Foundation: FastTrac boot camp for entrepreneurs (offered in select cities)
Government organizations supporting small businesses such as Small Business Administration, Chamber of Commerce
Local colleges/universities continuing education classes/workshops
Pen & Brush NYC arts organization (Writing circle is good for beginners)
Poets and Writers Magazine
Public libraries as a place to write, attend author readings and classes, do research, and borrow books, DVDs and other media
What’s next for you?
I would like to continue supporting underserved girls and women. There is so much need around the globe! As I get more immersed in the non-profit sector, I’m excited to learn about organizations where I can contribute and apply a combination of marketing, business development and operational skills. I recently took an advisory board role at Indego Africa, a non-profit with a mission to empower African women artisans by showcasing their beautiful crafts and investing in their education.
Writing essays and creative non-fiction, with the aim of publishing a collection. I have some ideas for short stories and maybe even a novel down the road. I would love to travel to India and South America and return to countries I visited long ago, including Japan, Italy, and Portugal.