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A writers' strike. A pink slip. The death of loved ones. For Marla Ginsburg, Todd Morris, and Kate Curran, these things sparked near-complete reinventions of their working selves. It's a process many Americans are wrestling with as the economic downturn seals off traditional career paths and forces workers, especially older ones, to get more creative about making a living. The financial trade-offs can be huge, but so can the satisfaction of taking a risk and landing on a new path. Here's how three people re-created their careers after professional or personal setbacks.
Marla Ginsburg had been a successful TV producer for two decades, with shows that included La Femme Nikita, when her life was disrupted by the three-month writers' strike that paralyzed Hollywood in 2007. She had no money coming in, two teenagers at home, and an unsettling sense that she couldn't go much further as an aging woman in an industry that favors the young. "I thought, if I could do anything else in the world, I'd love to have a talk show or design clothes," says Ginsburg. "They both seemed like such outrageous things to do. But there was nothing going on, so I went into a store and bought fabric." She didn't know the clothing business, and she'd never even sketched. But Ginsburg did see a real need: There weren't any clothes that she, as a fashionable middle-aged woman, wanted to wear. "There were all these grandma clothes out there, and I'm a boomer," she says.
In 2008 she launched Boombacouture, with funding from a clothing manufacturer with a factory in Peru. The clothes sold to Nordstrom (JWN) and specialty stores, Ginsburg says, but before the end of that year, with the economy in decline and consumer spending way down, her funder abruptly backed out.
Boombacouture was done, but Ginsburg's brief entrepreneurial stint bridged her to a new career. Last July, she was hired as creative director by FDJ French Dressing, a Canadian company that makes jeans for older women. FDJ had gone through its own financial troubles and restructured under new management.
Ginsburg sold her house in California at a loss and moved to Montreal with her kids. "Whoever thought that getting older could become a career?" she says with a laugh. The clothes she designs are made from fiber blends that are more breathable than cashmere and other wools, which helps them stand up to machine washing—and accommodate a menopausal woman's hot flashes. "I could have stayed in the entertainment industry, but I knew my shelf life," she says. "Even if I could have squeezed a few years out of it, I was done. I miss the money, but a whole new life came."
Todd Morris spent the first dozen years of his career selling software for companies like Apple (AAPL) and Adobe (ADBE). Seven years ago, while planning a 15-day rock-climbing trip in Thailand, he got the call no employee wants: His employer, Pumatech, was letting him go. He ended up turning his 15-day trip into a nine-month journey through Asia, funded by renting his New York apartment. He didn't have much of a plan for what he'd do when he got back.
Returning home, Morris started consulting and getting back into the software business. It wasn't long before Macromedia, a software company that was subsequently acquired by Adobe, offered him a job, and he realized he just couldn't continue on the same career path. It wasn't a well-thought-out process, just a realization that struck after the time he'd been away. "I would have felt like I was going backwards if I'd taken it, even though it was a higher-level position," recalls Morris. He turned down the job.
Some people might have done a lot of research or worked up a business plan. Morris, a gadget geek, simply decided that since he didn't see a dominant player selling security and surveillance products—including computer security products, tracking devices, hidden cameras, and pretty much anything else that isn't a home alarm—he'd try to fill that niche. So in 2005 he founded BrickHouse Security, an online retailer, launching with only two items for sale.
Morris proposed to his then-girlfriend, Bing, the same month he started the company. They married later that year and now have a three-year-old son and a second child on the way. Morris says those expanding family responsibilities have given him focus and drive. The privately held and self-funded company now generates $12.5 million in revenues and has 34 employees. "Coming out of a big company, it was kind of like having a baby," he says. "You're never going to be ready. So don't spend a year on a business plan. Just f***ing do it."
Sometimes a spark of an idea sets off a career reinvention. For Kate Curran, the impetus for change was tragedy—her parents and a brother died within 20 months. "I just knew that what I was doing did not work for me any longer," says Curran, who worked in government relations, shuttling between Connecticut and Washington, D.C., for General Electric (GE). "I was fairly traumatized and decided to take some time off."
Curran quit in July 2007 and six months later began traveling to Argentina, Tanzania, Spain, and elsewhere. When not traveling, she worked with a career coach and did exercises from the career classic What Color Is Your Parachute? At the end of 2008, Curran, who has also practiced law and been a fund-raiser for the Boy Scouts, knew she wanted to do international development work and thought she wanted to set up her own organization—a tough financial proposition. To make her plan work, Curran, who is single, moved in with a sister in Milford, Conn. In May, along with Spanish TV producer Jose Luis Feliu, she co-founded The Giving Project to build schools, footbridges, and water recycling projects in developing countries. One of their first projects, a school for 120 children in the Guatemalan highlands of Chichicastenango, will open in the spring.
Her goal for the next few years is to build the nonprofit so that it can set up more schools and bridges—and pay her a salary. Curran says shifting to nonprofit work from a well-paid corporate job has in some ways been easier during the recession, since others are asking similar questions about their lives and consumption patterns. "I can see genuine fear of the process of change in the people I talk to," she says. "For me, it was not like that."