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Posted: May 01, 2010

Trading Profit for Passion

Corporate women reinvent themselves -- because they can

Lisa Ryckman

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Leanna Clark leaves her house wearing a different hat depending on the day. In fact, there have been days - like this one - when she changes that hat three or four or even five times.
At this moment, she's wearing her executive director of PhilanthroTravel hat. Later today, she'll put on her senior vice president of communications for IMA Financial hat, and possibly her executive director of IMA's corporate foundation hat.

Later in the afternoon, she'll switch to her mom hat - attending a school play featuring her 7-year-old daughter, Larissa, and the season's final soccer game for Larissa's twin brother, Luke. During the game, she's back to the IMA hat with a conference call, then back to the mom hat, and finally - after the kids are in bed - one of her work hats again for an hour or so.

"It's worked out to be a very nice balance," says Clark, who spent more than 20 years as a hard-charging, 80-hour-a-week PR/marketing professional. "And I definitely see more of my kids."

Whether by design or by necessity, some women who have spent their careers on a traditional trajectory to the top - and have made it - are taking a moment to step back, reassess their careers and revise their priorities. In many cases, they are trading money for meaning and profit for passion; they're reinventing themselves, and they're not looking back.

"I think women of a certain age, when they get to be in their 50s, tend to want to embrace the softer things we all know women have but can't always explore with a corporate career," says Sharon Peters, who left her job as a newspaper executive three years ago. "Especially if they don't have three kids to put through college and a husband who doesn't work."

A recent study by the Center for Work-Life Policy found that at five top financial firms, twice as many women in top jobs as men were considering leaving their positions, and nearly 40 percent were looking at sector-switching, with nonprofit work one of their top choices.

Women are more than twice as likely as men to head a nonprofit, according to Daring to Lead 2006, a comprehensive national study of executive leadership at community-based nonprofits conducted by San Francisco-based CompassPoint Nonprofit Services.

Many of the women who make this transition were at a time in their careers where they have more options - something typically considered the purview of the 65-something retired CEO, who was usually a man.
"They may have some retirement covered or find that money is no longer their key driver," says Donna Evans, president of the Colorado Women's Chamber of Commerce. "As some women start to look back on their careers they realize that they'd like to contribute in a more meaningful way."

Peters had been thinking about leaving her job as editor of the Colorado Springs Gazette for at least a year before she actually did it.

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"One day, I woke up and said, ‘This is it. This is the day I'm going to quit,'" she says of that morning three years ago.

Two events finally persuaded her to step through the door - both disasters, one looming, the other past. The first was the leading edge of the storm that would create massive layoffs, cutbacks and closures for the newspaper industry, reshaping the face of journalism forever.

"I didn't want to be the one to preside over that," Peters says.

The other was a month-long unpaid leave she took to work in southern Mississippi after Katrina.

"When you do something like that, it kind of puts everything where it needs to be," Peters says. "I realized that life is pretty short, and I wanted to have time to do things that were important to me."

Soon after that, a friend called and asked if she would write a column about cars for his syndicate. The fact that she knew absolutely nothing about cars was a plus, he said - it was going to be a column for real folks, not gearheads. The next thing: a column about animals for USA Today, followed by work editing medical policy research projects.

"Now that I have these three things cobbled together, I love my life," Peters says. "I use my right and left brain, and I have plenty of time to do volunteer work with animals, which I do at least 20 hours a week. I'm a better citizen of the world."

The willingness of some women to jump ship and create their own life raft jibes with a 27-year research study conducted by Christine Riordan, dean of the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver.

Many women define career success differently than men, Riordan says. The male priorities of power, position and pay didn't hold as much sway as to whether women liked their jobs and their co-workers.

"We also found a greater trend for women to take breaks from their careers and then go back," she says.

Debbie Jessup had spent time on a number of boards and was dedicated to children's issues, so when the Starlight Children's Foundation needed an executive director, she went for it.

"It was my directional focus to have a second career - I knew I'd have a second chapter," says Jessup, who was the president of the Colorado district of KeyBank and later led Bank of Choice through an integration of three separate banks. The nonprofit she runs now brings together experts from pediatric health care, technology and entertainment to create programs for seriously ill children.

"It was great to get together with other women and talk about how we were going to reinvent ourselves," she says. "But to take that leap - you really do have your identity so wrapped up in your position. To lose that identity was scary, but it was also incredibly cleansing. It's a great experience."

She also found that her for-profit skills translated nicely to the nonprofit arena, particularly because of the recession.

"For the last year and a half, what nonprofits have needed was a business perspective," Jessup says. "As much as you love what you're doing and have passion for it, you still have to run a nonprofit as a business. At the end of the day, if you don't have financials working for a cause, you have to close your doors.

"I think there's a realization that those who have made the transition from the for-profit to nonprofit have made a difference," Jessup says.

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Clark began her career as a television reporter and jumped into public relations and marketing with no experience but great instincts. She worked for Schenkein, Denver's largest PR agency at the time, for 11 years before she and partner Christin Crampton-Day bought it in 2001.

"I really loved it - everything I ever wanted for myself in terms of mentoring and coaching and learning and energy and pace I was able to create for my staff. We did some really cool things," Clark says.
"But 10 years into it, 80-hour weeks, I would usually be up till 2 or 3 in the morning - and by then I had twins. And it just got harder and harder to leave them in the morning and work the kind of pace I was working. I just kind of hit a wall, but I didn't know what to do about that. You just don't leave."

About the same time, Clark discovered Project C.U.R.E, which collects castoff medical supplies and ships them in 40-foot containers to 123 needy countries worldwide.

"I helped them raise some money and ship some containers, because I thought it was cool. And I had the opportunity to go to Cuba with them, and I really came back changed," she says. "We visited hospitals and saw children, and I kept thinking, if not for some geographic lottery we won, those could be my kids there. That could be me there. This organization is really saving lives.

"That was the kick in the pants I needed to say to my business partner, I'm going to sell my part of the business to you, and I'm going to go do this," Clark says. (Crampton-Day closed Schenkein in January 2009, the month Clark left, citing tough economic conditions.)

That first trip was on the fly, but it planted a seed for Clark. She began sketching out the idea for a travel agency that would give people the chance to see their philanthropy at work - "Travel with a heart," she says.

People donate $2,000 toward the $20,000 cost of shipping a cargo container. Then they follow the supplies to Cuba, experience the country and see for themselves the impact of their donation.
"I think in this economy, people are more value-conscious, certainly. But they're also more conscious of their values," Clark says. "They're thinking about what matters to me? And how do I give back and make a difference?"

Which is pretty much what Clark was thinking, too. But she wasn't making much money, and she didn't want to lose the skill set she had spent years developing. So she was willing to at least listen 
when Rob Cohen, CEO of IMA Financial Group, asked her to head up his communications department and the company's foundation.

"And I said, ‘That sounds great. But no - I've got this. I can't do that,'" Clark says. "Rob is not somebody who likes to take no for an answer. So we kept talking."

And the role Clark would take began to take shape.

"It's not a position we ever had before, so at the time, I didn't know if this was a 25 percent job, a 50 percent job or a 100 percent job," Cohen says. But Clark's commitment to Project C.U.R.E. didn't bother him in the least; in fact, it dovetailed nicely with IMA's company values.

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So a deal was struck, one where Clark could keep a foot in both worlds: three days a week at IMA as senior VP for corporate communications and executive director of the foundation, and one day a week at Project C.U.R.E.

"So I have a chance to keep my marketing and communication skills up, and running the foundation, that's really fun. I always counseled clients on how to be involved in the community and how to give, but now I get to do that," she says. "I'm not working 80 hours anymore. I'm still working a lot. But I'm working in a way that I know I'm doing something that matters."

Cohen says he wishes he could have more of Clark's time - "We'll take all of Leanna that we can get" - but he recognizes the value of flexibility. "If you've got an employee who's great at what they do and motivated, they're going to be happier and have a greater commitment to the company," he says.

In Project C.U.R.E.'s 75,000-square-foot warehouse, Clark leads the way past boxes of crutches, crates of gauze, pallets of rubber gloves and a small mountain of medical supplies ready for careful packing into a nearby cargo container.

"This is what people pay for, and it gets opened on the other side of the world," says Clark, who is working on PhilanthroTravel's next trip, to Belize.

"Going into this, a lot of people said, ‘Leanna, you can't work halfway.' I'm still very driven," she says. "There certainly are days, especially if I've done a trip with Project C.U.R.E. and I've been gone for a week, the guilt gets you. Sometimes, I have to kick in a little more here or a little more there.

"But it's worth it."

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Lisa Ryckman is the Associate Editor/Online at ColoradoBiz. Contact her at lryckman@cobizmag.com.

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