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Advice / Career Paths / Career Change

How 5 Real People Made Massive Career Changes—and You Can, Too

Making a career change can be intimidating, to say the least. At times, it can feel downright impossible.

But it’s not. In fact, there are plenty of people out there who have successfully made major changes—and to prove it, we talked to five of them.

It wasn’t always easy, but every single one of these professionals made the transition work for them. Read on to learn exactly how, and to hear the advice they think everyone looking to make a similar change needs to know.

Strategy #1: I Used a Residency Program to Apply My Skills to a New Field

The Change: Private Sector to Public Education

Tamara Prather was climbing the ladder in a marketing and brand management career—working with major companies like GE Capital and Kraft Foods—when she realized something had to change.

“I needed to dedicate my best hours to making a more positive impact on society in order to truly be fulfilled and happy,” she says. As Prather reflected back on her life, she remembered a friend from business school who had participated in a residency through The Broad Center. “When she shared with me that she was leaving her lucrative, corporate job to participate in this program and help improve urban education, a seed was planted in me. In some ways, her decision reassured me that it was OK to follow my passion and take my own path.” Prather realized that not only was she motivated by the idea of helping disadvantaged youth reach their potential, but that her management skills were easily transferable into a leadership role in public education.

Like many, Prather didn’t want to let her years of experience go to waste and step back to an entry-level role. “I decided to make the transition via a fellowship or residency program, which would enable me to enter the space in a more impactful way by offering higher-level roles, greater exposure, and excellent networks of support,” she says. She chose the same highly-selective program as her friend—The Broad Residency—and went on to spend the next two years using her marketing, strategy, project management, and analytical skills at Chicago Public Schools before landing her current position. Now, as Managing Director and Head of Marketing at A Better Chicago, she helps fund and support the best education nonprofits in the city to dramatically improve student outcomes.

The only regret she has? “I wish I had made the move sooner,” she says.

Learn More about The Broad Residency in Urban Education

Strategy #2: I Got the Skills on the Side

The Change: IT to Marketing

After several years in IT management, Robbie Abed was feeling tapped out and unexcited by the opportunities for growth in his field. But besides getting involved with new companies and technologies, he wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted to do next.

So he quit his job on a quest to figure it out. “I actually didn’t know what my career path was going to be. I had an idea, but I wasn’t totally convinced that I was on the right track,” he says of leaving his IT career.

A lot happened over the next three years. Abed started by taking 250 coffee meetings in 400 days, with the goal of building his network, learning more about what he might want to do next, and getting more involved with the Chicago tech community. Simultaneously, Abed made it a goal to write more, resulting in almost 170 blog posts that year and a book called Fire Me, I Beg You.

And this is where something really interesting started to happen: Looking for ways to strengthen his brand and promote his book, Abed learned a lot about marketing through LinkedIn—data he could now take to job interviews. “Instead of saying ‘I would like to focus on marketing,’ I could say ‘This is how I used marketing to amplify my brand and my book. I believe I could do the same for you,’” he says. The CEO of a tech company learned about these results—and ultimately offered Abed a job as the Director of Marketing.

Now Abed is now “living the dream every day,” and can’t stress enough the importance of showing results for anyone looking to make a career change: “I think that’s where most people go wrong with their transition. They don’t focus on showing what they could do. Nobody wants to take a chance on anyone. It’s never been easier to actually show your results and learn new skills.”

Strategy #3: I Found a Unique Way to Apply My Background

The Change: Interior Design to Technical Support

Stephanie Bell’s parents worked in the architecture and design industry, so it had always felt like a natural path for her—until she realized that the work was only enjoyable to her in “scattered moments of creative bliss,” with the rest of the work just being “increasingly challenging and distressing.”

“I think its a common sentiment for someone in their 20s to wake up and feel like they’ve been making choices in their life based on outside advice or people’s expectations of us,” she says. “This time, I didn’t want to go down the path of least resistance. I wanted to dive into something that would bring out the best version of myself every day.”

That new path was tech startups. She decided to apply to office manager roles to get her foot in the door and worked on crafting a compelling story to get the attention of hiring managers. That worked in getting her over 15 interviews at NYC tech companies, but unfortunately no offers.

Until she came across a job description for a very different kind of role: a technical support specialist at a startup developing software for wholesale brands. “Reading it literally made me jump out of my seat!” she shares. “The problem Handshake was aiming to solve was one I was very familiar with in the interior design world, where purchasing is done with wholesalers. This was a role requiring a background in client management, along with strong knowledge of the wholesale industry.” In other words, all the things she had from her experience as a designer.

While starting the new role was challenging—featuring plenty of imposter syndrome—Bell couldn’t be happier with the company, team, or role. “I’m surprised how much I’ve learned in such a short amount of time… I’ve exceeded my own expectations when it comes to my capacity for acquiring new skills and knowledge. It’s a reminder that going out of your comport zone is the catalyst to growth!”

Strategy #4: I Found Champions Every Step of the Way

The Change: Banking to Recruiting to Media

Tiffany Yu has made not one, but two, major career changes in the past five years. She studied finance in college and planned to work in banking for the long haul. But as she got into her analyst job at Goldman Sachs, she realized that the typical next steps for that path didn’t appeal to her. What did? She loved helping out with the firm’s campus recruiting efforts on the side. “Banking did not feel like a sustainable path to me and I thought about what gave me energy—talking to people and being a mentor,” she says.

So, she asked if she could move to the recruiting team at Goldman. The role wasn’t automatically handed to her, but it was a lot easier to get because she transitioned within her company—especially once she found sponsors who helped her make that happen. “Because I switched industries within the same company, my performance reviews could speak for themselves,” she shared.

While Yu loved her new role, there was a childhood dream lingering in the back of her mind: to work in media. Since she never wanted to grow up and wonder “what if,” she decided to start taking steps toward that dream, volunteering as a contributor to an online magazine and telling everyone she met that she was looking to make the move. She ran into some trouble without a background in English or journalism, so she ended up taking an entry-level production assistant role to get her foot in the door.

Ultimately, she decided it wasn’t the right fit, which is when REVOLT Media reached out to her about joining to help with corporate development—allowing her to stay in the media world, but move back to the business side.

The one thing she wishes she had done differently? Looked into various entry points into the media world from the get-go. “You don’t necessarily have to start from the bottom and work your way up. I learned later that I could have spent more time building my expertise in the field and made a lateral move to the newsroom rather than taking steps back in my career to make a drastic change.”

Strategy #5: I Embraced My Multiple Passions

The Change: Human Resources to Digital and Community

Damon Klotz started his career “all in” for the HR world: studying it at university, running student and young professional groups, and even becoming a thought leader on the future of HR through international speaking engagements and his blog, The HRockstar. “I wouldn’t have believed you if I said that I was going to leave the HR profession,” he says of himself just five years ago.

But his deep interest in the impact of technology on the future of work led him to wonder how he could get more involved on the tech side—and impact an entire organization. So, when the chance to step in as the Global Head of Digital at a healthcare company came across his plate, he jumped. “I’ve always said yes to opportunities that I found interesting, and this was another example of that,” Klotz says.

Still, like many career changers, Klotz feared letting all of the hard work and passion he had invested into his previous career fall by the wayside. Klotz shares that, in moments of doubt, he “would have wanted someone to tell me that by leaving my HR career behind, I was going to have the chance to do some of my best HR work to date.” And he has: Klotz recently transitioned again to a role as Head of Digital and Community at an HR tech startup—which brings his varied experience and passions together in a way he never could have imagined.

“The advice that I would pass onto someone thinking about a career leap is to not think that you’ll be starting from scratch and leaving everything behind. Having a diverse set of skills and experiences is definitely a help and not a hindrance, as you’ll never know when you’ll need to use them… It’s funny how things work out sometimes.”

Photo of person drawing arrows courtesy of Shutterstock.