A decade ago, the financial crisis was the proverbial last straw for Kate Curran.
A high-powered attorney working for General Electric’s finance arm, Curran had just endured a string of tragic personal events: Her brother had died, followed by her parents, in quick succession. When the U.S. economy imploded, and Curran realized that nearly the entire U.S. financial industry was caught up in the subprime mortgage crisis, “it was like cognitive dissonance,” she says.
Curran had adored her Greatest Generation parents and originally attended law school with the plan “to do something mission-oriented, social-oriented, serving youth.” Feeling lost, she decided it was time to re-evaluate. Like many people who have drifted away from early passions in favor of a stable, successful career, she wondered: Can I reclaim the life I once set out to lead?
Today, the answer is a most definite “yes.” Curran, 54, is the founder of School the World, a nonprofit social enterprise that has built 75 schoolhouses for children living in extreme poverty in Guatemala and Honduras. “The decision to leave that [corporate] life behind was one of best decisions I have ever made,” she says. “Making a contribution to the greater good is so much more valuable, especially when you are talking about kids.”
But making that midlife career change wasn’t easy. If you’re hoping to reinvent yourself with a new career path, Curran offers the following tips based on how she got to the place she wanted to be.
Ease out of your old career slowly. Yes, Curran quit her day job to pursue a more purposeful calling — but she didn’t give notice and walk out the door immediately. “I phased out,” she says. Curran and her corporate boss, who initially tried to convince her to stay, agreed upon a date that she would leave, and worked part time after she left her position. “I stayed on as a consultant,” she says. “That took several months.”
Leaping to a completely new environment or profession can be stressful — even if you desperately want to do it. The extra time served as a practical way for Curran to transition to the next stage of her life, allowing her to adjust to life outside the corporate comfort zone.
Give yourself time to mentally recharge. This is especially important if you’re not sure, exactly, what your next adventure will be. In Curran’s case, “I needed to take a break, to rest, to recharge — so I started travelling, on and off, to South America,” she says. During that time, she saw children who had dropped out of school selling items on the street and working in the hot sun. On a later trip to Tanzania in Africa, “you would see classrooms with 12 kids sharing two pencils, and I actually visited a village in Zambia where kids were walking through crocodile-infested waters just to get to school every day.” Ideas started to percolate, and Curran remembered: “When I was younger, I actually wanted to start my own school.” She began thinking about how she could remove the barriers to education that she was seeing.
[Related: Read about how to take a break from your busy work load]
Consider talking to a career or life coach. In between trips, Curran regularly met with a private consultant to figure out her next career move. “I loved working with a coach,” she says. “She put me through a whole range of experiences that are designed to get you very clear on your values, your interests and your skills.” The career coach, along with the travel to developing nations, helped Curran remember her one-time enthusiasm for nonprofits and children’s rights. “I rediscovered what was important,” Curran says. After several months, “I literally woke up and thought ‘I can do this,’” she says. “The ‘this’ was very vague, but I knew it was going to be something for kids in international development.” She began researching nonprofits and decided no other organization was providing basic resources to enable kids to learn, such as a building with a floor, books and teachers — and so she launched School the World.
Get ready to make some sacrifices. While working with the coach, Curran realized that money was not one of her priorities — which was good, because she was no longer making any. “I was living off of savings,” she says, as well as a small inheritance. She packed up her townhouse, traded in her expensive sports-utility vehicle, and moved in with her sister. “My savings got me through the year, then I was taking withdrawals from my 401(k),” she recalls.
Find ways to use your old career skills (and connections) in your new profession. Curran had spent time in Central America while at GE, working on a joint venture with a regional bank, so she recruited the CEO of that joint venture to donate about $20,000 to kickstart her first project, one in Guatemala and one in Honduras. She spent thousands of hours of research to develop an education strategy. “Those are ‘lawyery’ skills,” she says. Thanks to that legal background, “I knew I needed to incorporate, and I knew I needed a board of directors,” she says. “And very quickly, we built three schools in the first year.”
Today, Curran lives in Boston, and School the World, which has a $1.4 million annual budget, is supported by government grants, private and corporate donations, and a tuition-based service program in which high school students help build schools in Guatemala. She draws a salary, though it is less than 50% of what she made at GE. But Curran says it’s all worth it when she visits communities and hears from teachers that drop-out rates have improved dramatically.
“The last 10 years includes some of the hardest working years of my life but, without a doubt, some of the best, too,” she says. “Sometimes it takes a dramatic change to see clearly.”