It’s 2019. New year, new you — as the expression goes. But what if you really need a fresh start?
People leave an old job behind and embark on second careers for a host of reasons. Sometimes, the work is overly demanding or just plain stressful or too soul-crushing. Other times, the job is too rigid or inflexible (we’re looking at you, corporate America). Or maybe it’s the only way to flee the productivity-killing open-office floor plan.
Other times, starting over isn’t by choice. For anyone who has been been laid off or fired, it’s a necessity to begin anew, often with lessons learned and a new wisdom that comes from experience.
Whatever the case, anyone may draw inspiration from the above video of Laura Stachel, who needed to make a fresh start when a degenerative spinal condition forced her to give up her successful job as an OB-GYN. Today, she is the founder of We Care Solar, a social enterprise whose solar suitcases light up maternity wards in developing nations, saving pregnant women’s lives.
[Related: Read the entire We Care Solar startup story]
What Stachel initially viewed a devastating career setback is “the greatest gift of my life,” she says. “I’m connected to people all around the world, trying to solve a problem that I believe we can solve in my lifetime. My days are full.”
Here’s how Stachel made the transition to a second career, for which she has been named a CNN Hero. There are plenty of takeaways for anyone looking to similarly start anew.
1. Take the time you need to recover.
Chances are, whether you left on your own accord or were forced to leave your job, you’re going to need time to recuperate. In Stachel’s case, she was in enormous pain and needed to spend hours each day laying on her back, using neck traction and doing gentle strengthening exercises. “I couldn’t get through a meal, so I would have to lie down on a couch instead of just even sitting up during dinner,” she says. Considering how busy she had been in her previous work, delivering babies at all times of the night, “it was a huge change in my life and something that I had to adjust to.”
2. Consider this an opportunity to pursue a long-held dream.
Yes, your old job may have been in the field you studied, or you may have gotten your last position as a result of years of hard work. But you can have more than one dream. And it can even be related to your previous one. In Stachel’s case, when she realized she could no longer work as an OB-GYN, she decided to “pursue something that been a dream, which was to learn about public health.”
She enrolled at University of California-Berkeley’s School of Public Health, specializing in maternal health care. “What that did was move my mindset from being about helping individuals in a clinic, to thinking about what are public health problems,” she says. She was shocked to learn that 500,000 women were dying every year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth — many of which were treatable — and joined a project studying hospitals in Nigeria.
As a doctor, she was able to do “participant observation” in a Nigerian hospital and the conditions stunned her. She witnessed health workers doing their best to provide care in a pitch-black maternity ward. One night, as a pregnant women battled eclampsia in the dark, “I was in the corner of the room saying, why am I bearing witness? Why am I here right now?” Stachel recalls.
She went home and, with the help of her husband, Hal Aronson, came up with the original idea for We Care Solar, a solar electric system to help the hospital workers.
3. Stay patient.
A new, fulfilling career does not happen overnight. And there will be obstacles along the way. In Stachel’s case, she came up with the idea for We Care Solar but needed funding — so she entered a competition at Berkeley that offered a grand prize of $12,500 for a tech solution to a social problem. She didn’t win, and called the Nigerian hospital with the disappointing news. The hospital director told her: “Don’t worry. You planted a seed and from that a great tree will grow.”That night, a judge from the competition called Stachel and said: “I think you should’ve won the competition. How much money do you need?” Stachel immediately doubled the amount and within 3 weeks the judge found funding from Berkeley’s Blum Center for Developing Economies.
4. Ask others for advice.
This is a great time to tap your personal and professional networks. Don’t be afraid to ask for assistance. As a doctor trained to deliver babies, Stachel had never run a nonprofit or managed international programs or interacted with manufacturers or government officials. She knew she needed to involve others when “we started getting requests from around world [and] we needed a way to be able to make something that could be delivered at scale.”
She asked for help wherever she could — and found it in other social entrepreneurs, academics, lawyers, business consultants and engineers. Friends even gathered in her backyard to help her assemble We Care Solar’s first “solar suitcase” — a portable unit with solar panels and a lithium battery to power critical lighting for deliveries.
5. Bring the same zeal (maybe even more) that you brought to your last profession.
Stachel is the first one to admit she never expected to be a social entrepreneur working in the developing world or an advocate for solar energy. But after witnessing the conditions in Nigeria, she threw herself into her work. That is doubtlessly one of the reasons We Care Solar today has a $5 million annual budget and 12 employees. The organization’s solar suitcase has been used in more than 3,500 health centers around the world, saving countless lives of women and babies.
When Stachel visits health centers to train workers on how to use the suitcases, she tells them: “Look, I’m a doctor. I knew nothing about solar. If I could learn this, you can too.” And if a doctor with a degenerative spinal condition can become a globe-travelling social entrepreneur, you can reinvent yourself, too.