How I Became a 45-Year Old Intern

by Karen Amster-Young

Jodi Garner is the Associate Director of Development and Institutional Advancement at The City College of New York.  She is also an aspiring Broadway producer.  She lives in New York City with her twelve year old boy/girl twins. When Jodi heard that one of our chapters in our forthcoming book was about mid-life career changes, she contacted us and wanted to share her story.
You’ve got a real fire in your belly, or was that just a one time stunt that you pulled?” — as said to Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, 1988

It was a chilly March day in 1992. I was in my twenties and recently engaged. The Dow was just above 3,000 and I was in my final semester of business school. I had just registered for my dream china with my fiancé. It was the perfect moment to set a wedding date.

My fiancé didn’t really care, so I deliberated with myself. I have a December birthday that is often usurped by the holiday season. I wanted my anniversary date to have its own day in the sun–without competition with the gift-giving season.

The marriage didn’t last but what my now ex-husband said on that fateful day did; actually, it was prophetic. Upon hearing how I derived our wedding date, he said, “You know Jodi, not everyone measures the year in terms of gifts.”

How wrong he was. Not only are there people who measure the year in terms of gifts, they get paid to do so. They are called fundraisers. Their job performance is measured on the number of gifts they receive throughout the year. I know this because after a 20-year career on Wall Street that ended with a spectacular finale —  the fall of the House of Lehman —  I became a fundraiser.  Midlife reinvention.  I had to e-mail to share my story.

From the start of my career on Wall Street right up until the financial crisis, I rarely thought about what else I could possibly do.   As a single parent with nine year old twins to support I thought I had to do what I had always done. Work was work, right? It took a near global financial meltdown for me change my views.

In 2008, when I was aboard the mighty ship of Lehman Brothers, which started to sink, the venerable investment bank tried saving itself by throwing its employees overboard. Most of us in Leadership Development were among the casualties. Just like that, my career on Wall Street came to an inglorious end.

I tried to look at the bright side: what better time to get laid off but right at the start of summer?  It had been eight years since my divorce and raising my twins as a single parent, I was relieved to have a break. Having gotten divorced when my twins were just six months old, I never really had the chance to lose that baby weight. So I hopped on my bike and started circling Central Park. I was in good spirits and good company—thousands of people were laid off in 2008 as a result of the financial crisis, and the park was packed. It was like summer vacation and when a friend invited me go hiking with her in Montana, I jumped at the chance.

I returned ready to hit the pavement and look for a job, but the rug was pulled out from under me when Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy and the entire financial system was on the verge of collapse – everyone was pounding the pavement for jobs that were few and far between.

After months of fruitless interviews, and then no interviews, like any well-trained MBA from Columbia Business School, I hung out my consulting shingle. Business was rough. And while things looked like they might pick up in April, 2009, including two corporate interviews, the money just kept running out.

I wouldn’t say I was despondent, but I was tired, really tired. I had started out as a bond trader and one marriage, two kids and a divorce later had ended up in leadership development. The fact is, it wasn’t really a great passion of mine. So I sat down, fired up my laptop and said out loud, “Well, I need to figure something else out.” As if fated, my phone rang: Mary Burton, a top career coach I’d met ten years prior was on the line.  And on that sunny morning in 2009, my new beginning began.

Mary had reached out to see how I was and tell me about a career transition group forming in a few weeks. Mary is a Harvard Alumni and powerhouse. I jumped at the opportunity to work with her. As I expected, more minds were much better than my one.  Like with so many things, it took a village to help me make my mid-life career transition.

To be clear, it took work—lots of work. Every day for seven intense weeks, in between dropping the kids off at school, shuttling them to and from their after-school activities, doing the laundry and making dinner, I committed to doing everything that Mary told me to do to find a new career.

So after over twenty years on Wall Street and lots of self-reflection, work and brainstorming with my career transition group, my career answer materialized: nonprofit fundraising. I had helped raise money for my  kids’ schools but I had never considered it a career possibility. But, here I was.

Contacting friends and family and anyone else I happened upon, I conducted over thirty informational interviews during the six weeks that followed our group work: on the phone, over coffee, over drinks. Ten lattes, five salads and three glasses of prosecco later, I was convinced that it was a perfect fit and set out to look for a job.

With each ad I answered, and each letter and email I wrote, I proudly explained that I was making a career transition from Wall Street to the nonprofit arena and how excited I was to apply my transferrable private sector skills to achieving sustainable funding for your organization (fill in the blank – you name it): When no responses came back, it finally occurred to me: unlike sex, when it comes to jobs, nobody wants to be the first: you can’t get hired unless you have experience, but you can’t get experience if no one will hire you. We had a name for that in college and it was called an internship.  So I made myself a 45-year old intern. I researched which organizations would give me the best exposure to nonprofit fundraising and offered to work…for free. It wasn’t easy, but I got through it and with a positive outcome.

And the rest, as they say, is history. I got to put that unpaid experience on my resume and secured a paying fundraising job at a top tier medical center in less than six months. Fast forward to today: three years and three jobs later, I have been moving up the fundraising corporate ladder. Currently I’m the Associate Director of Development and Institutional Advancement at the City College of New York.

I’ve heard that the only thing constant is change and maybe some people (read: me) are hard-wired to keep moving, to keep reinventing themselves. So, I have another idea percolating. You see, my grandparents gave me this record when I was a kid, and I’ve recently secured the rights to make it into an Off-Broadway show: “How to Succeed in Childhood Without Really Whining: A Child’s Introduction to Grownups.”  I have this crazy plan to get a bunch of celebrities to rotate through the narrator role…okay, that’s another story for another time.



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categoryPosted: 12/8/12 2:11 AM

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