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The Upside of the Down Economy

Alumni seek new jobs — and forge new careers — as they reinvent themselves during the economic downturn.

by Elizabeth Canning Blackwell

John Ritter Illustration

In spring 2008 everything was coming together as planned for Saq Nadeem (KSM05). The business he had envisioned for years was finally ready to open its doors. Nadeem first developed the concept for an upscale pet hotel — a welcoming retreat complete with a grassy indoor play area, pool and private rooms — for a Kellogg School of Management class. Most important, the pet hotel would be located near an airport and allow owners 24-hour access, so they could pick up or drop off their pets whenever they arrived home or left on a trip. Nadeem's proposal was so convincing that even a few Kellogg professors signed on as investors.

Paradise 4 Paws opened near Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in May 2008. Then, within months, the economy collapsed. Corporate budgets shrank, and the business travelers whom Nadeem had envisioned as regular clients stayed home. But Nadeem held on, certain his approach would appeal to people who might curb their own expenses but refuse to cut corners for their pets. Now, a year-and-a-half later, Nadeem is planning a second location in the Chicago area and already has a 10-city expansion plan in place.

"We did take a risk, but without risk, there's no reward," he says. "This kind of economy can bring anyone down. Right now our focus isn't on big profits. We're thinking about what we can do to generate the best long-term returns and developing a team for the future."

Nadeem is just one of thousands of Northwestern alumni whose careers took a hit when the economy collapsed. Many have lost jobs; others have accepted salary freezes or seen their chances for advancement evaporate. But amid all the bad news, many alumni have used the economic situation to re-evaluate and reimagine their professional lives. Some have achieved great success; others are still finding their way. But they share a common perspective: All have been willing to undertake the soul-searching necessary to come out a stronger person.

"As an entrepreneur, you're often your own devil's advocate," Nadeem says. "You question yourself over and over. You have to figure out what the opportunities are for long-term success."

John Ritter Illustration

Life After Layoffs

Sometimes those opportunities for success don't reveal themselves until everything else falls apart. Julie Grosse (C84) of Oklahoma City had always thrived on change in her professional life. A performance studies major, she had started out working for the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C.; over time she shifted into marketing for restaurant technology companies.

"I love working with entrepreneurs and I love the culture of startups," she says. "In the software industry, if you have a good idea, you can go ahead and build it. Software engineers are just as creative and crazy as orchestra musicians."

In January 2008 she quit her job with a stable, well-known corporation to take a chance with a new, unfunded startup. "What was I thinking?" she says, laughing. "I went to work for a company that had no money right before the economy tanked. We kept thinking, ‘We'll get funded, we'll get funded.' " But they didn't. By August 2008 Grosse was out of a job. 

Worse yet, she specialized in restaurants, which had been hard-hit by the downturn in consumer spending. So Grosse did what she could to get by, putting out the word to former colleagues that she was available to help with marketing projects or presentations.

Within about six months she was getting enough work to start her own communications consulting business. "Sometimes it takes an external event to get out of a rut," Grosse says. "What I'm doing now is much more interesting than what my day job was. Before, I was the marketing person making the words look pretty. Now I'm talking to CEOs and analyzing the underlying business. It's given me a chance to grow."

For Steve Sherman (KSM01), losing his job at a Chicago bank was also the first step in finding a more fulfilling path. Even before his position as a strategic adviser was eliminated, "I saw the writing on the wall," he says. "I had already begun networking to find something more socially responsible." At the same time, his father, Harold Sherman (GMcC54), also a banker, was exploring the possibility of starting a community-oriented bank like the ones he remembered from his youth.

The two men, along with Jon Levey (WCAS91, KSM99), filed an application for a federal bank charter in 2008 — right about the time the country's financial system began to collapse. But they say their vision for Green Choice Bank is more compelling than ever: Given the widespread suspicion of Wall Street, people are more willing to put their trust in a small local bank with strong ties to the community. "In times of crisis, people naturally become more reflective," says Steve. "People can feel good about banking with us because of what we stand for."

The bank's founders have made sustainability the core of their business, from the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified rehabbed historic building that will house their offices on Chicago's Northwest Side to the advantages they will offer environmentally friendly businesses (a green builder, for example, might get better loan terms). Although they don't plan to open their doors until the first quarter of 2010, they've already received thousands of e-mails from prospective customers. "Usually nobody knows about a bank until it opens," says Steve. "We've already got people saying they believe in us."

Switching Gears

For some alumni, finding a rewarding career in tough economic times means switching to an industry they might never have considered otherwise. When Suzette Webb (KSM04) graduated from Kellogg in 2004, she was lost. The airline where she had worked before business school was in trouble; she knew she had no future there. But what was she meant to do instead?

"I wasn't just after a title," says Webb. "I wanted to earn my money in a way that was meaningful."

Webb decided to work as an independent management consultant while she figured it out. She also prayed for guidance, taking heart from a gospel children's song's lyrics: "This little light of mine, I'm gonna let it shine." She even named her company the LOM Group, for "light of mine." Somehow, she told herself, she would find a way to shine. Then inspiration struck: She met a successful consultant who had done well by fulfilling government contracts, and Webb decided to do the same thing.

Partnering with a former Motorola executive with extensive engineering and manufacturing experience, Webb won a bid to design lighting kits for armored vehicles to be used in Iraq.

Now that Webb has solid experience in the custom lighting industry, she's exploring opportunities in the green sector. "We want to be a high-growth company, but we want to grow sensibly," she says. "When you have a small firm, you wear so many hats that you can lose sight of your vision."

But the name of Webb's company serves as a constant reminder of that vision. Little did she know when she started that the "Light of Mine" Group would, in fact, become a lighting company. Through a combination of faith and practical determination, Webb found her way.

John Ritter Illustration

Tough Times Are Business as Usual

There is one group of graduates who have been relatively unaffected by falling salaries, slashed bonuses and wide-scale layoffs. Performing arts professionals, who are used to hustling for work and cobbling together temp jobs to cover the rent, may be better prepared than others for a down economy.

"In the arts, you get so much rejection that you don't see setbacks in the same way," says Karen Krolak (WCAS93), a dance teacher and choreographer in Somerville, Mass. "Supporting yourself as an artist is not a linear career path. You constantly evaluate what you can take on. Every year I've assessed where things stand."

That experience gave her the ability to quickly adjust her business strategy when the economy slowed. Noticing that some students were dropping out of class, Krolak began focusing more on parent education, making the case that dance training strengthens kids both physically and academically. She also scheduled fewer shows to save on the costs of lighting, costumes and sets. 

Making it as a professional artist demands a certain determination that's an advantage in a down economy, says Krolak. An executive laid off after a decade or two at the same company finds a dismissal more devastating than a working actor or dancer who is used to being told "no thanks."

Similarly, the people who always got the lead in school theater productions — like those who got jobs straight away — weren't forced to learn how to sell themselves. "Some of the best dancers I knew at Northwestern didn't survive as well in the real world because they weren't used to that rejection," Krolak says.

"In the arts, you learn how to create something out of nothing," she says. "That's one of the most valuable skills you can have."

John Ritter Illustration

Searching for the Next Step

 For every Northwestern grad who has emerged from the recession with a successful new business or revitalized career, there are dozens of others who are still trying to figure out what's next. For those in industries hard-hit by layoffs — such as journalism — there are no easy answers.

For Jeff Bouley (J91, GJ91) of Saco, Maine, the economic crisis led to a major career re-evaluation. After years as an editor for trade magazines, Bouley had built up enough contacts to freelance from home, where he enjoyed having a flexible schedule that allowed him to spend time with his young daughter.

But as the economy slowed, so did his writing business. Some clients closed up shop; others started handing out fewer assignments. "In the past year, I've been asking myself, do I have a career in journalism?" Bouley says. "Will I find a way to bring life back into my writing career?" With major newspapers declaring bankruptcy and magazine circulations slipping, there are more out-of-work journalists competing for fewer jobs. "Online media have opened up opportunities, but they have also undercut professional writers and editors," he says. "I'm proud of the work I do and the skills I have, but a lot of sites don't care if you've got writing experience."

Although he laughingly admits to having had "pity parties," Bouley says he's recently accepted that it's up to him to reinvent his career. "We're not taught to think of ourselves as business people, financially and mentally," he says of journalists. "We're in an evolutionary change. We have to adapt or die."

Part of adapting has meant leaping into the very online world that has threatened his profession. He's beefing up his LinkedIn network and has begun posting on Twitter. He also started using his real name on a blog he created as an outlet for his thoughts on spirituality and social issues. Fearing that his personal opinions might affect his professional reputation, he had previously used a pseudonym. But now he's decided to "come out" to his readers.

"Maybe I'll turn some people off, but maybe I'll open myself to new opportunities," he says. "It's a scary choice, but it's who I am."

Across the country in San Francisco, Chuck Kindred (WCAS03) is also not sure what's ahead. After graduating with a degree in economics, he worked in sales and then as an actuary — neither of which he found particularly fulfilling. He left his job two years ago, thinking he'd pursue a career in counseling, and took a part-time job at a technology company to pay the bills.

With full-time jobs hard to come by, "I'm probably as poor as I've ever been," he admits. But he's used his free time to explore other passions: volunteering at mental-health clinics in the Bay Area; competing with one of the top-ranked ultimate Frisbee teams in the United States; and playing regular paid gigs as a violinist.

Throughout his quest, Kindred has turned to Northwestern's Alumni Career Services for advice and guidance. "They've been really supportive and reassuring," he says. "My path is pretty unconventional, and they've given me space to work on where I wanted to be." Kindred has found the office's national alumni database especially helpful: A referral to a Northwestern alumnus in San Francisco led to his first actuarial job, and he's now using the network to reach out to local therapists for career advice.

"Those are hard calls to make," he admits. " ‘Hi, I'm lost, can you help me?' But every time I mention the Northwestern connection, people have been really helpful."

All in all, Kindred says he's happier now than ever. "My life is trending upward. The hardest part has been not getting my identity from my job, but I've worked through a lot of that."

Northwestern graduates leave campus with high expectations for their future careers. Losing a job — and the self-image that goes with — can be a heavy blow. But alumni across the country say they have learned something valuable from the recession. Some have discovered they are more resilient than they imagined. Others have found their way into more rewarding fields. Even those who are still struggling have been forced to ask hard, and ultimately revealing, questions about what they do and don't want.

They've also learned that they're not alone. "Northwestern has a huge network of alumni, and we forget to use that as a resource," says Karen Krolak. "You have to be willing to reach out."

Elizabeth Canning Blackwell (C90) is a freelance writer in Skokie, Ill.

Illustrations by John Ritter.

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