Second Acts

While it’s a scary time to lose a job or leave a job, it could be the perfect opportunity to reinvent yourself and do what you love for the rest of your life.

There are two ways to remove a Band-Aid: a quick tug, a jolt of pain and then it’s off—the skin free to breathe. The other way is to peel it off by lifting a corner, little by little, uncovering the wound with tentative tenacity.

Some folks feel that jolt when sideswiped by a job loss trigged by layoff, reorganization or outright firing. Such a life-altering experience can be humiliating, frustrating and panic-inducing.

I wouldn’t wish these feelings on anyone, but there is a silver lining. When I lost an executive position, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Not realizing that at first, I mourned during my last few weeks at the job while I handed over projects.

My first job-free day was the first day of the month. With a resolution to “leave my baggage back in the month of January,” I dived into my new life. I’d long wanted to be home with my three daughters. And my freelance writing came to a halt because of my executive demands.

Within a week, I was doing yoga for the first time. I signed up for everything I could at my daughters’ school. I secured some writing assignments and blew the dust off of a novel. Our family hasn’t been this happy and organized in years. I acknowledge that, financially, we had to make adjustments, but it’s worth every penny.

Although it seemed like my Band-Aid was ripped off, I now realize I had been peeling it back for months. I knew I wasn’t happy and dreamed of a change, but I was chicken.

Movies, newspapers, columns and countless blogs around the world have covered the issue of job change and unemployment. Many are tinged with panic or depression—at best, gallows humor.

During the December 2010 Second City performance of In the End We All Die in Chicago, there was an improvisational piece that illustrated a wildly uncomfortable scene between a woman being fired and the man tasked with relaying the news. To avoid confrontation, he employed ironic euphemisms for “You’re fired”—“transitioning” or “reorganization”—that are an unfortunate addition to modern cultural vernacular.

The not-so-absurd performance clearly hit a nerve; the audience knowingly howled. The mere fact that one of the country’s most famous theaters would include a skit about the dry world of human resources is a sign of the times.

But you also can act as your own HR person by shucking entire professions and starting over. Maybe you gaze out your office window wishing you could sew instead of attending meetings. Perhaps you don’t know what you want to do, but you surely know you don’t want to do “this” any more. You’re not alone.

Patrick Ferraro, employer-relations coordinator for the Career Development Center (CDC) of Jewish Family & Children’s Service (JF&CS) of Pittsburgh, says that “the average American adult will have three to five careers in his or her lifetime.” That’s a long way from generations of steel workers or life-long employees who clocked in and out of, say, Nabisco for 30 years before retiring with a pension and gold watch.

Of the newly employed adults in our country, nearly 33 percent did not land in the same profession they left. Maybe it’s because they saw the writing on the wall and proactively jumped ship. For some, a layoff was the kick in the pants they needed to pursue another dream.

“There’s no real consistency regarding who’s switching: men, women, younger, older,” says Ferraro. “People are switching careers across the board. People switching careers essentially aren’t challenged anymore. Sometimes it’s that their career is consuming their life. Work-life balance is a major consideration as people look at their values and other factors.”

Search “job change” on the Internet, and you’ll find generations of disciples of Dick Bolles’s What Color Is Your Parachute?. The career-changers guide has been the bestseller in its genre for more than three decades, according to

For those of you who have read it, you know that it’s the perfect place to start dreaming of something new. In 2011, it appears that the book’s dreamer quality of What if … has morphed into When … .

Once I launched my second act, I set out to find other Pittsburghers who lost or quit jobs to start entirely new careers. It turns out that there are legions of us who either made lemons into lemonade or leapt out of careers with faith in our parachutes.

If I could make the change from nonprofit executive to writer, then surely anyone could land on his or her much-happier feet. Meet some who did just that. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to turn your situation into the life change you need.

Every time Christopher Williams, 44, pulls a perfect cake out of the oven, he feels a sense of accomplishment that he never felt when he was a mortgage broker. A mother of two young sons, Devon George, 46, invited her family members to her nursing-school graduation this year after making the jump from marketer to nurse. Both professionals took control of their vocational turn of events, taking job loss as a sign that they needed to pursue their dreams.

On the flip side are Frederick Thieman, 59, and Julie Lynn Lizotte, 35, who willingly left careers that weren’t as satisfying as they knew work could be. They’ve never looked back.

When these Pittsburghers lost their jobs or chose to leave their desks for new challenges, they all had a nervous tickle in their gut. But it’s their boldness to handle the bumps of transition with focus and determination that makes them noteworthy examples of what can be done when people take control of their destinies.



Though the medical field can be stressful, George wouldn’t trade it for her former career. She feels she’s making a difference every day.

Photo by Martha Rial


From Sales and Marketing Manager to Nurse

Devon George rocked it when she worked in sales and marketing throughout her whole career—including a stint at local radio station WDVE-FM. “It was a blast, and it was so easy,” George says.

So, in 2005, when a recruiter offered her a position as the marketing director at Comcast, she thought things would keep improving. Just as she started to get comfortable there, she learned that Comcast was eliminating her department within weeks. This bump in the road was exactly what she needed to start pursuing her different interests and passions.

“With my severance package, I asked my husband, Ian, if I could use the window of time and money to launch a second career,” George says.

With his support, she started to explore every line of work that was related to helping others. She researched teaching, nonprofit management and child advocacy.

One night during fall 2006 (months after her layoff), she was channel surfing when she saw an actor wearing scrubs. George ran downstairs and started researching local nursing programs. And everything just fell into place.

She enrolled at Community College of Allegheny County and quickly became overjoyed that she’d be an engaged adult learner.

“In one of my anatomy classes, the teacher asked, ‘Where are your adrenal glands?’ Nobody knew the answer,” she remembers. “I thought we have all the same bodies. How can we walk around and not know this?”

The next four years of school were grueling at times as she raised her two children and learned new things. In May 2010, she earned her associate degree in nursing from the CCAC South Campus. Then, in August, George passed state-licensing boards and became a registered nurse.

Because she was the kid who fainted at the sight of blood and hated needles, she wasn’t sure what to expect when she began her clinical rotations during fall 2008. Fortunately, it wasn’t an issue in her new environment.

George, a Whitehall resident, is now attending California University of Pennsylvania to earn a bachelor of science in nursing and expects to graduate next spring. She may continue on to graduate-level courses. “I’ll be in school the rest of my life, which is a good thing, right?” she asks.

Her advice for anyone considering making the leap: “Take a breath, and imagine in your wildest dreams what you would want to do. Usually, it’s connected to when you were last happy. Then do everything you can to make it happen.”

Though the medical field can become stressful, her feeling of satisfaction is deep. She feels she’s making a difference every day.


Williams’ job loss freed his time so he could start a bakery from scratch in Cranberry.

Photo by Martha Rial


From Mortgage Manager to Baker

It was an unsuccessful search for a particular caliber of cake that crystallized Christopher Williams’ fantasy of turning his passion for baking into a living. “My wife wanted a two-tiered, fondant ABC cake for her sister’s baby shower. When we couldn’t find a local bakery capable of doing this, we decided to make it ourselves using a basic recipe handed down to us from Mimi, my grandmother,” says Williams, of Cranberry.

Thinking that baking would be a nice hobby to stir his creative side while toiling away in the mortgage business for an international firm, he started to envision a different future for himself. Then, 2008’s banking crash turned that daydream into a realistic option. He lost his job, freeing him up to start a bakery from scratch. “I was lucky that my wife earned a very good living in banking, and we had a lot of savings,” he says. “I was familiar with money, so we put together financing and went for it.”

Surrounded by a circle of friends and family whose very DNA was wound with corporate sensibility, Williams and his wife, Bridget, 42, got a little pushback. “They thought we were slightly nuts. But, really, I think most corporate folks harbor some sort of alternate-career fantasy, and here I was actually doing it.”

Mimi’s Bake Shop opened in 2008 as homage to his grandma, and not without its major setbacks. The couple naively thought their expertise at running multimillion-dollar departments at an international firm would make opening a bakery a piece of cake, so to speak. But since the recipes and the business model were created from scratch, they quickly realized it was much harder than they thought.

“See, a corporate place has marketing, product lines, policies and personnel—everything in place,” Williams explains. “That was all we knew, so with Mimi’s, we were totally underwater in procedures.”

Little details such as how to make every batch of cupcakes look and taste the same without resorting to a commercial mix took a great deal of trial and error. “And a ton of waste,” remembers Williams. “At first, we’d walk away while the mixer was running. We quickly realized that this was a mistake. Dough requires constant monitoring.”

Figuring out who they would be—beyond homage to Mimi’s fresh, homemade treats—was tough, too. The Williamses wanted to be upscale and special in a market that seemed to prefer doughnuts and cookies. But Williams knew that others in the region shared he and his wife’s taste.

Now at the end of its second year, the shop is breaking even. Though Williams hasn’t drawn a paycheck yet, he savors every morsel of his new role. His two young children come in every day, and he and his wife built a family culture around the venture that never could have happened at the bank.

Williams’ advice to would-be entrepreneurs: “Take the business-plan budget that you made and double it,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe the ridiculous things you have to buy. And, if you must locate in a strip mall, don’t be the first one in. Rent space with a history of traffic.”


Lizotte was persuaded to go into the medical field because of job stability. She’s happy preventing sickness.

Photo by Martha Rial


From Medical Technologist to Personal Trainer

Unlike Devon George, Julie Lynn Lizotte had an entirely different perspective on the health-care field. Where George wanted in, Lizotte wanted out.

Lizotte was completely fed up with the state of health care. Her master’s degree in health and physical activity secured her a steady job as a medical technologist in the medical lab. “I spent years in the stat lab, in pathology doing autopsies, in oncology and the coroner’s office. And over that time, I noticed a drastic decline in the quality of patient care. I didn’t like it.” She also became increasingly discouraged over what she perceived as a new caliber of co-workers who “displayed a complete lack of empathy, respect and regard for their work.” Add to this Lizotte’s realization she had very little room to grow in her field and her working nights, and the diagnosis was clear: She was in a rut and had to get out.

Because she was always passionate about sports and nutrition, working in the personal-training business made complete sense—despite all of the prerequisite certifications, additional education and insurance she would have to acquire. The courses are ongoing and held through a range of nationally accredited health and wellness educators. And this came at a fairly high price: Lizotte had to borrow money from her family, who couldn’t understand why she would leave a perfectly good career at her age to do something totally different.

The gratification she derives as a personal trainer started in September 2010 on the first day of her new job at Anytime Fitness in Murrysville. She says it’s been worth every drop of sweat. “I am working with people that truly care about the health and welfare of their clients and are not subjected to limitations due to insurance,” Lizotte says. “I am surrounded by knowledge that is endless and feel as if I can truly do it to my full potential rather than being boxed in with nowhere to go.”

Her advice to those stuck in a rut: “It is obviously a huge leap of faith in yourself and your support system, but you never know what you can do until you try,” she says. “In high school and through college, I always knew I wanted to be a personal trainer, but everyone told me there was no money in it—and that it would not be a sustainable career.”

She adds, “I was persuaded to go into the medical field, as there will ‘always be sick people,’ but the truth is, I am happier working on the side of preventing the obesity, sickness and death rather than stepping in after it’s too late.”

Now that Lizotte no longer works weekends or holidays, she has prevented the most important thing of all: missing any more time with her husband of 13 years, Scott, and her sons: Alex, 6, and Christopher, 3.


From Fraud Lawyer to Foundation President

Frederick Thieman practiced law for 30 years, both in government and private practice. His accomplishments were many—most notably when he was appointed as U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania during Bill Clinton’s presidency. As a federal prosecutor, he focused on many issues including youth crime prevention. “Prevention of crime makes far more sense than fighting it,” he says. Traversing private practice and government work, he also enjoyed his private specialization in prosecuting white-collar crimes such as complex fraud.

Thieman is a unique career-changer because he liked what he was doing. “I think I was pretty good at it,” he says. His work with youth crime prevention and white-collar crime showed that he had a knack for rooting out the bad guys.

Ultimately, though, it was his grassroots-level involvement in youth crime-prevention initiatives that piqued his interest in going another direction with his life: He was consistently impressed with community organizations and their passion for changing their city.

“You cannot help but feel a sense of duty to serve when exposed to the nonprofit community and human-services world,” says Thieman. “So many agencies and foundations are here with a philosophy around mentoring and education. They are all involved in trying to give kids support to avoid criminal activity.” His future in nonprofit leadership seems to have simmered beneath the surface for some time.

Because of his high-profile success in law, he was often surrounded by influential company. In 1997, Teresa Heinz asked him to join the Heinz Endowments board of directors, and he actively served there for 10 years. In 2005, while still serving on that board, he was invited to join the Buhl Foundation board, concurrently lending his legal expertise and community passion to both foundations.

“Two things happened. Trial work was getting very stressful. I’d just tried some long, complex jury trials, and they were starting to wear me out. At the same time, I was totally invigorated by the leaders in the nonprofit leaders.”
He became smitten with this community: “They are an infectious group to be around. I realized little by little I was enjoying the work in the nonprofit community most,” remembers Thieman, who has four grown children and currently lives in downtown Pittsburgh with his wife, Christine.

When the president of the Buhl Foundation’s position became available, Thieman threw his hat into the ring. With his passion at full throttle, he landed the job and became the sixth president in the foundation’s 80-year history. The foundation’s goals of supporting youth development, economic development, education and human services were a natural fit for him.

His advice for those who like what they do but want to love what they do: “It’s OK to like more than one thing at a time,” he says. “I love the law, and l love working in the community. But to be able to help people every day and try to make a difference every day bring rewards very different than practicing law.”

Thieman takes pride when driving around the city. “I can see evidence of our work when I drive by neighborhoods and parks and people engaged in the concept of community.”

Henry David Thoreau once said, “Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it. “ The happiest people are often those who manage to get paid for what they love.

It may take a kick in the pants to embrace that love—or a passion so strong that you go for it. However you do it, however that Band-Aid gets removed, decide between hitting “snooze” or jumping out of bed in anticipation of the day. It could be curtain time for Act 2.

Jennifer Papale Rignani worked as a nonprofit executive for 17 years, moonlighting as a freelance writer. She is married with three daughters, two cats and a Puggle named Hazel. A serious foodie, her second act allows her to wean her family off of McDonald’s.

Categories: Community Feature