It is so interesting to me how so many small decisions over a 30-year career led me to where I am today. It was just dumb luck, but I learned to drink wine in Beaune, France. More luck, it was while on a long-term assignment for Deloitte in Dusseldorf Germany where I managed the US tax practice early in my career. My husband and I traipsed through Germany, France, Italy, and Austria for work but also working on language skills by talking with winemakers. We didn't know any better, but it was fun, and we drank a lot of wonderful wine.
Fast forward back in the US, a tax career of compromises as I managed three boys, a husband traveling five days a week starting his own firm, a small business for myself. Finally taking a break to care for my elderly parents and holding my family together through my husband's recovery from a devastating accident. I am an academic at heart and knew that I had to make time to fill that intellectual curiosity part of my soul while still having enough time and energy to be the caregiver that my family needed.
My youngest child chose to go to school in Virginia and while there I began to explore the local vineyards. I learned that really, I didn't know as much about wine as I thought I did and in the intervening years since we were in Europe, wine education had become a real industry. I began taking classes first in Charlotte, NC then Napa and finally settling at Capital Wine School in Washington DC to take on the mammoth “Diploma in Wine” with the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). It is a six-part, generally two-year program recognized in the wine industry as the gold standard, focusing on the business of wine. While there are tastings of course, a student also writes a term paper, completes business case studies, and then learns the wine regions in the world. I have one more exam to complete but have totally enjoyed the study and the community I have built.
Many friends and family members questioned why I was on this path and what I planned to do with the degree. My answer was always that I didn't need to know, while I hoped I would find a second career, I was willing to go on the journey to find out. I still didn't know if I would return to the Charlotte business world that I knew or find a new path. If wine stayed a fun hobby that was fine with me.
My parents had both died within months of each other, and my youngest was off to college. It was time to get back to work full time. I researched jobs, maintained my CPA certificate, attended wine conferences, collected business cards, and followed up with CPA contacts in wine areas. I listened to Carol's (Fishman Cohen) podcast and followed the advice of the IRelaunch Facebook group.
Bank of America invited me to attend their two-day Relaunch Program; I was thrilled to learn that I was one of 40 chosen out of 500 applications. Carol spoke and inspired the group as we worked on resumes and LinkedIn profiles, as well as met with Bank of America recruiters. I received several follow-up calls from the bank for open positions, but what the program did for me was to confirm what I wondered in my heart: has the time for a Fortune 500 company position passed? Thank you, Bank of America, for the opportunity; I am forever grateful.
Not long after, the WSET, the nonprofit accreditation body for my wine classes, posted open positions in the US as they made the decision to open a subsidiary in Connecticut to manage the growing business within the Americas. I applied and was thrilled to be hired as employee number three in the US as a Quality Assurance Advisor starting in January 2019. I had no idea what the job really entailed, the level was indeterminable, the salary was low compared to prior positions, and I was hired virtually having never met, except over my Skype, my new boss in London or the Executive Director in Connecticut. But I did know that I cared passionately about the mission of the Trust. I could be based anywhere in the US, and best of all I would be traveling North and South America visiting 130 wine schools, that was enough to make it worth the leap.
Since my hiring, I have had several promotions and am now Global Head of Quality Assurance - the first Global role held outside the UK for the company. I manage teams from Shanghai, HK, US and London. In just over two years I went from a non-manager, new employee, manager of the Americas role to a Global Head.
My WSET job and coursework open doors wherever I go, as my academic credentials get me a seat at the table without question. My Big 5 accounting training, running a small business, and experience in managing remote teams are skills from past careers that I draw on every day. I didn't lose them while at soccer games or holding hands in hospitals. I value my years of community volunteering for fundraisers at school and managing grants for our church and a women's philanthropic fund - these were all projects that mattered.
When I turn on my computer each morning, I never know what will be waiting for me. Every day is different, and many are stressful, but as long as I can make a contribution, I will be here for it.
We caught up with Marilyn to dive a little deeper into her relaunch story and the advice she has for other relaunchers...
How did you know that your career move from a major corporate career to the position at WSET was the right one? Was it a leap of faith? How would you counsel other relaunchers who are considering giving up that larger salary, etc. and making a similar decision?
I believe in saying “yes.” I threw out the life play book a long time ago and have had opportunities and experiences I could not have ever planned for. I had nothing to lose in taking the position with the WSET, I had been chosen for the IRelaunch program at a major US financial institution, had participated and learned so much, interest was expressed. That knowledge gave me the confidence take a chance on a career move to a not for profit that I believed in, if it did not work out then the world of finance would still be there.
I wanted something different, I had gotten so much out of my CPA career and really enjoyed running a small business. I had also taken time to take care of my parents and husband when they needed me. This move was about me. My life has been enriched by my WSET education. I believed in the WSET mission of empowering the trade and consumers through education and I wanted the opportunity to help shape the new Americas subsidiary. Now that I am in a global role, I see that every day I have the opportunity to shape policy and direction based on bringing the right people together to evaluate opportunities and solve problems. The chance to make a difference keeps me going across all 24 time zones.
Many relaunchers worry that their skills and experience are no longer applicable when interviewing years later. How do you think they might "honor" their previous experience best throughout their career break and after?
I was fortunate, I was not being hired based on a set of testable technical skills, but rather an unusual combination of my wine education, business background and a leap of faith on both sides. I hire based on these same criteria and have a several CPAs, MBAs, an attorney, and former educators on my team currently, almost all have done a career pivot from more traditional roles. They bring unique skills and mindsets along with enthusiasm and determined engagement. Many of us may have had Microsoft skills that were rusty, nothing that could be managed with YouTube videos, Linked In courses and a few hours of time, we are all lifelong learners in wine and business. Hiring my first colleague at WSET without an in person interview did give me a sleepless night, but the relationship has worked out really well and now can’t imagine why I gave it a second thought.
When I was hired, I quickly realized to succeed I needed to hit the ground running, build a team from scratch, make decisions and then live with the consequences, build bridges and relationships with people I had never met in person, and radiant confidence even when I had none. I don't see anything in that list that cannot be practiced daily in our lives outside of a full-time job. When I am interviewing, I look for opportunities to speak to candidates with unusual paths or career gaps and refer them often to I Relaunch for the fantastic resources. My life is so much richer for being on this journey with many so interesting people.
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