New Beginnings: Three women who reinvented themselves tell their stories

Many people spend a lifetime in unfulfilling jobs, too reluctant to change the status quo. If you are one of them, perhaps you’ll find inspiration in the stories of three San Antonio women who were brave enough to break with the old and move in a different direction. But first, you have to identify what floats your boat.

Powerful Connections

You have heard of the Realtors’ mantra “location, location, location.” For businesswoman Linda Elliott that may be modified to read “connection, connection, connection.” In fact, the name of her business is Elliott Connection, a one-woman operation she founded in 1999 and has been running ever since. “I help create strategic and profitable connections for people,” she says. “I open up doors for clients who can’t do it themselves.” One such client is American Express, which called her after an article on her appeared in the San Antonio Business Journal. They wanted Elliott to help spread the word about their no-personal-liability corporate card for companies that fulfill certain requirements. Her role is limited to making corporate decision makers aware of the product. If they are interested, a salesperson follows up with specifics. AMEX representative Jill Franco described Elliott’s part as “brokering a friendly introduction.”

“I call or e-mail people I know and just tell them to take a look at it,” is how Elliott explains it. “It’s a great program. The card essentially serves as a free line of credit that companies can use to pay their vendors. It gives you 30 to 60 days to pay back, and the company earns points that can be redeemed for expenses or converted into cash.” A very different client is Epic Bound, a small enterprise run by Rory Siefer, whose team researches and writes personal biographies and corporate histories for private clients. Elliott shows us an example of Epic Bound’s work — the story of a woman’s life, complete with photographs and various graphics and bound in a handsome hardcover volume. It’s the kind of memento any family would love to have about their parent or grandparent. “She (Siefer) called me to open some doors for her and get her potential new clients,” says Elliott. “We have many old-line families here with tremendous legacies and stories to tell. We’ve been meeting with a lot of people.”

Elliott, who started her working life as a real estate broker in El Paso, relocated to San Antonio in 1983 following a serious accident, brain surgery and two years of recovery. She hoped for a fresh start in a new place where her accident would not be a subject of conversation. Throughout the ‘80s, she worked “putting together real estate deals through syndication” but got out of it when syndication firms were hit hard by the Tax Reform Act. Subsequent jobs were mostly in sales and development, including her last corporate employment with Administaff, where Elliott spent three years before giving her notice. She no longer felt comfortable there. All along, she was always helping people connect with others and was very active in the community, especially with the North San Antonio Chamber. Acquaintances would often say, “Oh, Linda knows everyone in town!”

One day a friend suggested that she should charge for what she does. “And what is it I do?” asked Elliott. “You are a matchmaker; you are always putting people together,” replied the friend. The idea intrigued her, and she was between jobs anyway. Thus was born SA Tech Connect, which was the original name of her business because most early clients were IT outfits. Her client base has been steadily expanding ever since. “I love to see people succeed,” says Elliott, 61, who works out of an office she rents from Wittig’s Office Furniture on Broadway. “I interview prospective clients in depth to find out what they want to accomplish, and sometimes I advise them on how to position themselves in the community and increase their visibility. I am all about collaboration. That’s what I preach. The most important thing to do to be successful is to collaborate with others. I think this is what I was meant to do.” In addition to brokering business-to-business collaborations, the Elliott Connection also runs a health care focus group for non-medical service providers who deal with the health care industry, such as CPAs, bankers, medical devices manufacturers, labs and law firms. Not surprisingly, “so many of them are doing business together now,” she says.

Twice divorced, Elliott likes being her own boss and working peer to peer, but as in every small business “some years are better than others.” With no residual income, she sees herself working for a long time to come, so taking good care of her health is important. However, the connection pro knows that she has connected with her true calling. “I have the best job,” she states matter-of-factly. “Everyone (I deal with) is a winner.”

Using Her God-Given Talents

Twenty-six-year-old Melissa Henk is also switching to a design career, but in her case it’s interior design that ignites her inner fire. “I have been interested in interior design ever since my parents remodeled our home when I was 12,” she says. “The whole process interested me. I always thought I would pursue design but was discouraged from doing it.” The discouragers were primarily her parents, who feared that she would end up in “a starving profession.” But it went beyond that. It seemed that decorating interiors was not respected by either the public or the academic institutions, few of which offered degrees in interior design. So she followed the familial example by going into business and got a bachelor’s degree in business administration with emphasis on marketing and finance. “I wanted to pursue something that would earn people’s respect,” she admits. “I chose to concentrate on marketing because it was the most creative business curriculum. There’s a lot of psychology in marketing.”

Just out of college, Henk took the first job that presented itself and ended up in payroll and human resources with a recruiting company. It paid the bills, but a year and a half later she quit, intending to explore design options. Within a week, however, a former colleague called to offer her a job with the accounting firm Avant Strategic Partners, and she took it, almost against her better judgment. Fear of the unknown and a need to make money prevailed again. Though she found the work stimulating and enjoyed the milieu, something was still nagging her. “I didn’t really want to settle for a job and a paycheck,” she explains. “While you are younger, you dream big, and then you get out of school and you are looking at a 9-to-5 routine and it’s like, is this what I want to do for the rest of my life? And it wasn’t. Though I had a comfortable income at Avant, I still was not happy.”

Maybe it was time to change course. Married but still childless, Henk figured it was “now or never.” As a modest first step, the would-be-designer became a saleswoman for a window covering business but “could not make any money.” Doubts assailed her again for a while, but she persevered. Currently, Henk works for Cross Construction, a residential remodeling company, where she primarily handles office administration while rubbing shoulders with designers and their trade. This fall, she also enrolled in the interior design certification program at St. Mary’s University. Things are looking up. To explain how she is getting involved in the nitty-gritty of her future profession, Henk pulls out a huge blueprint of a house undergoing renovation and proudly explains that while other people have done the design, she gets to do the calculations regarding the necessary quantities of various materials, such as tile, cabinetry or fabric, and deals with suppliers. “I am in an environment where I do project management, and I interact with the designers while going to school to learn more. I am really enjoying it,” she says optimistically. “In my previous jobs I learned business skills that come in handy. That’s what a lot of designers lack.”

Like Barker, Henk makes less money now but feels more fulfilled. She is excited to be involved in projects that “create spaces that bring joy and comfort to people who inhabit them.” What helped her make the transition was joining a chapter of BNI, the international business networking organization where she met both the owner of the window covering company and her present boss, Craig Scott. Books were useful too, especially Pamela Skillings’ Escape from Corporate America, which is both motivational and practical. One bit that resonated with Henk was the advice to think of “a job that gives you career envy.” Answering that was really easy. She also enjoyed the support of her husband, Keith Henk, who runs his own ornamental fencing business.

But ultimately, it was faith in God that provided the philosophical rationale for her move. “God gives us different talents for a reason,” she notes. “To go against that God-given gift was a lack of faith on my part. I needed to trust that God would provide because He intends for us to use our talents.”

The Nurse Who Loved Art

Following college graduation and marriage, Susan Barker found herself in New York City, eager to land a commercial art job with an ad agency. Though her degree was in sociology, she had always been good at art and had even earned some money doing it. But no doors opened for her. Disregarding her portfolio, the agencies would ask how many words a minute she could type. Disappointed, she decided to become a nurse. “I knew I wanted to do useful work, something that would be a career, not just a job,” explains Barker over tea in her cozy Monte Vista home. “We knew we would be eventually moving from New York, so I also wanted a transportable kind of career.” A hard worker who was taught by her parents “to look at the world beyond yourself,” the young woman discovered that nursing suited her well and found herself naturally gravitating toward work in labor and delivery.

What followed was a 25-year career that included a move to Los Angeles, a master’s degree in public administration of health services and a steadily growing range of responsibilities that started with a clinical staff position at UCLA Medical Center but eventually led to regional leadership roles in diabetes and pregnancy care and into public health research. Long divorced, in 1998 Barker moved to San Antonio to become the coordinator for a number of National Institutes of Health-funded research initiatives carried out by the Department of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at UTHSC.

“I loved being in the hospital and giving hands-on care to patients, but at a certain point I wanted to reach and help more people, especially the ones who did not have adequate health care,” says Barker. “So many problems can be prevented with good pre-natal care. That’s why I got involved with public health. I loved going to work, and I was very committed to it.” And she liked it even more here in San Antonio, where she worked with Dr. Oded Langer, an internationally recognized expert in the treatment of diabetes in pregnancy and the leader of the NIH projects. When that doctor left for Columbia University, however, the workplace started to change in many ways, and for the first time in many years, Barker found herself wondering about her future. By then, she was in her early 50s and ready for an upgrade. Getting a Ph.D. was an option, but eventually her mind “started to range more freely.”

“I needed to re-evaluate my situation,” says Barker, remembering her dilemma. “One day, I was talking to a friend from childhood who is an artist. She and I did art projects together since we were kids. She said to me, ‘Why don’t you do something with art?’ Though I have always loved and done art, I said, ‘But you can’t make a living with art.’ And she said, ‘What about graphic design? Why not take a class and see if you like it?’” Why not indeed, thought Barker, and signed up for a class at SAC. It was love at first sight. Now she only had to work out how to get an actual degree in this new field while working full time. All degree classes were offered during the workday. A visit to the department chair clarified the issue quickly. He refused to make special accommodation for her but gave her a terse bit of advice: “If you want to do this, just quit your job!” For a self-supporting person that was a bit scary. She sat on a bench on SAC’s grounds to consider her options. Can I do it? Should I do it? And after a while, the turning-point moment: Yes, I am going to do it! Working at an accelerated pace, she completed the two-year degree in a single year, taking part-time nursing jobs to survive financially.

Today, Barker is the happy owner of Barker Graphic Design, which she runs from a small office inside her home. She has a partner for website design and occasionally hires people to help with specific projects but is not eager to expand very much. Among her clients are physicians’ practices, health facilities, churches and other nonprofits as well as small businesses such as a hair salon, a jewelry maker and an organ builder. They may request anything from a logo redesign and stationery to brochures, catalogs, ads, e-cards or websites. Sometimes she donates her work to a nonprofit like the San Antonio Opera, where she is a board member. But it hasn’t been all smooth sailing. Shortly after graduating from SAC, she watched a well-known graphic firm where she had done her internship go out of business. Others followed. Luckily, she landed her first assignment through a personal connection in the medical field, and things started growing slowly from there. Her persistence and work ethic helped. “My former fiancé called me the bulldog,” recalls the designer, chuckling. “I pursue things. That’s what got me through.” There are still periods when business dries up, however, allowing worry to creep in, but there are also times when three jobs come her way in a single week.

On the whole, though, Barker considers herself happy and fulfilled. Though her income is substantially smaller than what she was making in public health, the loss is more than offset by the greater freedom she enjoys and may eventually use to pursue a fine art degree. (Several attractive paintings on her walls indicate that she is on the right path.) Other advantages include the opportunity to use her creative side every day, the chance to learn about all kinds of businesses through her clients and the satisfaction that comes from running one’s own enterprise.

Barker advises women contemplating a change in career to think about why they want to do it. Is it because you have a passion for something, or is it because you hate what you do? In the latter case, take an aptitude test, she says, to determine what you are best suited for. Then make a plan listing the steps you must take to achieve your goal. “Sometimes people can’t see themselves doing their dream job,” she notes, “and they get stuck right there. Perhaps they can do something similar to the dream job and move into the dream job later. The important thing is to choose a pragmatic and systematic approach but forge ahead. Follow your passion!”

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