Illustration of two women walking
Illustration by Eiko Ojala

Stepping Back In

With the help of Booth’s new ReLaunch workshop, alumnae who have taken a break from the working world find the tools to take their careers in inspired new directions.

It was time for Susan Hopkinson, ’97, to stop apologizing for taking a break from her career.

After graduating from Chicago Booth, she excelled professionally with the internet boom of the late 1990s. Hopkinson joined J. P. Morgan’s investment-banking program as an associate. Then, she joined the Japanese investment bank Nomura International as a principal late-stage technology investor. When her fiancé was transferred to San Francisco, where her employer had plans to open an office, the couple moved to the Bay Area.

Then came 9/11. At the time, Nomura had its New York office in the World Financial Center, and it decided to consolidate its employees in London. Hopkinson didn’t want to uproot her new life on the West Coast, so that left her amid a lot of out-of-work MBAs, stranded in a city where she had few professional connections.

After a short stint consulting with a small secondary fund, in 2002, she earned a position as a fund-of-funds investment manager at Paul Capital Partners, known for its pioneering of the secondary market. A self-proclaimed finance geek, Hopkinson loved the work. “It was very technical but also focused on relationship building with venture-capital firms, so I was really qualified, and I felt very lucky,” she said.

Hopkinson had a daughter in 2003, yet she kept up her intense travel schedule. But after her second daughter was born two years later, and with a spouse who traveled most of the time, continuing that pace seemed impossible. Hopkinson quit her job.

To keep her skills sharp, she earned her CFA, and over the years, she often considered returning to work. Something always intervened—a third child, a husband constantly on the road for work, elderly parents who were ill and not on the same coast, a major house renovation. “It’s a tough place that women are in,” Hopkinson said. “You feel almost ashamed that you took this time off. Then, as your kids get older, you definitely have more free time, and you’re less tired, but you need flexibility to be there for that parent-teacher conference or for a sports game. You’re not going to send a nanny to those things.”

A few years ago, Hopkinson began once again to feel the pull to return to work. In 2013, she became a consultant and advisory board member for Maybrooks, a website providing resources for women seeking high-end, flexible, professional jobs, and consulted with a women-owned firm on due-diligence processes of private-equity funds. “I liked being in a less structured, more flexible environment,” she said. Developing those businesses gave her inspiration and enthusiasm for her own job search. In 2016, with her youngest child starting kindergarten, Hopkinson was ready for a full-time position.
Around this time, she received an email about ReLaunch, a new, two-day program offered by Booth for alumnae wanting to reenter the workforce after a break of two or more years. ReLaunch aims to help women think about how to approach their own transition, as well as reintroduce them to the workplace.

 

It gave me a lot more incentive to say, ‘Maybe I do want to start my own business, and I definitely want to do something that makes a difference to actual people.’

Susan Hopkinson

Hopkinson eagerly signed up, even though she hadn’t been on campus for nearly 20 years. Last October, she arrived at Gleacher Center to find a like-minded group of 31 other women who were ambitious, capable—and nervous. “Everyone, even myself, just felt squeamish” about explaining the time away from work, she said. “After taking off for your kids or for various other reasons, we almost felt that we had to apologize.”

But in her opening remarks at the workshop, Linnea Roberts, ’90—a former Goldman Sachs senior executive and an alumna donor who sponsored the ReLaunch program—told Hopkinson and the other attendees that they had nothing to apologize for. To Hopkinson, the emphasis was clear: they didn’t have to focus on the time they took off. There was a consistent message to be bold, look forward, and go for what they want. No apologies necessary.

Relaunched in a New Direction

While women are growing in number among business-school graduates—enrollment in the Full-Time MBA Program has been at least 40 percent women for the past three years—they are still more likely than men to take a long break from full-time work. They are also more likely to struggle to find a job that matches their credentials if they choose to go back.

A 2012 study of Harvard Business School alumni found that about a third of female graduates had taken a leave of more than six months to care for children, while only 2 percent of men had done the same.

Now, more employers, such as Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, A. T. Kearney, and IBM, are recognizing the value—including quality experience and sought-after skills—that women who have been out of the workforce for a significant time have to offer. With career reentry programs, and efforts to recruit and retain women, more companies are trying to make it easier for women to come back.

With the inaugural ReLaunch program last fall, Booth joined a growing contingent of business schools doing their part by developing programs to help MBA alumnae such as Hopkinson transition back to work. Over the two days of ReLaunch, Hopkinson met one-on-one with Joe Guarascio, senior associate director of career management. Guarascio, who led the design of the ReLaunch workshop, helped her fine-tune her resume and LinkedIn profile, adding action-oriented accomplishments from past jobs and replacing her stated goal with a summary of her experience. She also visited several employers, including an impact-investing advisory firm.

Before the workshop, Hopkinson imagined she would go back into working with alternative assets, and she already had interviewed at several companies in San Francisco. Many of her fellow ReLaunchers who had been in finance said they wouldn’t consider returning to a traditional bank; they were more interested in becoming entrepreneurs. “It gave me a lot more incentive to say, ‘Maybe I do want to start my own business, and I definitely want to do something that makes a difference to actual people,’” Hopkinson said.

Back in San Francisco, she began meeting monthly with four other ReLaunch attendees in the Bay Area. They swapped stories and encouraged one another in their job searches. Around this time, Hopkinson’s friend of more than 10 years, Michelle Hirons, who had managed operations and customer service for over 20 years for companies including the Gap and Intermix, had built and was managing a customer support center for a software company that ran SaaS ticketing platforms. Hirons asked Hopkinson to evaluate an opportunity to spin off the call center.

As Hopkinson ran the numbers, she found herself wanting to work with Hirons on the opportunity. A few months later, she became a cofounder and the CFO and chief sustainability officer of a spin-off that provides high-end customer service. The company, called HigherRing, provides companies with US-based customer service representatives and full-service customer service platforms. The business launched in May with employees in Oregon, California, and Florida. It started working with its first client in June and is beginning a pilot with a major event provider in Las Vegas.

To get there, Hopkinson marshaled an inner drive reminiscent of her last time on campus before ReLaunch, two decades ago. “Put yourself back to the time when you were graduating from Booth and you had to be aggressive,” she said. “Even though you’re competing against a bunch of people, you have to show your confidence.”

‘No One Has to Know’

Linnea Roberts first realized that women returning to the workforce needed the message of confidence when she worked with participants in Goldman Sachs’s Returnship program. Similar to an internship, the paid, 10-week program brings people who have been out of work—almost entirely women—into the investment bank for a short-term job, with the goal of reacclimating them to corporate life. About half of the participants have received full-time offers from Goldman Sachs since the program launched in 2008.

“The hardest part was watching how insecure they were about their skill levels, and how uncomfortable and uncertain they were in reentering the workforce,” said Roberts, a member of the Council on Chicago Booth and a former managing director at Goldman, whose last job at the firm was as an advisory director focused on recruiting and mentoring women.

In particular, women would say that in recent years they’d been “just a mom.” At ReLaunch, Roberts suggested the alumnae strike that phrase from their vocabulary.

“That was a choice that you had the privilege of making,” she told them. “You can say that you feel you have really contributed to your family, whether by taking care of an elderly parent or kids, and now you’re excited to do something new. Then pivot to your skills and explain how you want to focus your time going forward.”

If every company hired someone back to the workforce every time a woman chose to take time off, our gender diversity statistics would look quite different.”

Linnea Roberts

Roberts referred to a TEDx talk by Carol Fishman Cohen, the founder of iRelaunch, a company that helps professionals return to work and develops recruiting programs with employers and universities. Near the beginning of her speech, Cohen shows a photo of herself dressed in a sweatshirt and working in the kitchen. Then, she shows a second photo of herself in business attire. The point is clear to Roberts. “No one has to know what you were doing when you were out of work,” Roberts said. “You can create your own professional image.”

After retiring from Goldman in March 2016, Roberts briefly went through that yoga-pants-wearing phase herself. “I spent about three months going to SoulCycle and working on philanthropy,” she said. “I flunked retirement.”

Recently, Roberts started a venture fund focused on investing in women entrepreneurs. She concentrates on companies owned and founded by women, as well as funds, such as Female Founders Fund, that target women entrepreneurs. She named her fund GingerBread Capital, after her mother, Ginger, who ran the magazine Minority Business Entrepreneur for more than 35 years, supporting gender and racial diversity in business.

Roberts continues to encourage companies to do more to help women get back to work. “This needs to be a priority,” she said. “The caliber of talent sitting on the sidelines, wanting to come back and not being sure how to do it—it’s a waste of an asset. If every company hired someone back to the workforce every time a woman chose to take time off, our gender diversity statistics would look quite different.”

At the ReLaunch workshop, Booth alumnae rediscovered how much they can offer. On a day of field trips to visit companies, the group went to the Polsky Exchange to meet with Alex Niemczewski, AB ’09, cofounder and CEO of BallotReady, a website that provides nonpartisan information on every election choice, including down-ballot races and referenda.

“The big issue BallotReady faces is that it’s great during an election, but what do you do the other two years out of four?” said Julie Morton, associate dean, career services and corporate relations. “The group of alums I was with had so many ideas and such enthusiasm about how to market it that the founder excused herself to get a pad of paper and a pencil. To me, it was one of the really exciting moments of the program, because it was such a statement of the impact these women had.”

Shifting Priorities

For Kari Haanstad, ’98, restarting her career meant redefining what was important. After graduating from Booth, she joined the hedge fund group at J. P. Morgan, at a time when that industry was taking off. She rode the wave of alternative investments for more than a decade, managing portfolios of hedge funds for clients. Even after getting married, Haanstad and her husband remained laser-focused on their respective careers. “We lived in different cities during the week and I didn’t care about my hours or the travel,” she said. “I wanted success.”

She found, however, that success left her wanting more. “I just started to have that feeling that a lot of women have,” she said. “‘Is this it?’” She believed that to have a family, she would have to step away from her grueling job.

Haanstad left J. P. Morgan in 2009. After struggling with infertility, Haanstad gave birth to a son, Gavin, in 2011. At first, she didn’t feel the tug to go back to work. But in late 2015, when Gavin was in preschool and kindergarten was on the horizon, she began to think about her career again. “When I stepped out, I stepped out,” she said. “That is a regret of mine—I didn’t hang onto those connections.”

Her resume was stale, and she didn’t even have a LinkedIn profile. “It was overwhelming,” Haanstad said. “I kept putting off getting started.” Then she received an email from Booth about the ReLaunch workshop. “It was as if the school had looked through my Google search when designing this program,” she said.

Nearly 20 years removed from her last visit to Booth, she found that her return involved reevaluating her priorities. Previously, she said, “it was all about advancement, compensation, the challenge.” The ReLaunch workshop helped her refocus and redefine what is most important to her. “I determined I wanted to stay in the finance industry to be able to apply my skill set and experience, but my new list of priorities now focused on flexibility for my family,” she said. “I wanted to be able to attend Gavin’s school events. I needed generous vacation time, I didn’t want to have to travel, and I wanted to work with fun people.”

Armed with this new outlook, Haanstad interviewed for several jobs after the workshop. They felt too much like her old self, her former life. Soon, another job came through an online posting. At first, Haanstad dismissed it; the position seemed too junior, and the description was vague. Yet it advertised flexibility, and it was just a six-minute commute. It seemed to align with her new goals.

I'm exactly where I should be. My needs are filled, their needs are filled, and I couldn't be happier.

Kari Haanstad

During the interview process, the company was impressed with her experience and willing to modify the role to suit her talents. In April, she accepted the job at Modus Advisors, a boutique investment-advisory company in Excelsior, Minnesota. There, she manages investment portfolios and regularly meets with clients, one of her favorite parts of her work at J. P. Morgan. One of her goals is to get more women involved in their portfolios, instead of deferring to their husbands, as she often sees.

“This is a world away from my days at J. P. Morgan, but I’m exactly where I should be,” she said. “My needs are filled, their needs are filled, and I couldn’t be happier.”

Timing Is Everything

Molly Carl, ’96, enrolled in the ReLaunch workshop well into her job search. Like many graduates, she’d initially forgotten about the career resources available at Booth. At the time, Carl was in an unfamiliar position of needing to switch companies. She had spent her whole career—more than 18 years—at what is now called UBS O’Connor LLC, a multistrategy hedge fund manager. After she had a daughter in 2001 and a son in 2003, she continued working full time for years. When her boss left the firm in 2010, she decided to take some time to be with her family.

“In the role of a hedge fund portfolio manager, the responsibility you take on as an investor for clients’ money is paramount,” Carl said. “I would never want a client to have to sacrifice for my family situation. I continued on that path for many years and was able to manage it. But there was a point in my life when I thought, ‘If something happened to me today, would I look back and regret not spending more time with my kids?’”

Four years later, Carl returned to O’Connor full time. Then, in 2015, she was laid off amid a corporate restructuring. She discovered ReLaunch just as she began interviewing with Northern Trust, the Chicago-based wealth-management and asset-management company.

 

It was a helpful resource to have people to use as a sounding board, to talk through strategies and frame the discussion.

Molly Carl

At the workshop, Carl was part of a group that visited Northern Trust’s innovation lab, where fund accountants, business analysts, and technology specialists collaborate. She also worked with Blaze Konkol, senior director of career management, to practice her negotiation tactics so when she eventually got an offer from Northern Trust, just a few days after ReLaunch concluded, she was able to finesse a deal that was right for her. She started working as a senior portfolio manager in Northern Trust’s global family and private investment offices practice in December 2016.

The job’s been a great fit, and the timing of the ReLaunch workshop was ideal, Carl said. “It was a helpful resource to have people to use as a sounding board, to talk through strategies and frame the discussion.”

Thinking Creatively

Carole Andrew, ’99, has had a career full of changes and interruptions, but when she decided to return to work after a long break, she found that the winding road actually gave her more options.

Andrew began her career as a CPA, first at a public accounting firm and then shifting to industry, working for Sam Zell as a controller for one of his publicly traded companies. As she gained experience, Andrew started working on IPOs for some of his public entities. She decided to apply to Booth to develop a broader range of finance skills. 

She had completed all but her last quarter of the MBA program when she took a leave of absence to join her husband, who was working in India. There, she was recruited by The Boston Consulting Group to open an office in Mumbai. She handled recruiting, developed financial-reporting processes, and grappled with the country’s byzantine regulatory issues.

After Andrew returned to Chicago, she finished her MBA in 1999. It was then that she and her husband decided it was time to start a family. Rather than return to work, she spent most days navigating the complex world of international adoption. Eventually, the couple was able to adopt two infants, a boy and a girl, from Vietnam.

Though she was busy with her growing family, Andrew kept finding ways to work on the side. She volunteered for the Lupus Research Alliance, did some freelancing, and delved into strategy issues for the Kohl Children’s Museum in Glenview, Illinois, as a member of its women’s board.

After a three-year detour in Amsterdam beginning in 2011, again for her husband’s job, the family returned to Chicago. Andrew decided to seek work full time outside her home. First, she did 90 hours of continuing education to reactivate her CPA license. Then she began networking and quizzing former contacts on how the workforce had changed during her absence.

Echoing other ReLaunch participants, Andrew was happily surprised by how helpful those former colleagues could be—even when long out of touch. “The openness and willingness of people to help in networking has changed over the years,” Andrew said. She suspects it may have to do with people switching jobs more frequently and working across different functions.

While her easiest route would have been to return to accounting, Andrew now had broader experience and wanted to work on big-picture issues. “If I was going back to work, I was going because I was hungry for the intellectual challenge as much as anything else,” she said.

At the beginning of her job search, Andrew hadn’t considered turning to Booth. Like many alumnae, she had forgotten that the school’s career services are available to graduates for life. She initially met with Guarascio for resume and networking advice. Later, as she began to receive job offers, she sorted through the prospects with Anita Brick, AB ’77, MBA ’81, director of MBA career advancement programs.

Advised to consider the consulting area within traditional accounting firms, she secured an interview and, eventually, a role at Grant Thornton in its human capital management practice. On the job since September 2016, she consults for clients on culture, alignment of people to strategy, talent acquisition, learning and development, incentives, performance-management programs, and all aspects of the employee life cycle.

“I chose Grant Thornton because of the culture,” Andrew said. “It’s very collaborative. It’s a very open organization, in that you have the opportunity to drive the direction of your career to work on projects that you enjoy.”

It’s a role that she never would have foreseen for herself. But she learned that her experience assimilating with different cultures, along with her financial-reporting background, gave her skills that could be easily adapted to other areas.

Because of her success, Booth invited Andrew to speak as a panelist at the ReLaunch workshop in October. There, she told participants not to confine themselves to their previous job descriptions. Instead, they could use their experience—in both their work and personal lives—to fashion a new stage of their careers, and leverage their alma mater to help them make that next step. “In hindsight, I would have [contacted Booth] earlier,” she said. “There are so many more resources than people realize.”

• • •

Returnships 101

Hiring managers sometimes feel as if they’re taking a risk on applicants with gaps in their resumes. Yet many also recognize the benefits of candidates with maturity, life experience, and enthusiasm.

Short-term “returnship,” or career reentry, programs are one way for relaunchers to demonstrate their skills and commitment. These programs, often paid, are similar to internships for younger workers. Some who successfully complete the work receive job offers.

Access research, learn how to change job functions or companies, or schedule one-on-one time with a career coach by visiting Booth’s resources for relaunchers.

For both part-time and full-time job postings from companies specifically interested in Chicago Booth talent, go to the Alumni Resources page and click on the GTS link.

If you are interested in sponsoring a returnship or hosting a group of relaunchers at your employer, please contact the Booth Employer Relations team.

Why Hire a Nontraditional Candidate?

Nontraditional hires can bring a fresh perspective to a company or industry, and a growing number of companies realize that adding diversity to their ranks can improve the bottom line.

Relaunchers rightly feel proud of their years of work experience and hard-won life lessons. They may know themselves and understand their strengths better than younger employees.

Many are choosing to go back to work—rather than returning out of necessity—and so they bring energy and enthusiasm to their new jobs. They also tend to be goal oriented and to value ongoing learning, as demonstrated by their willingness to update their technology skills and industry knowledge.

• • •

Mark Your Calendar

Chicago Booth will host its next ReLaunch workshop March 7–9, 2018, in Chicago. For more details, email Joe Guarascio, senior associate director of career management, at Joe.Guarascio@ChicagoBooth.edu.

Share Your Story

Have you relaunched your own career after a hiatus? Career Services would like to hear about your success. Share your story by emailing Joe Guarascio, senior associate director of career management, at Joe.Guarascio@ChicagoBooth.edu.

—By Amy Merrick