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Changing course

How, why women are switching careers

Sandy Pagnotti

Sandy Pagnotti

For more than 15 years, Sandy Pagnotti worked in the event planning industry and “loved every minute of it.” Yet she felt pulled toward a different career.

“It was always pretty transparent that when my kids were grown, I was going to try and look for something probably more in a nonprofit arena.”

Shortly after her youngest daughter graduated high school in 2010, six people sent her a job posting for the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Baltimore Inc.

“I really just thought, ‘Well, you know, God’s timing is pretty interesting,” she said.

Pagnotti applied for the job, had several interviews over the summer and got the job offer as she was driving her daughter to James Madison University to start her fall semester.

“I always say ‘God knew I would be a terrible empty nester so he gave me another house full of children’,” she said. “It’s really been one of the greatest blessings of my life to be here.”

Pagnotti, who serves as the nonprofit organization’s president and CEO, is one of many women who have made career transitions — either through changing job fields or coming back into the work force after taking time off to raise families or for other reasons.

“It’s very exciting and recharging and re-energizing to be starting a fresh career, but [I feel] like I am bringing something to the table, and I am learning so much along the way. It’s exciting,” she said.

Kelley Margolis James

Kelley Margolis James graduated with a law degree in 2003 and clerked for two years for a judge in the Baltimore County Circuit Court.

She was working in a private practice when her husband’s job transferred him to Manhattan, N.Y. They visited each other on weekends, but when James discovered she was pregnant, she decided to move to New York and be a stay-at-home mom.

Nine years later, the couple decided to move back to Baltimore to be closer to family. With both of her kids now in school full-time, James wanted to go back to work outside the home.

Since she had a gap in her employment history, she worried whether she would be able to find a job.

Networking helped her to land a job at Maslan, Maslan & Rothwell, P.A., a Baltimore-based law firm, shortly after moving back to Baltimore.

“I just made calls and talked to friends and started networking again and going to events,” she said. “You just don’t know where the job is going to come from or who is going to be the connection that gets you there. My biggest piece of advice is to get your name back out there. Tell everybody you know you are looking, and don’t be afraid. People like to help. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

LaTara Harris

LaTara Harris

LaTara Harris

For more than a decade, LaTara Harris worked as the director of partnerships and outreach for the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education. Throughout her tenure, she saw the nonprofit blossom into a statewide coalition dedicated to improving schools and student achievement.

“I was able to build there and grow there and really expand the kind of work that we were doing,” she said.

While there, Harris completed the Greater Baltimore Committee leadership program and earned her MBA.

“It was a time of transition for me and a time of growth for me,” she said. “I knew it was time to move on.”

She is now regional director of external and legislative affairs for AT&T, which allows her to blend her passions: policy and community building.

“I’m a huge connector at heart,” Harris said. “That’s the kind of work that I love doing.”

C. Diane Wallace Booker

C. Diane Wallace Booker

C. Diane Wallace Booker

While working as an attorney in private practice, C. Diane Wallace Booker had a fateful conversation with Pastor Wintley Phipps while he was serving jury duty.

He shared with her his idea for the U.S. Dream Academy — a nonprofit dedicated to mentoring and helping at-risk youth and children of incarcerated parents.

Phipps later turned that dream into a reality. Booker maintained her successful law practice while volunteering for the U.S. Dream Academy in 1998.

Booker, who graduated in 1996 from the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, decided to volunteer and quickly found herself designing programs and meeting with federal agencies to help start the organization.

Booker continued to practice law for several years while building the organization, which officially was founded in 1999.

“That was kind of two full-time jobs,” she said.

Booker became the U.S. Dream Academy’s first employee and the founding executive director — a position she still holds today.

She says her role at the U.S. Dream Academy allows her to blend her passion for the law with her desire to give back.

“It’s very different work, but it’s the same motivation and passion for fairness and justice,” she said.

Since the organization’s founding, Booker has helped to build and expand it nationally.

The U.S. Dream Academy has served more than 8,500 students across the country. The organization is in 12 schools in seven cities in the U.S.

“You’ve got to really believe in what you are doing,” she said. “I really believed in the vision and what we could do in terms of helping to change lives and communities.”

Carol Ghingher Cooper

Carol Ghingher Cooper

Carol Ghingher Cooper

Like James, Carol Ghingher Cooper, took nine years out of the workforce while she raised children.

Cooper was a successful programmer and system analyst when she decided to work in the home.

When she was ready to re-enter the workplace, she found that the computer world had changed dramatically.

She had been working with PCs and mainframes when she left in the early 1990s.

“I would have been like a new hire,” Cooper said. “I wouldn’t have had much to offer going back to that, and I didn’t particularly care to.”

Instead, Cooper followed in the footsteps of her husband, father and other men in her life and went to law school.

She was 38 years old.

She went full-time to the University of Maryland and finished in three years. In 2002 she began working at Adelberg, Rudow, Dorf & Hendler LLC, where she is now a member who focused her practice on family law.

“I just kept putting one foot in front of the other,” Cooper reflects. “It was nice for my children to see me going to school when they were going to school.”

She often would study while on the sidelines of their soccer games, she said.

“I knew it was the right path for me because everything just sort of fell into place,” Cooper said. “None of it was a real struggle.”

 

Advice

If you are thinking about making a career transition, Pagnotti encourages people to figure out their comfort level when it comes to considering a job change.

“You have to be able to sleep at night with whatever decision you make,” she said. “Explore and know that every single thing you do and learn can be translated in a business environment. …Your journey is your own. You have to do what feels right inside of you at the time that it feels right, and know it is never too late.”

Harris believes you have to follow your heart and be open to opportunities when they present themselves.

“When you are thinking about the career change, don’t think about the position,” she said. “Think about the skills that you have. Highlight that because that is what transfers into other companies and other divisions and other industries.”

Cooper advises women who want to change careers that it’s never too late.

“I wouldn’t be scared off by the idea,” she said. “There were people older than I was in law school.”

The fear of change is natural, Booker said.

“I just challenge people — particularly women — that stepping out of that comfort zone can raise a lot of fear and sometimes anxiety and stress but not to be afraid of that. If there is something outside of that comfort zone that you really believe in and really want to contribute to, it is worth fighting through some of the anxiety and fear to get outside the comfort zone to search yourself and figure out what it is [you want to do].

Work is so much more than a just salary,” she said “It really is about ‘Am I really contributing? Am I making people’s lives different or better or more exciting or happier or more comfortable?’”

This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Path To Excellence: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Path to Excellence magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Path to Excellence.