6 Women’s Inspiring Career Changes

The six women profiled here created the life they wanted by switching career directions and going down the path they were meant to. They prove that it’s never too late to make a change. If you can dream it, it’s possible.

Sabrina Madison

From Higher Education to Raising Women Up

By Hywania Thompson | Photography by Shalicia Johnson

Working in various positions in academia for seven years opened Sabrina Madison’s eyes. She had seen a lack of support for students of color and spoke at events where there were no women of color in the audience. It got her thinking about how she could empower black women and families—even though she had a comfortable job working at Madison College as a student veterans coordinator.

In 2016, she had her “aha” moment. At a local speaking engagement about leadership development, Madison says there were no women of color in attendance: “All these gems that I’m about to share and no black women in this room.” She asked herself what leadership would look like for black women and during a 15-minute break, created the first Black Women’s Leadership Conference.

After a few weeks off of work, she returned to Madison College and thought, “why am I here?” So, she quit. “I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Madison says. “I just knew I felt strongly that I didn’t belong there, and this was not working for me anymore.”

Madison decided to build her own business, focusing on black women. Now, she’s her own brand—called Heymiss Progress—a name coined by her father. She opened The Progress Center for Black Women in 2018, and her Black Women’s Leadership Conference will be held next month. And, she’s working on a county-wide Black Entrepreneur Week in summer 2020 among other initiatives.

“To go from a 15-year-old teen parent to creating my own brand, it feels empowering. I’m happy that young girls, women, and even men can look to me and know that doesn’t have to be the end. You can reinvent yourself.”

Although she left, Madison says Madison College gave her the opportunities that got her to where she is today. In her first volunteer coordinator position with the school, she started the nonprofit Men with Purpose, helping men coming out of the prison system. And, the school often invited her to speak to families, which jump-started her speaking career. Over the next few years, more organizations would book Madison as a speaker. “That first year at [Madison College] really set the foundation for everything I’ve been able to accomplish today,” she says.

Madison enjoys being able to help people from a love ethic. “When folks tell me about the progress they’ve had, I am full,” Madison says. “When a mom or a woman says after we met, ‘I was able to make this change in my life.’ I can see the impact right away. I don’t have to wait five years to see the impact.”

Jennifer Lee

From Warehouse to House of Wearables

By Hywania Thompson | Photography by Hillary Schave

Jennifer Lee is proof that it’s never too late to follow your heart and your passion in life. In October 2018, a few months after leaving her job at a local distribution center, Lee opened Faded Roots Boutique on Main Street in Sun Prairie.

Lee started at the distribution center after graduating high school. She drove the forklift and performed other duties, and in her last three years, worked as a supervisor. Lee says she loves connecting with people but during the last few years at her job, she couldn’t lead her coworkers the way she wanted to. “I got to the point at the end of the day where I felt like I couldn’t do anything good anymore,” she says.

So one morning in July 2018, after 25 years at the distribution center, Lee turned in her resignation. “I had gone into work that morning and it was a complete disaster … I couldn’t do it anymore. I called my manager and gave my two weeks. It was just one of those moments,” she says.

It was a scary leap for Lee—all she knew was the distribution center and she was a single mom of two. But, she had also been mentally preparing for this moment to possibly open her own shop—even if she didn’t have a storefront yet. “The more unhappy I was [at my job], I [went] to the bank and I created my business name,” Lee says. “I did all these things beforehand so if that day did come where I was ready [to quit], I knew that I would be prepared.”

Her Sun Prairie shop has unique clothing, jewelry, shoes, bath and body products, and more. Many of the items are made by artisans from across the state. Throughout the shop are heirlooms from Lee’s family, including a beautiful table made with barn wood from her grandfather’s farm. “My first vision of my own boutique was more about the environment and how I wanted people to feel when they walk through the door,” she says.

Lee says change is scary, but we have to change if we want to grow. “Take that chance. We only live once and you’re going to live a life of regret if you don’t take that leap.”

Shilpa Sankaran

From Corporate Culture to Relaxing Retreat

By Katy Macek | Photography by Hillary Schave

Graduating college doesn’t guarantee a dream job. That comes from years of experience and personal growth, says Shilpa Sankaran, of Middleton.

Sankaran, a 1995 graduate of the UW-Madison’s school of business, was eager to climb the corporate ladder like many kids fresh out of college. She relocated to San Francisco and over 18 years gained a respectable career in corporate consulting, and then co-founded a zero-energy construction firm. Each step in a new direction showed her how much more there was to learn.

“We are funneled into choosing so early in our lives, when we don’t even really know what life has to offer [and] we don’t know ourselves,” Sankaran says. “We don’t give ourselves the freedom of making a change or choosing something else.”

Now Sankaran is living those words. Last November she shifted her career direction again to open Kosa Spa, an Ayurvedic spa retreat. The business is located in the newly renovated Garver Feed Mill on Madison’s east side. Sankaran says she knew she wanted to work in a more rewarding field than corporate consulting but had no idea it would eventually entail opening a full-service spa retreat center. Her experience in sustainable construction and knowledge of Ayurvedic practices (which she learned about during trips back to her home country of India with her family) have merged beautifully in her new endeavor.

“…What we bring to every stage of our career we already possess,” Sankaran says. “It’s not like we throw it away and restart from scratch.”

She’s fueled by her passion for connecting people with themselves and the world around them and feels this is her true calling. Looking back, though, she wouldn’t change a thing about how she got here.

“The choices you make at any point are completely reliant on all the experiences you had,” she says. “I think everything is as it should be.”

Katy Ripp

From Fatigues to Flowers (And More)

By Annie Rosemurgy | Photography by Shalicia Johnson

Katy Ripp is not afraid of change. A self- professed risk-taker, Ripp’s career journey has meandered, and when opportunity has presented itself, she has not been reluctant to go all-in. She’s dabbled in banking, education, web design, hospitality and agriculture. But it was a post-9/11 radio ad for the National Guard that called her to service and changed her life forever.

Notoriously grueling, the experience of basic training for the Guard and her subsequent seven-month deployment to Iraq forced Ripp to dig deep, tapping into an abiding resilience. She recalls a self-defining moment during training where—sweaty and exhausted, on the brink of defeat—she decided simply to persevere. The misery could not last forever, she reasoned, and she possessed the tools to press on, moment by moment. While life looks very different for Ripp these days, the deep well of fortitude she gained during her service serves her daily.

Today, Ripp and her husband Dale own and operate Mad Lizzie’s Flower Farm in Cross Plains. Specializing in heirloom varietals, Mad Lizzie’s is named after their daughter, Madeline Elizabeth, who is, Ripp says, everything she wants their farm to be—spirited, independent, sassy and wild. The couple hand-curates and grows hard-to-find seasonal flowers and sells them at local businesses and from a roadside stand adjacent to the farm from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Whether for a special occasion or for everyday enjoyment, Mad Lizzie’s devotees appreciate the beauty of their uncommon, sustainably-sourced blooms.

Never one to rest on her laurels, Ripp launched a second endeavor in April 2019 where she has the “opportunity to collect all of my talents, experiences and lessons from every job or hobby I’ve ever had.” The couple bought a charming, historic building in the heart of downtown Cross Plains and opened Nineteen09 Wine Bar + Gift Shop + Event Venue. Nineteen09 offers a self-serve wine bar, beer and seltzers on a daily basis. For Ripp the most rewarding aspect of her newest venture is helping clients host personalized, deeply meaningful occasions, like baby and wedding showers, birthday parties, anniversary celebrations and fundraisers. With all of her varied experience and skills, Ripp says she’s found her true passion in co-creating these events. While Ripp’s journey has taken many twists and turns, she’s found her path—lined with flowers and walked with wine glass in hand.

Wendy Kuo

Marketing Savvy Meets Noodle Savory

By Candice Wagener | Photography by Shalicia Johnson

Wendy Kuo’s daily grind is vastly different now than it was five years ago. Kuo, who held positions in various aspects of digital marketing for the first 14 years of her career, now oversees operations of two brick- and-mortar restaurants, Umami and Tavernakaya, and three food carts in Madison, plus a shared cart in Wisconsin Dells at the Grateful Shed Truckyard. Kuo and her husband, Michael Ding, co-own the ventures.

Kuo and Ding relocated to Madison from New York City in 2010 because they were ready to switch gears. Ding, who had spent 12 years working in finance on Wall Street, was armed with plans for the restaurant Umami, which opened as the city’s first Japanese ramen bar on Williamson Street in March 2011.

Marketing has played prominently into Kuo’s career trajectory, albeit in different ways, since she graduated in 2000 from NYU’s Stern School of Business. In New York City she held positions at ivillage.com and other ad agencies. After moving to Madison she worked full-time in marketing at Middleton-based Shoutlet while simultaneously managing all catering and private events for Umami. In December 2014, she was laid off from Shoutlet. Exactly a year later, she and Ding opened the doors of Tavernakaya.

After her job loss, “I could have went on and tried to find another job, but at that point [our restaurants] needed someone,” says Kuo, who instead fully immersed herself in the planning for Tavernakaya. “No regrets at all. I certainly would rather be spending my time building our business.”

Kuo and Ding divide the behind-the-scenes work. Ding manages personnel issues, handles repairs and brainstorms the big ideas for scaling up their businesses, as well as spearheading new ventures. Kuo takes on all of the marketing, accounting and finances, and communications. She also still manages events and catering.

Kuo’s marketing experience is convenient for promoting her own businesses. But she also credits her past career for teaching her how to prioritize and decide which fire to put out first—a crucial skill in the restaurant industry.

Even though their plates are full, Kuo and Ding plan to expand their businesses even more in 2020. Kuo also has a personal goal of incorporating more exercise, healthy meals and family time into her life.

As Kuo reflects on her own journey, she sagely advises: “If you are going to make a career change, make sure that you con- sider that new career [has] balance between your personal life and your work life.”

Kate Bast

From Deadline Chaser to Forest Healer

By Ann Imig | Photography by Kaia Calhoun

Evidence-based research shows that time spent in nature makes us feel good. Certified nature and forest therapy guide Kate Bast feels pretty terrific these days.

Madisonians might know Bast from her five years as editor-in-chief of BRAVA Magazine. Bast relished writing, editing, traveling, attending events and especially meeting many local women who were visionaries. The creative frenzy also brought anxiety and stress. Bast admits “living on deadlines was as draining as it was exciting—and my family and I were wanting more time together.”

A story idea for BRAVA from a Washington Post piece about Shinrin-Yoku (Japanese for “forest bathing”) lit a spark in Bast. Shinrin-Yoku named a phenomenon Bast herself experienced; going into nature—often and for long stretches—dissipated her freneticism and tension. Reading about Shinrin-Yoku also reawakened her desire toward healing others (Bast considered nursing school before becoming a journalist). She emailed her husband Tim: “In my next life, I’m going to be a forest bathing guide.”

Eighteen months later, Bast found courage to create her “next life” now. After retiring from BRAVA, she learned of a training that would launch her forest bathing guide career. Bast recalls: “My intuition was loud and clear. I knew I would find something there.”

Today, Bast guides individuals and groups of all ages on one-and-a-half to four-hour slow, silent forest walks. She explains Shinrin-Yoku as “immersing oneself in the atmosphere of nature, activating the senses, and slowing down enough to notice and find stillness.”

Bast prepares by exploring sites—sitting against a tree, or even laying down in the snow – “gathering up the sense and feel of place.” She creates “invitations,” written or spoken prompts designed to encourage clients to “drop-in” with connection and reflection. Bast carries first aid essentials and extra gear to keep her guests comfortable. She often ends a walk serving tea made from foraged plants.

Recently Bast also became part-time editor for the Whole Health Project—supporting a paradigm shift in how the Veterans Health Administration provides care, treating the whole person, embracing Western medicine, complementary and integrative health practices.

In describing her life today, Bast says “Here I am, right where I feel I should be, on a path that has merged my editorial skills, interests in medicine, a forest bathing practice and new business—and in all, the chance to help people heal.”

Feel pulled toward change? Bast suggests, “Notice what lights you up and take action. Let people help you, and they will let you help them. Find the forest to your tree.”

The Next Best Thing: Interested in changing lanes in your own career? Sarah Young from Zing Collaborative shares her tips here.

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