Women in Business panelists worked hard to reinvent themselves

Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 12:05 pm

Making the decision to do a career 180 can be a challenging one. And it takes hard work to make it happen, say several Milwaukee women who have done it.

Deborah Allen, Maggie Fernandes, Kathy Thornton-Bias and Julie Waterman have all reinvented themselves to follow their passion, they said. The four will serve as panelists at the BizTimes Women in Business breakfast during BizExpo, which will be held on May 30 at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee.

Allen has switched career paths twice. She worked for Wisconsin Gas Co. for 20 years, then decided to become a McDonald’s franchisee, growing her business, Nevada Corp., to 10 restaurants and $15 million in annual sales. And after 20 years in that role, Allen sold her restaurants and started her executive coaching firm, DNA Network LLC, targeted to minority women entrepreneurs.

Purpose has driven all of Allen’s decisions, she said. In her restaurant management role, she often helped employees out with rent, buying a car or finding a place to live.

“It has to be in my purpose and I’ve got to create a vision that can master that purpose,” Allen said. “When I really moved into the McDonald’s space, it was first a ministry. Because I worked in the central city of Milwaukee and so for those kids that worked for me or even the adults that worked for me, I was a role model, I was a counselor, I was a coach as well as a business owner.”

For Waterman, a desire to attend college despite her circumstances led her to join the U.S. Army, where she worked as a military intelligence analyst for eight years. As she prepared to attend college, Waterman took a trip through Europe and fell in love with chocolate. She completed her degree in music education – but then decided to become an entrepreneur, establishing Indulgence Chocolatiers in 2007.

“I don’t like the conventional answer. If you have two conventional answers and neither one of them is a good fit, then you need to make your own third option because you don’t have to go into a cookie cutter zone that isn’t a good fit,” Waterman said.

After more than 10 years in retail management and merchandising, Fernandes decided to reinvent herself as a software developer. She enrolled in coding classes at Milwaukee Area Technical College and with the help of the Milwaukee chapter of women’s tech nonprofit Girl Develop It, found a career in tech.

Her experience with Girl Develop It was so powerful, Fernandes became chapter president to help other women make the same type of change.

“It’s one of those things, you go to a meeting and in tech it’s very intimidating. It’s usually all males, all white males at that, and you come into a room and there’s conversations happening and it’s just acronyms being thrown around,” she said. “You find yourself in that place that you want to give back and you want to reach back down and pull somebody up with you.”

Thornton-Bias was named president and chief executive officer of Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee in February after a robust career in the corporate sector. She was most recently president and chief operating officer of Milwaukee-based Verlo Mattress, and previously held leadership roles at Saks Fifth Avenue, at the retail division of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and at Bang & Olufsen.

People sometimes imagine the decision to make a career change is a magical, fairytale moment, Thornton-Bias said. That’s not necessarily the case.

“Reinvention is a part-time job. It requires some planning and some thoughtfulness and you may come at it because you had an epiphany …. But then once you realize it, it takes work,” she said.

The women advised those considering a career change – either at their current company or a new one – to evaluate their skillsets and follow their instincts.

“Even though you struggle sometimes, you have to follow that little voice in your head that says, ‘Try this,’” Allen said. “You never know why.”

“I looked at it and I knew that I would regret if I hadn’t tried it,” Waterman said. “There’s never going to be this perfect moment where there’s no risk and it’s less work, so it was just a good moment for me to go for it.”

“You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Fernandes said.

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Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.

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