From Unemployed to Unleashed - An Inspiring Story of Reinvention During The Recession

My two year journey as an unemployed professional has allowed me to transition from a well paid but unhappy position to a new line of work that is rewarding, fulfilling, and under my own terms. And I’m loving every minute of it!
By: Dana Jewel Harris
Sept. 2, 2010 - PRLog -- I remember having a pretty cushy job at a real estate firm in Atlanta, GA.  I was a due diligence slash client services specialist, which at the time was the equivalent of an over-achieving C-Level executive assistant.  I had over 16 years experience taking care of my number one and “handling it”.  My team was one of the top producers in the nation in multi-housing sales and my guys (the three Vice Presidents I worked for) were rocking it.  

The year 2006 was a great year.  Our team was closing deals left and right and ended up clearing $2.4 billion in sales. We operated like a well oiled machine.   Having never worked in the real estate industry before, I was a fish out of water. Since I was surrounded by masters of the game, I was sooo able to fake it.  

When I was first hired, I enthusiastically asked if I could take real estate classes. Instead, I was encouraged to learn “through osmosis” – where the knowledge would rain upon my open mind and set root. What good was it to have a seat at a phenomenal table if you can’t eat off the golden plate that’s sitting right in front of you?   I loved my team – well, almost everyone on the team – but was struggling to grow outside of my role. Instead, all I could do was wait for cues on how to appropriately react to bad real estate jokes or great insider tips based on the reactions of everyone else in the room. That osmosis thing just wasn’t working for me.   After three and half years, WATCHING them succeed didn’t translate into the level of comprehension I needed.  So I quietly began taking real estate classes online.  

Learning with a guided purpose was empowering and gave me a basic knowledge-base to finally speak their language with some level of certainty.  Unfortunately, the lessons I was so eager to learn soon became mushed-up masses of moot as my pregnancy brain kicked in.  As I got closer to my delivery date, the trials that come from bursting new life from my loins took its toll on my feet and back which had both grown at least two sizes larger than normal.  To make matters worse, two weeks to the day after my son was born, I suffered from congestive heart failure – a setback that made waking up in the morning the highlight of my day.

I wasn’t having all the fun.  While I was out birthing babies, the economy started tanking. When I finally returned to work, I was placed with a new team from a recent company merger.  I was hurt but thankful that I was even allowed to come back.  Unfortunately, the winning strategy that kept my number one team number one, didn’t exist on this team and I soon found myself unemployed.

By some miracle, I had fully recovered from my medical setback right around the same time I received a call from a Branch Manager at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that offered me a position.  Let's just say, “It was the best of times.  It was the worst of times. “  The learning and growth environment of the branch I worked in was not conducive for producing results, modernizing systems, or collaborating with varieties of groups to deliver trendsetting outputs.  It was an extremely disheartening experience. When that year-long assignment was over, so was I as I found myself unemployed again.

Having worked for a federal agency, I was approved to receive the temporary unemployment benefits to help me maintain during my meantime.  A whopping $297 a week! Less than 1/3rd of my salary counting bonuses and perks.  One side of my I reality breakdown went something like this:  
Weeks 1-3: “Well, THIS is a humbling experience.”
Weeks 4-6:  Shock and awe
Weeks 7-10:  WTF!?!
Weeks 11-15: OMG!  Really?!?!
Weeks 16 - Still can’t land a job after sending countless resumes and going on job interview after job interview:  “ Thank you God!”

The other side of my reality cycle was a little more logical and practical.  During my down time, I went back to school and secured a Bachelor’s Degree in Business Administration and Management. I also volunteered and networked like crazy and served on event planning committees just to get out of the house and keep my skills up.  

Funny thing! Some of the grassroots movements I stumbled upon had the inability to show the results of their work for the past 1, 2, 15-20 years (but who’s counting?).  Even through they were underground, unrefined, and unfinanced, they were also unprofessional, unproductive and unorganized.  I thought, “Eureka!  Surely I can create a job for myself as an Executive Director to meet the needs of these non-profits (I had a degree now so I wasn’t trying to be nobody’s secretary!)”  Although they welcomed my experience and my corporate skills, my fast-paced level of production and planning created schisms that led to mistrust, character assassinations and – in one instance, a knock on my door by the DeKalb County Code Enforcement Police due to a false report filed by a disgruntled affiliate.  

After about four to five months of the craziness and chaos, my recurring epiphany called for me to start my own business, but the recent foreclosure on my credit report constantly disagreed.  In the end, my conscience won – along with the realization that I had compiled over two years of voluntary youth development instruction under my belt.  (Wait! I’ve been unemployed for two years now? OMG again!!!)  I struggled like crazy to pay the filing fees and get my business in order.  

I figured since the recession was forcing me to reinvent myself, why not equip students with the same transferable survival skills I had: business plan development, special event management, investigative research and discovery and computer skills.  Also, while working at the EPA, I got introduced to the urban agriculture and green industry and fell in love with the vast array of knowledge their career specialists harbored in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (S.T.E.M.).  Wrapped in the blanket of social entrepreneurism and community service, I believed whole-heartedly that if I combined all of these concepts together, I could create a sustainable training model that at-risk kids could use to weather many storms and trials while they cleaned up themselves and their neighborhoods and created jobs for themselves.  It just made sense.  So I did it.  

I began selling my NEXT Steps Youth Entrepreneur Program (NSYEP) training classes like a crazy woman to anyone that looked like they needed something to do with their kids for the summer. I convinced two property owners to let me host my very first summer camp at their urban farm.  I also convinced case workers at the Atlanta Mayor’s Youth Program and the Georgia TeenWork Program to let me borrow a couple of kids for an experimental urban agriculture-based training program and they fell for it.  It was a resounding success!  Even though I made absolutely no money from the venture, the students were paid by the city and state and I gained the confidence and confirmation I needed to know I was doing the right thing.  Words can’t express how accomplished I felt – still broke, but accomplished nonetheless.

Now that my unemployment benefits are about to run out, I am attacking this venture with the ferocity of knowing that pretty soon, my unemployment benefits are about to run out.  That includes writing countless grants, presenting to foundations at banks and corporate institutions, and plain out begging for donations and financial support. (Website: for those just itching to throw me a bone).   Nevertheless, I am extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to reinvent myself.  My two year journey has allowed me to transition from a well paid but unhappy position to a new line of work that is rewarding, fulfilling, and under my own terms – which happens to be directly in line with my twenty year vision.  And I’m loving every minute of it!

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NEXT Steps equips at-risk, low-income students with quality economic and community development skills through social entrepreneurism, S.T.E.M.-based investigative research and discovery, and community service within the urban agriculture industry.
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Tags:Unemployed, Inspiring Story, Reinvention, Recession, New Business
Industry:Youth, Education, Non-profit
Location:Atlanta - Georgia - United States
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Page Updated Last on: Sep 03, 2010
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