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Second Acts


Posted on October 26

Photography by Roy Wilcox

One year ago, Ruth Blank was a high-powered corporate executive, overseeing a company with thousands of employees, hundreds of thousands of customers and millions of dollars in revenue. But in January, she chucked it all to pursue her dream: to open a restaurant.

Who hasn’t, at one time or another, fantasized about doing something similar?

For many women, the idea of making a radical midcareer shift is overwhelmingly appealing. The lawyer who becomes a novelist; the mom who goes to medical school after the kids are grown; the teacher who starts a catering business—these are the kinds of transformations that give us all hope that life has something more in store for us.

Women are uniquely suited to take that second shot at career happiness.

“We’re used to sequencing and shifting,” says Sacramento life coach Kathy Fong, noting that many women temporarily give up careers, or throttle back, in order to raise children. They’re not on the same linear career path as the men in their lives. As a result, they traditionally have had more flexibility than men to change direction once, twice or even more in the course of their careers.

For some, midlife is a particularly fertile time to contemplate a radical change. A major life event—a divorce, say, or a child’s departure for college—can lead to some serious soul searching. “At that point, existential questioning seems to happen,” explains Catherine Cohen, a clinical psychologist in Sacramento. “Women tend to take an assessment of their true needs and wishes.”

According to Dave Speciale, a local career coach who works with women who are re-entering the work force, many women in their 40s and 50s suddenly realize it’s finally time to concentrate on their desires, their dreams. “They get a burst of energy and creativity after the kids leave,” he explains. “They don’t have to drive the carpool anymore. It’s like a weight has been taken off their shoulders.”

But even women in their 30s can get the urge to scratch that midcareer itch. After being in the work force for a decade or more, many have an epiphany, that light-bulb moment when they ask themselves: Is this all there is?

Disproving F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous dictum that there are no second acts in American life, here we look at four local women who decided to go for their dreams.

Living the Fantasy

As regional senior vice president for Comcast, Ruth Blank was arguably one of Sacramento’s most powerful female corporate executives. But earlier this year, in a surprise move, Blank left her high-profile job to become part owner of a floating riverboat restaurant deep in the Delta.

At the time, the local business press speculated that the popular executive was forced out as a result of financial pressures in a fast-changing, competitive market. Today, the 54-year-old Blank will say only that it was a “happy confluence” of events that led her to a new life as a restaurateur.

“I loved what I was doing,” she says, “but I knew I didn’t want to do it all my life. When the opportunity for this restaurant came up, it was a no-brainer.”

Throughout the years, Blank and her husband, retired chef Chris Spanos, had fantasized about opening their own restaurant, a cozy breakfast-and-lunch place. So when they heard that the old Moore’s Riverboat in Isleton was for sale, they leapt at the opportunity.

“I’d been there before and knew it was a fun place,” says Blank of the legendary restaurant, known for its panty-festooned bar. “It seemed like a great idea.”

Within a month, she had traded in her power suits for jeans and T-shirts and set to work, helping to scrub, scrape and paint the old boat. That done, the woman who’d once had responsibility for 2,200 Comcast employees hired a staff of 30 waiters, cooks, bartenders and busboys. After overseeing day-to-day operations for a company with 750,000 customers and a territory that ranged from Chico to Visalia, she reveled in the opportunity to work at a small business. “Here, you can get your arms around everything,” she explains. 

She gleefully ticks off the advantages of her new position. “I get to dress much more casually. And I have time to work out,” says Blank, who runs and takes Pilates and hot yoga classes. She spends more time with her husband. And, perhaps best of all, she gets to sees her daughter—who returned from Spain to run the restaurant—every day. “I take an enormous amount of pride in seeing how well she’s doing,” she explains.
Blank says she never fretted about the loss of a corporate paycheck. “It was definitely a financial risk,” she says, “but the restaurant was too much of a siren’s call. It was too exciting.”

She sees life as a series of transitions and says there are more career shifts in her future. She’d like to work for a nonprofit organization and, maybe someday, write for a living. But for now, she says, “Every day is interesting. I’m having fun.”   

Putting the Pieces Together

Nancie Mills Pipgras had her light-bulb moment in an airport.

The year was 1996, and Pipgras—then a national strategist for one of the Big Six accounting firms—was at New York’s LaGuardia Airport, scrambling to get a flight back to Sacramento after bad weather had grounded her plane. When she reached the United Airlines ticket counter, the agent looked at her sympathetically and said, “Oh, Nancie, how are we going to get you home today?”

Pipgras, who was spending 65 percent of her time on the road (she’d flown 120,000 miles that year on United alone), knew something had to give. While she loved her job, she wanted more out of life than expense-account dinners and lonely nights in anonymous hotels. So, she quit her job and went in search of a new, more gratifying career—one that would satisfy her yearning to create something.

It was, she says, a giant leap of faith.

“I had no idea what I was going to do or how I was going to do it,” recalls Pipgras, now 51. “I just knew I had to be in a different ‘place’ for things to happen.”

As it turned out, it took her several years to decide what she wanted to do. To pay the bills, she worked for her former employer as a freelance consultant. In the meantime, her personal life flourished: She met a man, got married, bought a house. And then one day about a year and a half ago, it came to her. She’d always been fascinated by mosaic art—an ancient art form in which the artist uses stones or tiles to create geometric patterns and detailed scenes of people and animals. “I need to stop buying books on mosaic art and start making it myself,” she told her husband.

And that’s exactly what she did. She converted her home office to a studio and embarked on her first project: designing and creating a mosaic of an egret for the front of her house. She did it in the same way she approached her former job, becoming as knowledgeable as possible about her craft, tinkering endlessly with the design and joining an online community of mosaic artists for inspiration and community. 

Making mosaics, she found, was not such a stretch from her work as a management consultant. “I’m taking small, disparate pieces and making something new and different out of them,” she explains. “It’s sort of what I did during my corporate career.”

Today, Pipgras is working on other mosaic projects and hopes someday to teach the craft to others in an expanded studio over the garage. While she’s supremely happy with her life now, she also is grateful for the corporate years that preceded it, saying they taught her to “think big.” She urges other women with an itch similar to hers to take the leap. The rewards, she says, are worth the risk.

“Once I made myself open to the possibilities,” she says, “the possibilities came to me.”

Agent of Change

Christie Struckman had been climbing the corporate ladder at Intel Corporation for 10 years when she had a startling revelation.

“I had a great career going,” she says. “And I realized I didn’t love it.”

In her job as a project manager for the company’s information technology department, she spent her time helping employees grapple with change. Ironically, it was she who now had to come to grips with change.
She’d come across the writings of a New York University professor named Henry Lucas, an expert on the way technology transforms organizations. Struckman called him up and requested a meeting, hoping to pick his brains on what she should do next. During their get-together, Lucas urged her to go back to school and get a Ph.D. in organizational behavior.

Why not, she thought. She was 30 and single, and she’d always loved school. So she enrolled at Binghamton University in New York. (She continued to work part time for Intel as a telecommuter.) After five years, doctorate in hand, she got a job at San Jose State University as a professor in the management department, teaching undergraduate and graduate students the finer points of getting along within the confines of an organization.

“Organizational behavior is based on psychology,” explains Struckman, who commutes to her job from her home in the Sacramento area. “We talk about people. It’s very intimate.”

In her 20s, says Struckman, she was shy, quiet and very introverted. All that changed at Intel, where she acquired strength, confidence and authority—traits that have helped her in her new role as a university professor. “If you’d told me 10 years ago that I’d be standing up in front of people, lecturing five hours a day, I would have said you were insane,” she says.

Today, 37 and expecting her first child, she is comfortable in her own skin. And so happy. “I love opening up people’s thought patterns,” she says. “It brings me a lot of joy.”

Taking the Law Into Her Own Hands

In high school, Kim Hunter didn’t think about the future.
“I was very social,” she says.

After graduation, she skipped college and went straight to work for the state as a stenographer. Realizing the financial limitations of not having a degree, she went to college at night. Eventually, she got a job as a state public information officer, hopscotching from agency to agency. The money was good, the work interesting. But still, she craved something more.

She thought longingly about law school. “I wanted something that would bring out the surly, aggressive side of me,” Hunter laughs. But she wondered if it was too late for her to go back to school. Then she read an Ann Landers column that settled the issue once and for all. A reader wrote in with a similar dilemma, saying she wanted to go to medical school but feared she would be too old when she finished. Landers’ commonsensical response: “What age will you be if you don’t go?

So Hunter enrolled in Lincoln Law School’s night program, telling no one but her husband and two kids. “I was terrified I’d flunk out,” she says. Rather, she excelled, and in 2000 she graduated sixth in her class.

Today, at age 44, she is staff counsel for the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing, handling disciplinary actions against errant teachers. “I’m a warrior for public schoolchildren,” she says dryly.
Hunter attributes her success to her “plodding” personality. “It took me 10 years to get my bachelor’s degree,” she notes. “I was used to working and going to school at night.” She knows the sacrifices required to realize her dreams.

While thrilled with her new career (“I’m so happy, I make my friends sick,” she laughs), she has her sights set on yet another transformation. “I want to be the next Danielle Steel,” says Hunter, who is 80 pages into her first novel about the dating mishaps of an attractive blond attorney. Now divorced, she writes late into the night. “I’m hoping to pull this off,” she says.                                                     

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