Changing careers in the startup lane

In today's economy, finding a job is challenge enough. Now try finding one at age 45. Or 55. And in a different field. Where do you start? How do you present decades of work experience to an industry unfamiliar with your skill set? Shifting Gears is a career-transition program for mid-to-late-career professionals looking for a second act.
On the surface, Terry Ryan Kane doesn't neatly fit the new economy startup model.

She is a career veterinarian. Someone who spent years working in government in Washington, D.C. She is in the latter years of her time in the workforce. She is not a young person obsessed with technology. She didn't just graduate with a degree in computer science. She isn't starting out in life with lots of ambition and little to lose.

But Kane did turn out to be the perfect fit as an early hire for Ornicept, a downtown Ann Arbor-based startup creating mobile apps for natural resource data management. That was early in 2013. Kane was finishing Shifting Gears, a career-transition program for mid-to-late-career professionals looking for a second act. Often it helps professionals make the leap from navigating big institutions to helping small businesses grow.

Part of the program requires participants to work an 80-hour internship for a local startup. The idea is to get first-hand experience in the local entrepreneurial ecosystem, make connections, and learn how to become a member of a startup team. Kane ended up sitting down for coffee with Ornicept's leadership team. Neither side had any expectations it would go anywhere.

"It turned out they didn't know they needed me," Kane says. "I sold them on myself."

Second acts

Shifting Gears got its start at Ann Arbor SPARK in 2009, about the same time the Great Recession was decimating the ranks of the U.S. workforce. The idea is to help foster the reinvention of the local economy by reorienting the workforce to becomes more entrepreneurial. 

Gov. Rick Snyder, then a board member of Ann Arbor SPARK, was an early advocate for the program. His administration took it statewide a few years later under the supervision of the Michigan Economic Development Corp. Today it's working with its 25th cohort of 43 fellows.

Shifting Gears has graduated 575 people. About two thirds of them were unemployed when they signed on. Of those, 51 percent found a new job within three months of graduating from the program. That number rises to 65 percent after six months and then 84 percent after nine months. Not all of them land jobs with startups, but a majority of them do settle into Michigan's growing new economy workforce.

"There has been a strong interest in the program even with the recovery of the economy," says Molly Leonard, director of strategic design & development for Sensei Change Associates, an Ypsilanti-based company that designs and helps administer Shifting Gears. "People keep changing careers, even in a recovering economy."

Often that will mean the pursuit of a lifelong ambition to start a business. Or perhaps the desire to take on new challenges or start an encore career. Sometimes it's the need to reinvent oneself to remain competitive in the workforce. Shifting Gears helps all of the above.

The target demographic is white collar professionals between the ages of 40 years old and 60 years old, although the program has facilitated participants in their 30s and 70s. Shifting Gears helps them figure how best to find their niche in the new economy and present themselves in the best possible light to new employers.

"They discover there is a black hole for resumes," Leonard says. "They know they need to change up their job search. Usually their confidence has taken a hit."

It's also about teaching a new sort of attitude and work ethic. Early team members on startups are exactly that, part of a team doing whatever needs to be done to establish the business. There aren't any corporate cars or expense accounts but there is the need for people to wear a number of different hats. Figuring out how to thrive in that environment is often easier said than done.

"The small business has fewer infrastructure resources," Leonard says. "You wont to be able to reach out to your secretary for help. You can't call payroll. Someone has to figure out how to pay the taxes."

Most importantly they learn how to tell their stories and the stories of the startups they work for. They figure out that different pay scales come with bigger personal responsibility and large upside for profit. Knowing that makes it easier for many people to sell themselves on a career change.

"Everybody in the business has to be a sales person," Leonard says.

The art of selling yourself

Two-thousand-twelve was a tough stretch in Kane's career. Before that she had built up and sold her own veterinary practice in Oakland County. She also worked as a senior policy advisory for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) before making the move back to Michigan.

"I thought I would have more opportunities here," Kane says. "But when I got here I made the mistake of sending out my seven-page resume. I didn't get any responses. I was getting pretty discouraged."

Kane had heard about Shifting Gears through a friend and filed it away as an interesting thought. The more silence she heard from her job inquiries meant the more appealing a career switch sounded. She was ready to pay the $575 fee to take part in Shifting Gears by the end of the year.

Shifting Gears taught Kane how to book a job in the new economy. It taught her how better to tell her story. Instead of seven pages about her veterinary experience, Shifting Gears taught Kane how to tell entrepreneurs about her real-world skills and experience. How they would help them grow their business.

"I had 30 employees. I ran it (her veterinary practice) for 30 years. I built it from scratch," Kane says. "I started listing what I did besides being a veterinarian."

It also helps that Shifting Gears has been able to attract a deep pool of talent. Russell Conrad, founder & CEO of Ornicept saw it right away when he met Kane. He hired her soon after, recognizing her masters and doctorate degrees, expertise in navigating the federal bureaucracy, and past in building a business.

"She brought a depth of experience about building a business from scratch through acquisition," Conrad says. "That really resonated with us."

Ornicept has hosted a couple more Shifting Gears internships since then. Conrad is in the process of hiring another Shifting Gears graduate right now, which will be the company's fifth hire in the last year. The program has become one of the go-to talent pools he dips into a regular basis to build his business.

"They have attracted a much higher calliber of talent than people realize," Conrad says. "Shifting Gears made people think they need a career rehab. But I have been blown away by the level of talent of the people in it. Their credentials are beyond what I find when we go recruiting, even when we use more expensive means."

Which would explain the program's growing popularity. Sensei Change Associates is currently entertaining offers for expanding the program to other regions in the Midwest, including outside of Michigan, by 2016. In the meantime, the program is helping educate professionals and connect them with the right opportunities. For Kane, it turned out to be a small startup called Ornicept.

"We're just a good fit," Kane says. "I would have never had found them. I never saw Ornicept in my search. Now it's one of my favorite jobs I have held in my life."

- Jon Zemke is the Innovation & Jobs News Editor of Concentrate and the Managing Editor of He believes mid-career reinventions are going to become increasingly common in the 21st Century.

All photos by Doug Coombe
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