Sep 30

Yvonne Thurman-Dogruer (Kagoshima-ken, 1994-95) is a former JETAANY President and Treasurer. She has a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University, had a ten-year career at its Center on Japanese Economy and Business, and ran her own business for a number of years.  Yvonne currently consults for small businesses and start-ups while continuing the full-time job-search.

I haven’t read Spencer Johnson’s best-selling book, but I love the title.   It seems “Who Moved My Cheese” advises on how to deal with changes in one’s life (anecdotally, mice in a maze sniff around to find their cheese, they do, then somehow the cheese is moved, and the mice have to start all over and sniff their way to find it again)…something we can all relate to. I’m looking for my cheese right now, evaluating the decisions I’ve made up until this point in my professional life, and trying to see where I’m headed.  Often, I’ve decided to move my own cheese.  Change is good. Well, when you are the one to initiate the change, it’s usually good. When something else moves your cheese it’s downright unsettling.

When I was a young twenty-something I felt very much in control of my professional development (didn’t we all?). The JET Program started a great journey and unsurprisingly set my career path for more than a decade following.  I applied for it on a whim after college, and started to move my cheese.  What an exciting year that was!  The time immediately following my return home from Japan was also one of fun professional discovery, as it is for most JET alums.  In 1995 I finished my JET contract in Kagoshima and dabbled in the fields of international education and international relations.   The non-profit world drew me in, and my career path started to take shape. Over the course of the next few years I worked at Japan Society for a bit, set my sights on graduate studies at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), and then became a program officer at Columbia’s Center on Japanese Economy and Business.   I found a very active JET alumni community working and studying at Columbia, which was great, because that meant I was with people who sincerely understood and valued the depth of experience I had while working and living in Japan.  Grad school was the very logical next step for me to take, and in 1999, I was accepted into the program at SIPA after two arduous rounds of applications. Then the real work started.  I surprised myself and chose an international finance and business concentration (you see, as an English major in college I somehow skated through four years without having one accounting or economics class).  Perhaps I was overly-confident of my ability to take on new challenges after living in Japan, or, I was being practical — I knew if I wanted to be an effective organizational leader when I grew up, I’d need strong quantitative and finance skills.  The next big journey started, and for three years I held on to my full-time job while doing my graduate work.  I moved on up to the east side into a shoebox of an apartment on 88th Street and cried through every Accounting 101 assignment in the wee hours of the morning, with text books and papers scattered across my very stylish black pleather futon.  Painful, but good years.  In retrospect, no matter how challenging the work, life in general had order to it.  I was on the path to one clear, undeniable goal of getting that degree.  Sometimes I miss the simplicity of it all!

Working as a program officer at an international research center in a top academic institution may sound truly awesome, and it was.  However, I did plan to move my cheese once I finished my degree to explore other opportunities.  Well, life is what happens between making plans. September 11th happened…during my final year at SIPA. On-campus recruiting came to a halt.  The job market froze. The world turned upside down and we all seemed to function at a bare minimum — or at best, on autopilot for a while, trying to cope with the shock of it all. Not so good times.

Grateful to have a very good job in a very good place, I stayed on at the Center.  I was promoted up to a Director position, took part in some groundbreaking research and programs, and managed two major book projects with leading Japan scholars around the globe. I had a great team, an awesome sempai, a nurturing and encouraging environment, and I learned volumes about management.  Then, it came time again for me to break out and explore.  But wait– it’s 2008. The economy is tanking. I had a stable job at a good place (something I covet now).  What do I do?  I choose to leave it and become an entrepreneur.

Irresponsible decision? Silly? Crazy? During my farewell party at the Center, a business professor came over to wish me well and asked, ‘Yvonne, my goodness, why leave now?” Good question. I explained that I had to take a chance like this when it felt right for me. I had no control over what’s going on in the world outside, but I had tons of energy, and wanted to push myself to discover what I could do. Switching far from the world of an international research center, I started up a specialty all-natural food business in Jersey City. That’s when I really moved my cheese…a big, big, hunk of cheese.

My husband and I became business partners and gave DollyBella Bakery our all.  It was in every sense a success. Running my own small business grounded me and I loved it. The concept was so basic: I create something of value; people like it and buy it; people order it again. Of course, it was the hardest we ever worked.  Meanwhile, the “cheese” in our personal life was moving around and around, in a good way. We just got married, bought a home, and now had a mortgage.  After nearly four years of DollyBella, I made a practical business decision I am very proud of — to end the business.  As any entrepreneur knows, running a start-up is a financial sacrifice (that’s why it must be something you love!).   I continually analyzed the cost and benefit of keeping operations going, and when I examined the salary I could instead be making on the outside working for someone else, it seemed right for us to see the business through to a successful exit, and put myself back in the job market. It was hard to keep emotion out of the decision-making process, but I did it.

With my combined experience in organizational management and entrepreneurship I found a niche in leading small start-up non-profits, and in 2011, I was recruited to do just that. I liked it…looking at the big picture, taking the many moving parts of an organization, finding direction for them and get it all functioning as a whole. The problem with small start-ups, though, is their fragility. It takes a long time to get cash flowing while working towards growth, and sometimes payroll can’t be made.  That was the situation I was dealing with.  I realized that somehow, I put myself smack dab in the middle of financial sacrifice again — only this time it wasn’t for the good of my own business.   Charity begins at home and bills need to be paid, so I left that executive director role (on good terms and all), sure I’d find another job soon after.  I did, and in this latest small non-profit experience I was brought on as an interim director to develop a strategic fundraising plan and internal policy for a foundation which had just gone public. I was pretty charged up about the mission, and after two months the Board offered me the opportunity to come on as a full-time executive director.  But, during those two months, I saw practices and methods which I didn’t agree with (some were downright unethical), and it was clear I would not be given the power to change them for the better.  I turned down the offer.  I was really disappointed about it all — the small staff had so much potential, and the commute was a dream.   Most importantly, who wants to turn down a paycheck??   I had to trust my gut, keep my integrity and walk away (giving a courteous 30-days’ notice, of course). I moved that cheese myself again. I was sure my next role would be with a stable organization where I could make some positive contributions. Well, that was a year and a half ago.

I never thought I’d be searching for a job for this long, but this is where I am at, trying to keep steady on unsteady ground.  It’s not just about someone having moved my cheese; the ground is moving as well.  Remember that classic wooden labyrinth box game where you tilt the surface to get the silver ball around the maze without it falling into one of the holes?  It’s like that.  Forget the cheese.  There isn’t any cheese anymore.  Some invisible hand lifted my cheese away from the maze.   I’m left wondering, are we all playing a different game now?  There are so many friends and acquaintances around me who are long-term unemployed (to the point where even extended unemployment benefits run out).  Professionals are losing their jobs, cannot find similar ones, and are faced with the challenge of having to redefine their professional selves.  It’s not easy.  I find myself moving in so many different circles and industries during my search this last year, trying to match up very specific, individual skills to the needs of a potential employer because that neatly-wrapped package known as The Resume just ain’t cutting it. We may be at a crossroads in this market where we need to concentrate less on The Career and more on the next job opportunity (notice I didn’t say ‘the next job’) that presents itself, in order to get the next paycheck.  It’s as if there is more value in offering an a la carte menu as opposed to a prix fixe one, if you will. Seems quite backwards.

So what are the rules of the game now, with so many career-driven people out of work?  And what about those who are currently ‘underemployed’ or have a job that isn’t allowing any room for development and growth? In this environment, do they just have to be ‘thankful to have a job”?  At what cost?  Was I being irresponsible at times when I chose to change my current work situation, when it wasn’t working?  Do I regret leaving that last opportunity? Not so much (keeping my integrity wins out). Do I regret leaving a paycheck? Yes.  Boy, I could really use a piece of cheese right about now.


2 comments so far...

  • JBO Said on October 5th, 2014 at 8:10 pm:

    I very much enjoyed your brave rendering of your career arc and the powerful choices you have made. I am inspired by your commitment to integrity and empathic towards your current struggles – these are both ones that I can identify and resonate with. I know that the job search can feel like surfing a tsunami, a sense of overpowering forces that are engulfing one’s own agency. But even amidst the most chaotic waves we can still glide gracefully if we can keep our balance and our focus, while turning with the wave.

    Like you, I learned resiliency and the ability to deal with ambiguity when I was on the JET Program and these skills continue to serve me well today. I want to end by offering you optimistic food for thought through the Japanese proverb, nanakorobi yaoki, meaning fall seven times and stand up eight. I hope it nourishes your entrepreneurial mindset!

  • Yvonne Said on October 6th, 2014 at 11:12 am:

    Thanks very much for the comment. My main objective in writing this series is to provoke discussion among the JET alumni community who are also in the thick of the job-search, and I know your encouraging words will be appreciated. Indeed, the JET experience has equipped us all with so many skills we may not even be aware of; this time of searching, reflection and self-analysis should inspire JET alumni job seekers to recognize and utilize those acquired skills to the fullest! Steady at the helm!

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