A Conversation With irelaunch Co-Founder Carol Fishman Cohen


Thinking of going back to work after time spent at home? Whether you’re ready to step back on the career path or want to try something completely new, Carol Fishman Cohen, co-founder of iRelaunch (www.irelaunch.com), and co-author of Back on the Career Track, has ideas for you.  This mom of four returned to financial work at Bain Capital in high yield debt management after 11 years out of the full time workforce before starting a career reentry programming business. Today she and her business partner, Vivian Steir Rabin, lead iRelaunch Return to Work conferences in the U.S. and Europe. (FYI: More than 50% who attend their meetings return to work within six to l2 months.) BA50 sat down with her for a conversation that could have lasted hours.


BA50: What is your number one piece of advice for women wanting to return to the work force?

Carol: Do a career assessment. You have to identify what you are really good at and what interests you. You also have to figure out how your industry may have changed.  Contact your alma mater; they often have career assessment vehicles that they offer to alums at discounted rates or sometimes at no charge. Or you could consult a career coach.  In Back on the Career Track, we developed the Job Building Block worksheet framework for career assessment, which is a very efficient way to go through the process.

BA50: Is there a second piece of advice?

Carol: Actually, I have two. One: Don’t downplay your accomplishments even if they happened a long time ago. Many of us have had very strong records of achievement before our career breaks but because we haven’t been in the work force in a while, our views of ourselves may have diminished. You can’t allow yourself to downplay what you’ve done in your career. In fact, you need to find ways to emphasize it. Walk into an interview prepared to discuss an accomplishment from each of your pre-career break career experiences.

The other piece is this: Be relentless. There’s a fine line between being relentless and being obnoxious, but in terms of following up and being persistent and getting connections, this is very important. A great way to do this is to say to someone in the field you’re interested in, “Would you be willing to have a 20 minute phone call with me so I can learn more about your personal career path?” Or call up someone you worked with in the past and ask if they have time to talk to you about changes in your industry since you’ve been out.

These are both ways to develop and cultivate a relationship. You can’t just dive in with the opportunistic, “Can you help me get a job?” You have to build — or rebuild — relationships first.

BA50: What have most women found to be their biggest challenge during re-entry?

Carol: People get hung up on a couple different areas. The whole question of whether they are ready to go back to work can sometimes feel overwhelming because people wrap up all their issues in that one big question: Should I Return to Work? Instead, they should ask themselves three questions:

One: What is my appetite for work?

Two: What are my childcare or eldercare or other responsibilities at this moment?

Three: What is my spousal (if any) or other family and community support?

You could be dying to go back to work right this minute but if you’re on call for eldercare duty for your ailing mother in law, then you need to make some decisions about her care first before it’s realistic for you to return to work.

The challenge becomes two-fold: First figuring out what to do (the career assessment part) and two: Not getting discouraged by the macro picture. You need to ignore everything negative about the economy that the media and people are saying and focus purely on what you want to do. Be targeted in your approach to job-seeking and get out there and get personal.

You need to talk to people in all of your circles, personal as well as professional

BA50: Do you find most women completely switch careers? Or do they usually stay in the same field they were in before?

Carol:  We see people falling roughly into three categories: A third go back to what they left; a third go back to something related to their career, and a third find a new career entirely.

BA50: What is your advice for filling in those gaps on your resume?

Carol: You cannot have any unexplained time on your resume. If you did relevant volunteer work to your career goals or educational updating, then put that on your in resume to account for some of your “career break” years. Otherwise in the personal section just write “2006-2012: career break to take care of children.”

BA50:  Do you find the market is open to women of a certain age trying to get their toe back into their old or new career?

Carol: We feel that return to work success has less to do with your age or the number of years out of the work force and more to do with figuring out exactly what you want to do and being relentless about going after it. We have more than 150 success stories on our site and when you look at the profiles you’ll see that many of them are middle age.

This is important: If you walk into the process with ageism on your mind – it will show in your conversation. Instead, you need to focus on why you’re the best person for that position.

BA50: What about salaries? Can women who made a certain salary level, say $90,000 seven years ago expect the same salary now?

Carol:  Studies we’ve seen say if you’ve been out of work force for three years or more you should expect to experience a 37% drop in compensation. However, before you get concerned, it is important to understand what’s behind these numbers!

Bear in mind these studies survey women’s first foray back into the work force. We haven’t yet seen a study to see how they make up that compensation over time. We also know that many women make intentional decisions to take lower compensation for a range of reasons. For example, if you had an extreme job that required a lot of travel or 24/7 on call responsibility before your career break, but now you don’t want those kinds of hours, you may intentionally accept a lower compensated job that does not have those requirements. Or maybe you’ve embarked on a new career path altogether and are starting at an entry-level salary. Again, an intentional decision. There are also those who are trading compensation for control. In other words, they are willing to take less money than think they are worth in order to get the schedule they want. So, if you look at pure statistics, you’re not really getting the whole picture.

BA50: Do you think other women relate to you because they see if you can do it, so can they?

Carol: Absolutely. Vivian and I have gone through the whole return to work process so we understand every step of it first hand. We also learned from our mistakes. In 2000 and 2001, no one was talking about it. There were no books on strategy so we really feel like we have this authentic perspective.

We’ve also talked to a lot of other women and learned from their experiences. And we are always looking to document more. We want to trumpet these success stories not only because they are inspirational, but because they are also great examples for employers. We want employers to see success story after success story so if they have any concerns about the risk of hiring someone who’s been out of the work force for a while, they will start to change their mindsets.

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