Featured Mama Carol Fishman Cohen

carol-cohen-1.jpgWelcome to Boston Mamas Rock! – where I share the voices of fabulous local mamas from all walks of life. Read on for today’s interview with Carol Fishman Cohen, mother of four and career specialist for women looking to re-enter the workforce. Carol is the co-author of Back on the Career Track and co-founder of iRelaunch. Then go ahead and nominate a fabulous fellow mama!

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Carol Fishman Cohen, Co-Founder, iRelaunch

Christine: Welcome, Carol! You’re a career specialist who focuses on helping women re-enter the workforce. You yourself worked full time, took several years away from the work force to raise your children, then returned to work full time. Can you tell us a bit about your relaunch story?

Carol: My kids are now all teenagers – almost 14 to 19 years old. But when I went back to work full time they were much younger – my youngest was just starting kindergarten and my oldest was 11. I graduated from business school in 1985 and worked first in manufacturing and then in corporate finance at investment bank Drexel Burnham Lambert. Drexel collapsed in 1990 when I was on maternity leave with my first child, so there was no “should I go back, shouldn’t I go back” decision to be made – there was no company to which to return. However, I did have to decide I wasn’t going to look for the next big job. We weren’t getting any younger and we wanted to have more kids. We had three more kids over the next five years, so I was caught up in that endless cycle of pregnancy and nursing that my co-author Vivian Steir Rabin likes to call “reproductive hibernation.”

My old Drexel office in Boston still had a viable business even though the parent company was gone, so they re-incorporated independently and I worked part time doing special projects for them during the five-year period while I was having more children. When I had my fourth, I left the paid workforce entirely to be home full time for the next six years. Similar to many “relaunchers” I took on all sorts of volunteer assignments at my children’s school and in the community.

I relaunched my career by taking a demanding, full time job at Bain Capital, a private equity and investment management firm. Eventually I realized it was not the perfect match, but I stayed for a year. After I left, Harvard Business School decided to make me the subject of a case about a mom who built a career, took a career break, and then returned to full time work. When it was published, I got called into the classroom to tell my story. I started speaking and writing about my experience and about career reentry in general, and then Vivian and I got the contract to write Back on the Career Track: A Guide for Stay-at-Home Moms Who Want to Return to Work. Then we formed iRelaunch to provide career reentry programming for employers, universities, organizations, and individuals. We run conferences and coaching programs and webinars all on the topic of career reentry.

Christine: What was your biggest fear about returning back to a full time, high pressure work environment after 6 years away? How did you negotiate that fear?

Carol: I barely read the newspaper for the six years I was home with my little kids. So even before I got the job, when I was in the interviewing stage, I was terrified I was going to start talking about companies that didn't exist anymore because they had been taken over, or had gone bankrupt, or changed names. I re-subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and read it cover to cover for a good six months before I had a handle on what was going on in the general business world. I had to create my own course of self study to get up to speed not only on companies, but on new financial instruments that didn't exist before my career break, plus a review of financial formulas, calculations, and definitions, and a technology update on spreadsheet programs, Word, and PowerPoint. Remember this was 2000-2001 and there were no career reentry programs or return to work strategy books around like there are today. Even with all this prep, I still wasn't sure how I would do when on the job and my employer didn't know either. We had an open dialog about it, but Vivian and I advise relaunchers in a similar situation to get early and frequent reviews - starting at six months, and then every six months for the first two years, so job responsibilities, compensation levels, etc. can be re-calibrated along the way.

Christine: Tell us more about the case study at Harvard Business School. And actually, can you share what that means – from a work perspective (e.g., time, compensation) – to be the subject of a case study?

Carol: As I mentioned, I left Bain after a year and very shortly after that became the subject of the case. You do not get compensated for being an HBS case subject. I did several days of interviewing with one student who was working on the case as part of a field study and then with two professors. They also asked me to do a videotaped interview that they used when they taught the case in executive ed programs in other parts of the country. Since the case was published in May of 2003, I have had numerous opportunities to come to HBS to speak about my career path and career reentry in general. The case is actually called "Carol Fishman Cohen: Professional Career Reentry."

Christine: Let’s talk more about your book Back on the Career Track and iRelaunch. Tell us about the timing of these two major ventures, and how this intersected with raising your children.

carol-cohen-2.JPGCarol: We got the book contract in July 2004, but before that, we had already started interviewing women who had made the transition from home to work, thinking about the strategies involved in reentry and speaking with universities, employers, work life experts, academics, recruiters, and family members about the relaunch topic. We had to have a very solid idea of what the book was going to look like in order to create the book proposal, which is the document that circulates to publishers before they decide whether they have an interest in a book project. We had good interest from agents and publishers, and ended up having a publisher auction for the book. We received a nice advance for it, so we were pretty happy.

That was five years ago, so my kids were ages 9-14, in elementary and middle school. Researching and writing the book was hard work, and it required a lot of focus, but the beauty of this kind of work was that we could arrange it around our kids’ schedules. Vivian has five kids who were ages 7-14 at the time, plus she was running her executive search business, which she still runs now, so it was even more intense for her. Plus, we absolutely loved the topic, and still do, and to this day we can’t get enough of it, so writing the book was both interesting and fun.

In the course of researching the book, we started getting asked to speak on the career reentry topic because not only were we writing about it and speaking in-depth to women who had made the home to work transition, but we had lived it ourselves and had our own first hand experience returning to work in very different ways after multi-year career breaks. It was this authenticity of experience that not only helped us relate deeply to our interview subjects, but made us more in demand as speakers. People ask us how we can maintain our speaking schedule with the demands of all of our kids. The reason it works is because all of our speaking involves planned travel; our kids know in advance when we are traveling to speak and are prepared for it. Spontaneous travel would be very difficult for us. Also our kids are at ages where we can discuss our travel with them.

After speaking all over the country about career reentry, we decided we wanted to create our own return to work event and that’s how the Career Relaunch Forum, our one-day return to work conference, was born. After we ran a couple of Forums, the participants were demanding more follow up programming so we decided to develop a concept we introduced in Back on the Career Track called Relaunch Circles - a four session, coach led, small group, return to work series, with curriculum built around our “7 Steps to Relaunch Success.” We have also introduced our Back on the Career Track webinars, with the first one on LinkedIn for Beginners, and our Back on the Career Track blog is a regular feature on Yahoo’s Women’s portal Yahoo! Shine.


Christine: Can you talk more about what attendees gain from the Career Relaunch Forum? And do you have any Boston area events planned in the near future?

Carol: The Career Relaunch Forum is a one day return to work conference in which every participant leaves with the beginnings of a personalized return to work plan. We introduce the “7 Steps to Relaunch Success” return to work strategy, offer workshops that explore some of the steps in depth, and have panels where participants can hear from successful relaunchers and companies interested in relaunchers. We have a small group of corporate sponsors and always hold the event at an educational institution to allow for low pressure, informal networking that is educationally based and very different from a job fair environment.

We just finished running our Relaunch Circles coaching series in the Boston area and will run Relaunch Circles again here in the fall. Our LinkedIn for Beginners Webinar is now available for download. We will probably not bring the Forum to Boston for a while because there is so much career reentry programming going on in this area, from Bentley University’s More Opportunities for Mom program, to Harvard Business School’s Charting Your Course and The New Path, to MIT’s Career Reengineering Program.

Christine: What is your top advice for expecting or new moms wrestling with the decision to be a stay at home mom or return to work force fairly quickly?

Carol: This is delicate territory with lots of unique factors for each individual – including physical and developmental health of the baby (and siblings if there are some), whether the mom is already working in the career that is a perfect match for her, what her work environment is like in terms of her boss and co-workers, her spouse’s employment status, and goals (if she has one), and her family’s financial situation. We have now seen hundreds of cases of different paths women take because of the range and combination of these and other factors.

Having said that, our advice to expecting moms is they should stay at the top of their game as they are approaching maternity leave – you want to go out on maternity leave performing at your highest level at work. Stay in touch with your network periodically during maternity leave. Find out what the issues are at work or set up a Google search for topics that are relevant to your industry and forward along articles that might be of interest (sometimes when people are busy at work they don’t have time to do this and you can function as their unofficial news-clipping service).

If you love your company and want to return but need more time or even an extended leave, go in and be frank with your boss about it. Companies are often not in a position to say there will be something waiting for you in a year or more when you are ready to return, but proposing ideas such as filling in for maternity leaves of other workers, working on special projects, or working on professional association events where you can bring in individuals from your company as speakers are all ways to keep the relationship intact whether you are on a short maternity leave or on a longer career break. Also, make sure you stay in touch with people who are junior to you – if it turns out you are out of the workforce for an extended period, they will be moving up, and will sometimes be in a position to open a door for you later on.

Christine: What is your top advice for moms who have been out of the work force for a long stretch (e.g., 5 – 10 years or more)?

Carol: Make sure you do a rigorous career assessment - you have to figure out how your interests and skills have changed or have not changed during your time away from work, and the longer you have been away, the more important this is. In Back on the Career Track, we have a framework to help you through this process called the “Job Building Blocks Worksheet” where you break your prior work and volunteer experiences into components and extract those components you love and are really good at, put them in a “pile,” and then build back a new career path for yourself - whether that means you return to exactly what you left, a permutation of your prior career, or you relaunch in an entirely new direction.

Christine: Tell us more about your four kids. Do they understand the magnitude of what you do for other mothers, and how they undoubtedly inspired this work?

Carol: My kids have given me constant "input" about everything I do since I returned to work - they still point out "my building" where I returned to work, when we pass it on the highway, they had opinions on relaunching from a kid's perspective while Vivian and I were writing the book, and they have ideas for the iRelaunch business, on what I should be wearing when I speak (lots of ideas about that!), and on how to make my slides more entertaining. You name it, they will give you their two cents. I think my kids are proud of the work I do, and they have been there when people have come up to me and told me how much Back on the Career Track helped them in their relaunch.

Christine: We’ve talked all business up to now. Tell us about the favorite things you do to unwind or any hidden/unusual talents you may have.

Carol: I love to take walks and this helps me unwind. Usually it’s just my dog and me, but sometimes I walk with friends and occasionally with my husband or one of my kids! Hidden talents? Hmm....I am excellent at parallel parking - how about that? I have no sense of direction, and can't get anywhere, but once I'm there I sure know how to park!

Christine: And finally, what’s your favorite thing about being a Boston mama?

Carol: I was born and raised in Southern California and didn't come East until grad school. My husband grew up in Newton and that's where we live now. I think the Boston area is beautiful and is a wonderful place to raise kids. I love how people in Boston are so opinionated about everything! Whether the topic is sports, traffic, politics, or religion, you can always count on a good debate and lots of emotion.

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