Human Collateral: How Four Finance Veterans Found Success After Layoffs

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When Elisa Chen was laid off from her job as tax director for Fitch Ratings in early 2008, the Manhattan resident's job prospects were dim and her lifestyle in finance made it hard to muster the energy to return to the sector - even though she'd made a comfortable $200,000 a year.

So instead of plastering Wall Street with her resume, she jumped ship and became a fulltime entrepreneur, opening Body and Mind Builders, a parent-child wellness and learning center in Tribeca. The venture promises to turn a profit by next year. "I looked toward a work environment that was less back-stabbing, more pleasant and offered the flexibility to spend time with my kids," Chan says.

The economic downturn has inspired many longtime employees to avoid the chance of future layoffs by starting their own companies. A recent report by the Kauffman Foundation noted that startups in the U.S. founded during recessions are more likely to succeed. Paul Kedrosky, one of the study's authors, told BusinessWeek, "These entrepreneurs are the few, the proud, and the crazy. They tend to be highly motivated and can work on a shoestring budget."

Same Hours, Better Payoff

After 25 years on Wall Street, David Ambinder lost his job overseeing a team of 500 in business support services for Lehman Brothers. He doubted the financial benefits and job opportunities the sector had enjoyed for so long would ever return, and thought even if he did land a decent job, it wouldn't be challenging enough to warrant the commute from his Westfield, N.J., home or the 15 hour days he was used to. In November 2008 he launched a Mr. Handyman franchise. He exceeded his first-year financial goals and was able to spend more time with his family and hobbies.

Although his commute is a mere five minutes now, his hours are no fewer than those he worked in investment banking. "My personality type requires that I put in just as many, but it doesn't feel like work," Ambinder says. "From a personal perspective I enjoy the new challenge and I'm interacting with a new type of people. I really like it."

Beating Layoffs

Greg Stallkamp of Chicago left his job as a strategic advisory consultant in mid-2008, heading off an impending layoff to pursue a startup in line with his passions: the social networking fitness site Holosfitness.com, which helps users get and stay in shape. Though still struggling to monetize the site's booming traffic, Stallkamp's excited to go to work each day, and is confident this experience as an entrepreneur will be an asset no matter what professional decisions he makes in the future. "I'm better off having had this experience than being laid off from another finance job in two years," he says.

Finding Her Niche

Deborah Jack was laid off from her job in financial publishing in March 2007, after 20 years in the industry. Soon after, she launched a Fetch! Pet Care franchise in Ft. Lee, N.J. The company is now grossing beyond her previous "comfortable six-figure salary" and allows her to spend more time with animals, which she loves, and travel.

"I think that when this recession ends, corporate America is never going to be looked at the same, and the loyalty on the part of employees will never be the same," she says. "If there is any silver lining to what's happened, it's that so many people found a niche for themselves that they never would have otherwise."

Of course, there are plenty of times the comforts of corporate life are missed by the newly self-employed. Elisa Chen, for one, says her business wouldn't be possible without the security of her husband's finance job. Even then, life can be scary. "Trust me, there are times when I don't have a paycheck coming in and I think, 'I could be making as much money as a secretary and not worry whether or not I'll get paid,'" she says.

Emma Johnson is a New York based journalist who writes about money, business and finance for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, Forbes, MSN Money and others. Reach her at emma@emma-johnson.net.

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