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A second chance

Rona Economou was a lawyer at a large Manhattan law firm, making a comfortable salary and enjoying nights on the town when she was laid off in 2009 another victim of the recession. At first, she cried. “Then it hit me,” said Economou, now 33. “This is my chance” to pursue my dream.

Six months later, feeling hopeful, she opened Boubouki, a tiny Greek food stall at the Essex Street Market on the Lower East Side, where she bakes spinach pies and baklava every morning. This was supposed to be her Plan B: her chance to indulge a passion, lead a healthier life and downshift professionally at least by a gear. Instead, Economou finds herself in overdrive.

Six days a week, she wakes up at 5:30 am (“before most lawyers”) to start baking. Instead of pushing paper, she hoists twenty-pound bags of flour, gets burned and occasionally slices open a finger. On Mondays, when the shop is closed, she does bookkeeping and other administrative tasks.

Plan B, it turns out, is a lot harder than it seems. But that hasn’t stopped cubicle captives from fantasising. In recent years, a wave of white collar professionals has seized on a moribund job market, a swelling enthusiasm for all things artistic and the growing sense that work should have meaning to cut ties with the corporate grind and chase second careers as chocolate makers, bed-and-breakfast proprietors and organic farmers.

Indeed, since the dawn of the recession, more Americans have started businesses (565,000 of them a month in 2010) than at any period in the last decade and a half, according to the Kauffman Foundation, which tracks statistics on entrepreneurship in the US.

The lures are obvious: freedom, fulfillment. The highs can be high. But career switchers have found that going solo comes with its own pitfalls: a steep learning curve, no security, physical exhaustion and emotional meltdowns. The dream job is a “job” as much as it is a “dream.”

“The decision to become an entrepreneur should not be made lightly,” said Paul Bernard, an executive coach in New York who has advised professionals on starting small businesses. The press, he said, has made heroes out of former investment bankers and lawyers who transformed themselves into successful dog-jewellery designers and cupcake kings. Though success stories are not hard to find, many are surprised to find the hours and work gruelling.

That was a rude awakening for Mary Lee Herrington, a 32 year old St. Louis native who worked at a white-shoe law firm in London. Two years ago she ditched her job as a fourth-year associate, making $250,000 and working 60-hour weeks, to pursue a new life as a wedding planner. What about her experience? She enjoyed organising galas as a law student at the University of Pennsylvania. “It was really creative, it was fun, and I loved all the details: the party favours, the programmes,” she said.

But soon after starting her one-woman business, Forever & Ever Events, she quickly found it wasn’t a 9-to-5 gig. Working out of the Primrose Hill apartment she shared with her husband, she often found herself glued to the computer past midnight, doing spreadsheet analyses of her new business, or writing copy for her website. Whenever a wedding date approached, she found herself pulling 17-hour days.

The arithmetic doesn’t account for the loss of free time. When you’re the boss, the workday never really ends.

For some career switchers, the toughest challenges aren’t the financial or physical hazards, but the emotional ones.

Despite the hazards one faces while setting up dream businesses success is attainable. Martha Stewart, after all, became Martha Stewart after abandoning a career as a stockbroker. “I no longer walk with a slight depressed hunch,” said Herrington, the wedding planner, who is now enjoying steady work and Economou, the Greek baker, says she feels spiritually transformed. “I’m coming up on my one year anniversary, and I love it,” she said. “I love being a part of the neighbourhood. I didn’t realise how you become friends with your customers.”

“Even though I hate taking on all the responsibility myself and I’m often crazed,” she said, “the moment that I hold a book I’ve completed, it makes up for all the uncertainty of getting there.”

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