Workforce Re: Entry

From Corporate to Entrepreneurship…& Back Again?

written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

Starting your own small business sounds like a dream. Being your own boss. Setting your own hours. Putting to practical use all you’ve learned in a lifetime of business in big companies.

Well, suppose you have that dream, and it’s sweet, but after a dozen or so years you long to wake up back in the upper echelons of corporate America? The tale of one successful entrepreneur sheds light on the common wisdom that once you’ve left corporate life to launch a small business, you can never go home again.

As it turns out, that’s not entirely true.

By her early-40’s, Nancy Perkins had racked up a heavyweight corporate resume, including a stint with consulting firm McKinsey & Company, and a series of increasingly senior positions in the credit card division of American Express and Citibank. When the Wharton-MBA executive married and decided to moved from New York City to Toronto where her new spouse lived, she felt that “the time is now,” to strike out on her own, she recalls.

Like many people with an itch for entrepreneurship, Perkins wasn’t sure of what business to launch. She and her new partner, another woman with expertise in marketing, approached the problem systematically. They did market research, prowled the streets of Toronto, and talked to people. They crunched numbers. They created spreadsheets and analyzed different business possibilities. Finally, they identified a market niche with pizzazz and the potential for both profit and fun. Toronto, a city of two and a half million, was lacking a hip, upscale furniture store that delivered quality customer service. Perkins recalls with pride, “We opened up a home furnishing business. The fact that we didn’t know anything about sales or furniture didn’t stop us. We knew how to market things.”

Within short order, Toronto Life magazine touted the store, called Perkins & Pape, as one of the top shopping experiences in the city. Perkins recalls, “It was absolutely thrilling to start something from nothing and build it up.” Literally: the business mushroomed to three floors, expanding to occupy 3500 feet of store space.

But it wasn’t all roses. “You are constantly under pressure, responsible for everything, for every decision, including taking out the trash,” she recalls. The buck-stops-here responsibility was stressful, but hardly a surprise; indeed that’s part of the allure of entrepreneurship. The shift from corporate to small business ownership did, however, bring unexpected challenges. For instance, Perkins’ day-to-day social interactions at work underwent a qualitative shift. She’d been accustomed to working in a huge company where a kaleidoscope of interdepartmental collaborations bought her in contact with many well educated, highly motivated people. “A retail business puts you in contact with clerks, salespeople, suppliers, and customers,” she pointed out. “You can spend your day in a quite different— often less intellectually demanding—social universe.”

After more than a dozen years, Perkins closed her furniture store in 2005, and with that closed her chapter on retail entrepreneurship. An energetic 50-something, she’s seeking to return to corporate life and reached deep into her old Rolodexes to network herself back into a financial services industry that has changed dramatically thanks to technological innovation and globalization. Nonetheless, through aggressive networking, determination—and, says Perkins, good luck—she found a position in a Toronto-based loyalty marketing firm that utilizes both her entrepreneurial know-how and her expertise in the credit card business.

Perkins’ leap from retail back to the corporate world defies the “can’t-go-home-again” common wisdom. It wasn’t easy. And, if the goal was to re-enter the ranks of financial services in a Fortune 500 company, well, then her transition isn’t yet a hundred percent complete. But she is philosophical about her shifts, and appreciates how each experience has informed the next. Older-but-wiser, the newly re-minted financial services marketing executive says, “I know so much more now, having seen the business from the other side.”