When Kathy Hazel was considering a return to the corporate world, she had all the requisite skills to pick up where she left off eight years earlier.
What she lacked was the confidence to know she could do it.
“I always wanted to be able to deliver on my commitments. And that was my fear about going back. I wanted to deliver or exceed every commitment I made,” Kathy says.
She found that confidence – along with a sense of community – through Untapped Potential. The social enterprise, founded by Candace Freedenberg in 2015, provides tools for women ready to return to their professional caliber after previously opting out of the workforce to care for their families.
Untapped Potential offers networking events, learning opportunities and even short-term corporate placements called Flexreturn™ engagements.
Kathy is one of hundreds of Untapped Potential candidates and, according to Freedenberg, an ideal one. Her background in aerospace manufacturing and management represents areas of particular interest to companies in central Connecticut where Kathy lives and where Untapped Potential is headquartered.
Kathy began her career with GE in Cincinnati, earning her masters’ degree in mechanical engineering while on the job. It was there the Notre Dame grad met and married husband Brian in 2003. They had a daughter, Cassidy, in 2008.
Despite shifting into a part-time position, Kathy found working motherhood challenging. Her daughter suffered from several health issues that required numerous doctor’s visits. The family was advised Cassidy shouldn’t attend daycare until her immune system matured.
A six-month leave of absence proved not long enough. When it came time to return to work, Kathy made the difficult decision to resign.
“I enjoyed my career,” she says. “But that (opting out to be a stay-at-home mom) was what was needed to get my daughter strong and healthy for the rest of her life.”
She left, filling her days with Mommy & Me activities while staying in touch with a women’s networking group at GE.
When Cassidy turned two, the family relocated for Brian’s career to the Hartford area. The move put them closer to relatives but further from the work connections Kathy enjoyed in Cincinnati.
She put her energies into school activities and church, serving as a Girl Scout leader and Sunday school teacher. In 2011, the family welcomed a second daughter, Ashley. While she loved being home with her girls, Kathy admits she missed the professional side of her life, a common feeling among Untapped Potential candidates.
So when her daughters were in school full-time, she began considering a return to corporate life. But without a professional local network, Kathy found the job-hunt process daunting.
That’s when she attended an Untapped Potential speed interview event, meeting representatives from a diverse array of companies.
“It lets you see what’s out there and helps you hone-in to what you would want to do,” Kathy explains.
Kathy also enrolled in Untapped Potential’s “skillUP” coursework, improving her knowledge of new technologies to meet the demands of the current marketplace.
But it was Untapped Potential’s mentoring program that proved most valuable.
That’s where she met Nancy Miller, a Senior Manager of Project Engineering at Triumph Electronics & Controls, an aerospace manufacturer located in West Hartford, Connecticut. Like Kathy, Nancy had previously taken a career break to raise her family. She returned as a part-time technical writer and consultant before working her way back to project engineering and to her current management position. Three years ago, she began volunteering as an Untapped Potential mentor.
Freedenberg, who paired the two, sensed a perfect match.
Nancy and Kathy traded emails and then met for coffee, sharing experiences.
“To have someone who could understand how tough it was to find a way back was incredibly helpful,” Kathy recalls.
“It helps to have someone who’s been there,” adds Nancy. “I understand the hesitation having left work to be a parent. And then to return as a parent, there’s a little more balance you have to find.”
Nancy was impressed with Kathy’s resume and prior work. Using Untapped Potentials’ Flexreturn™ – a no-risk, 3-month contract between candidate and company – Nancy made the case to her business leaders that Kathy’s skill set matched a current need.
“Look at this resume… why would you turn this person away?” Nancy asked. “Kathy could hit the ground running. The first day, definitely the first week, she was providing valuable contributions.”
“Women like Kathy can benefit from curated flexible roles matched to their skills and experience,” explains Freedenberg. “We prep candidates for the interviews and provide guidelines for the Flexreturn™. They receive a stipend for part-time work, typically 20 hours a week for 12 weeks. It’s a flexible variation of the Returnship®, a growing concept pioneered by Goldman Sachs in the banking industry.”
“It could not have been more perfect,” Kathy says of the Flexreturn™. “It allowed me the flexibility to be there for my family but also keep up with project deliverables. The more I worked through each challenge, the more I realized I CAN make this work. I can still deliver and be here for my kids.”
Nancy’s colleagues were quick to recognize Kathy’s ability and maturity. A high-level director stated his desire to see her as a long-term employee.
“Kathy has really blazed a trail at our company,” says Nancy. “Her performance will definitely make it easier for management to see (Flexreturn™) as a viable solution to staffing problems.”
Nancy notes the Untapped Potential model demonstrates that taking a career break is not a detriment or barrier to future success.
“You don’t lose that experience even if you’ve been home for a little while. You don’t lose that understanding of how to accomplish things at work,” she says.
Since completing her Flexreturn™ earlier this year, Kathy became a contract employee and has since been hired as a regular employee. Her current 20-hour a week schedule accommodates parenting emergencies like sick days or snow days.
Having a “fantastically supportive” boss helps too. As does the support she receives from her family. Husband Brian helps on the home front, doing laundry and keeping track of school appointments, while her daughters, who are heading into 6th and 3rd grades, get excited seeing their mom get dressed up for a big meeting.
Kathy still teaches Sunday school classes and leads her local Girl Scout troop although she now asks other troop parents to pitch in. Her future plans include growing her career and reconnecting with professional contacts on LinkedIn.
To others thinking about a return to the workforce after a time away, Kathy encourages exploration and connection with Untapped Potential candidates.
“Having that network of other women going through that same process is so encouraging and enlightening. I don’t see how I could have found the path to this position without it. It’s such a perfect fit for me.”
For more information on Untapped Potential, visit www.upotential.org
Valerie Gordon is a lifelong storyteller and 10-time Emmy-award winning television producer. Now the founder of career and communication strategy firm Commander-in-She, Valerie offers storytelling presentations and workshops along with content creation for individuals and small businesses. Read other Commander-in-She Next Chapter profiles.