Many women dream of leaving their corporate job to live a more meaningful life. Fear of saying goodbye to an enviable salary and disappointing family and friends stops most in their tracks. After years of building a promising career, the prospect of throwing it all away to chase a “change-the-world” passion can seem hugely intimidating.
Jessica Teutonico started a career in fashion in her late teens. At the time her decision to leave college and start her career was met with understandable skepticism from her well-meaning family. “This was before the Mark Zuckerberg era. They believed you go to college and get a good job. They thought I was crazy.”
She spent 13 years in New York working with luxury brands, including Tom Ford and Gucci, before scoring a job at Vogue. “Some days I would pinch myself and think ‘I’m in fashion,’” says Teutonico.
Despite her swift rise through the ranks, Teutonico says she never felt fulfilled. Of course she enjoyed the glamour of the industry, but it never felt like enough: her true passion was always in the background, like an itch she had to scratch. Teutonico fostered a lifelong curiosity about Kenya, fueled by her aunt, who had spent more than two decades volunteering throughout Africa.
She worked up the nerve to approach her boss at Vogue. “I asked if I could go on a volunteer tourism trip with a non-profit we were working with at the time,” says Teutonico. The moment she set foot in Kenya, she knew her life would never be the same. She felt at home. Two weeks after returning to New York, Teutonico quit her job and founded Under the Acacia, a non-profit focused on sustainable community development in Kenya.
While building up her organization in Kenya, Teutonico was also doing some consulting work with TED and the UN Youth Assembly to pay the bills. At a TED conference in California, a friend mentioned that a non-profit, Three Dot Dash, was looking for volunteers to mentor young people. Hearing that a Kenyan girl in the program needed a mentor, she knew she had to join. “Nancy Hunt, the president of the organization, would tell you that I stalked her until I got in,” says Teutonico.
“I thought I would change her life with my knowledge and connections. In fact, she changed my life,” she says of her young mentee.
The Three Dot Dash mentoring program is part of the We Are Family Foundation (WAFF), a non-profit founded by Grammy Award-winning music producer Nile Rodgers. After her year-long stint as a mentor, Teutonico was asked to take over running the mentor program. In addition to serving as chief mentor, she also serves as curator for WAFF’s TEDxTeen events. “I just fell into my niche. Working with young people keeps life fun and exciting. They are unencumbered in their quest to change the world. It’s addictive,” says Teutonico.
Teutonico acknowledges that she had little to lose when she left Vogue for charity work. She was young, single, and had to only worry about herself. She knew what she was passionate about and was able to find a way to make a difference. For those who don’t have the freedom to quit their jobs or haven’t identified the cause that drives them, Teutonico has sound advice. “Participate in as many clubs and community-organized volunteer opportunities as possible. Stretch yourself. A different world will open up for you.”
Over the years, Teutonico’s life has changed significantly. Since forging a new path, she married and became a mother. Her life is now a daily juggle to squeeze every ounce of productivity into each day. “My husband makes fun of me. I am a planner and I have to have structure in order to have spontaneity,” says Teutonico.
After the birth of her son, people told Teutonico that she wouldn’t be able to have it all; she would need to slow down. But her determination to make the world a better place is now even stronger.
“I know I am fortunate. I work with legends and I am creating a legacy. But more than that, I want to make sure that my son sees that the work I do lasts long after I am gone.”
This blog is part of our Defining Moment series. At SAP, our higher purpose is to help the world run better and improve people’s lives. We are committed to diversity and inclusion in the workplace and moving #BusinessBeyondBias. To learn more about the future of diversity and inclusion, visit www.successfactors.com and watch this video to hear from other leaders on the topic.
This article and above image originally appeared in The Guardian.