When she graduated from college, Sarah had no interest in the banking or consulting jobs her classmates and friends were taking. She wanted to do something different. A friend (thank you, Jon Mabry) had noticed Sarah passionately concocting new recipes in the late-night student eatery on campus and suggested she apply for a job in the restaurant industry.
From her earliest memories of adventurous eating with her grandparents, to the Iron Chef competition she participated in at Yale, food had always been a passion of Sarah’s, and had become a way for her to find herself and set herself apart in school. She was intrigued by the idea and applied.
Thus started her career in hospitality, with a focus in HR. Her decision took her to places like Phoenix and Newport Beach as she trained staff and launched new restaurants. She continued to move up in her career.
Then the unthinkable happened: She got laid off.
Layoffs and firings may be at 20-year low, but that doesn’t make it easier for the 1.7 million Americans who were laid off in March 2019 alone. No one works their butt off in high school then college then work just to get laid off. It’s terrifying.
I talked to Sarah about how she navigated her experience of getting laid off and starting her own company. She is now the founder and principal of Empowered Hospitality and just hired her 12th employee!
Getting laid off sounds scary. How did you find out?
I was in Aspen for three weeks opening a restaurant for my company. It was all hands on deck, and I had been sitting in the basement office filling out new hire paperwork and chasing down employees’ IDs for their I-9 tax forms for three days straight (HR hell). My CEO called me into the empty nightclub downstairs, and we sat on a sticky purple leather booth in the empty, echoing room.
I remember being so embarrassed, worried someone might walk in with an armful of liquor bottles and hear our conversation. The company had unexpectedly lost a large contract with a hotel in Manhattan and as one of the more highly compensated employees, I was one of the first to be laid off. As an HR person, I’ve been on the other end of so many of these conversations that I knew right away what was happening, but as I walked out into the cold I was crying and pacing. In a panic, I immediately called a few headhunters I knew for an update on the job market. In hindsight, it was a little silly to launch my job search so quickly, while I was still raw and processing, but it was comforting to me to take some kind of action.
What did you do next?
After my initial freak-out, during which I had spent the entire afternoon on the phone and scouring LinkedIn, I called my boyfriend. We had only been dating for three months, and I figured it might mean the end of my relationship because I was feeling so defeated and pessimistic at that moment. To my surprise, he was ecstatic. “That’s great!!” I remember him shouting on the other end of the phone. He knew, even though I hadn’t fully realized it, how unenthusiastic I was about my job. I didn’t know why, but all of a sudden I was laughing. I could see my breath in the air, and I remember my laughs echoing all around the vestibule of the corporate apartment. I felt a huge weight lifted, and in that moment I realized how stagnant I had felt in my job, and that I was finally free!
I realized that I thrive when I have a steep mountain to climb, but I tend to lose interest once the big challenges have been handled. I had climbed the mountain: managing the impact of our chef/founder resigning unexpectedly, re-staffing entire management teams in his wake and implementing basic HR operational systems that had been lacking. And, to the surprise of none of my loved ones, I was feeling stalled.
I was laid off a week before Christmas but, luckily, I have always been very frugal and had enough saved up to get through May. I also negotiated a severance — it was an intense, uncomfortable meeting with my CEO, where I fought for a higher amount than I was initially offered (and got it!). So I took the rest of December off, knowing that no one would be hiring. In early January, I hit the job boards and started interviewing. I really wanted a mentor in my next role, and I was willing to wait to find the right position. In the meantime, I put the word out to a few HR colleagues and friends that I was open to consulting. I figured I would put it out into the universe and see what happened.
You got what you thought was your dream job, head of HR @ Bluestone Lane. Why did you turn it down?
Bluestone Lane was this young, hip office of good-looking Aussies, and I was totally captivated by their growth plans, and their desire to build an employee-oriented business. At the same time, however, I already had three consulting projects I was juggling. I was running to interviews from client meetings and agonizing over what direction to take. The offer from Bluestone Lane forced me to finally make a decision to either take a full time job with a salary or pursue my consulting projects as a full time business. Even though I couldn’t possibly predict the outcome of my own company (and I hated not knowing!), saying no to an appealing job offer made me realize how much I wanted to pursue this adventure. That was the moment that propelled me to fully invest in Empowered Hospitality. My boyfriend and family spent countless hours supporting my decision-making process — listening, weighing in, and even helping design Empowered Hospitality’s website. (When I think back, they were all pulling for me to pursue the entrepreneurial path, though they allowed me the time and space to decide on my own).
To most people (me included), getting laid off is a TERRIFYING thought. How did you see it as an opportunity?
I didn’t see it as an opportunity! I was terrified at first, and then I went straight from being terrified to hustling my ass off interviewing and getting the company off the ground. I was too exhausted to be terrified. There wasn’t really a moment where I sat back and said, “Ah, being unemployed is the good life.” From start to finish, it was anxiety-inducing and lonely, but staying busy — saying “yes” to literally any projects that came in the door — made time fly. Eight months later, after I hired my first teammate and saw her excitement and commitment to our company, I realized how real it was. It was the first time I appreciated how far I had come, and I was so grateful that my layoff had enabled Empowered Hospitality to come into being. There is nothing like knowing you have no backup plan to light a fire! I found myself incredibly motivated under that kind of pressure.
Today you have your own business and employ 12 people. How did getting laid off help you get to where you are today?
Getting laid off, to me, meant the complete freedom to try something I might not have otherwise tried, and intense motivation (aka fear). It showed me that I had the grit and flexibility to create this amazing platform and bring together a team of people who inspire me and teach me on a daily basis. I am so grateful that I was pushed into that “sink or swim” situation — it showed me what I’m made of.
Any advice for any of our Juggle readers who might have found themselves getting laid off?
First, I’d say let the freak-out happen — whether it’s calling recruiters all afternoon, drinking whiskey at 2pm, crying, or all of the above (as in my experience). It’s normal to be terrified, and I guarantee that some of the smartest, most amazing people you know were laid off too, and felt exactly the same way.
Second, being laid off is the perfect time to experiment, with far less risk — the costs of job hunting (or building a company) when you’re unemployed are lower, as you’re not leaving a lucrative full-time job to start something more risky. It doesn’t have to preclude you from interviewing, but use your newfound freedom to try that thing you’ve always wanted to try. For once you have the rarest gift — free time. Use it to fail, hustle, create, and explore the interests that you’ve secretly wondered about but never been brave enough to voice.
Have you been laid off? What did you learn from the experience. Share comments below.