Surviving a Career Crisis: Lessons from the Trenches

Almost two decades ago, I watched the Twin Towers fall from my office in downtown Washington, DC. The sea of cubicles, normally buzzing with activity, were empty and quiet save for a radio we huddled around. A few weeks later, leadership from the large, global consulting firm, gathered us all bluntly together to tell us we had to get back on airplanes. And if we didn't? We'd risk losing our jobs. No discussion, no "I'm sorry you're feeling this way." Sadly, it's the most profound memory I have from that job.

Fast forward to the crisis of 2008. My career had taken me to luxury hospitality. And then the economy crashed. Again. But this time around it was different. The organization was caring, communicative, and supportive. What could have been a horrible blow to my career turned out to be a pivotal turning point.

Another decade and change, and here we are again. It's not surprising that the old feelings rise up again. Anxiety and pride are powerful emotions. If you're like me, you don't know what this economic downfall will mean, or what will happen. But no matter how you're feeling right now, I'm here to tell you there is hope. And so is Stephanie Fornash Kennedy.

The CEO/Founder/Designer of FORNASH, a fashion accessory company, Stephanie's business has all but dried up right now. She sells mostly wholesale to shops and boutiques who are all shuttered now. And she manufactures her products in China, yet another complication. I've known Stephanie a long time, and when I checked in to see how she was faring, turns out she's okay and helping with the crisis. When you've already had your career obliterated by the economy before, you develop some thick skin, and some great advice.

I caught up with her to hear about those scars and what she learned.

Susan LaMotte (SL): We've known each other a long time--it's been quite a few years since we went to college together. What was your first job out of college?

Stephanie Fornash (SF): I got my business degree in Marketing Management and my art degree in Graphic Design at Virginia Tech, so naturally I became a consultant right out of college. I started working for Accenture and really enjoyed it. My main client was Verizon which I worked on for a few years. Then I worked on an internal project when they were rebranding the name of the company from Andersen Consulting to Accenture.

SL: How did the 2001 crash affect you?

SF: Like all consulting industries you have ups and downs. The consulting industry was going through a down time so instead of laying employees off they offered employees the opportunity to leave work for a 6-12 month period with 20% of your salary and benefits and your job was waiting for you when you came back. Much like what's happening in some places now. I was 27 years old and looked at this as an opportunity to have a chance of freedom from the normal nine to five, Monday to Friday life.

I took 8 months off. I started by living in the Caribbean for 6 weeks and explored my creative side. When I came back, I sold hand painted glassware at the local artists markets in DC.

SL: I remember that--we still have some of your glasses!

SF: I also started selling handbags that I designed and had a local seamstress sew for me since I don’t know how to sew. To be smart, I went back to work in the Spring of 2002. I was thrilled to just have my job and get my full salary so I did not care what project I was working in – telecom or government - it didn’t matter to me. I was just happy to be at work. I worked on the pilot program for revamping the airports after 911 at JFK airport. We started losing some of the contracts and I started thinking: "oh, this is not good for me." And it wasn’t. I was laid off about 3 months later.  

SL: Do you remember how you felt at the time? Were you scared?

SF: What did kind of ease the pain was I had a feeling it was coming. I was almost relieved because I had been in limbo for a couple months and whenever you are in limbo it’s hard to make decisions and get a plan to move forward. I don’t know if I was scared or more confused on what to do next. I had only worked at one company since I graduated college and the only industry I had experience in was not hiring.

SL: I totally get it. Especially right now. You'd like to think everyone is preparing for what might lie ahead but I think most people are still shocked when it does happen even given the current circumstances. So, after all of that, how did you get the courage to make the jump into something new in such a challenging time?

SF: When I went back to work at Accenture I continued to sell my designs on the weekends at local open markets in DC. This side business really allowed me to explore my creative side that I guess was my true calling.

SL: You've always had such a strong work ethic--but the real savvy part of that is exploring other options on the side to see what the real opportunity could be!

SF: Yes, and then shortly after losing my job in October 2002, I was sitting in this embroidery store talking to the owner, Laura. As she embroidered my name FORNASH into one of the fabric panels for a handbag I was making for a client, I remembered telling her “I am not sure what I am going to do next. I just lost my job.” She convinced me to open a seasonal store to see how sales would go. Less than 30 days later, I opened my doors to the public and I haven’t looked back.

It was fast but I told myself I will just figure things out along the way because I have nothing to lose but time. I also believe if you try to  ‘cross every T and dot every I’  you will never get started. Sometimes you just have to go for it and figure things out along the way.

SL: When the economy tanked again in 2008, how did that affect you?

SF: 2008 was an interesting time for my business. My business actually exploded during that time. During that time shoppers were watching their spending. So, instead of buying a new outfit, they were buying accessories to complement their current outfits. My designs, quality, and price point were being embraced by not only my retail customers, but my wholesale buyers as well.

SL: That's similar to some sectors in this current crisis. How are you faring now?

SF: My wholesale stores are closed so that business has come to a stop. I prepared in advance so I can take a breath. I was planning on using this time to catch up on some work and home projects. That was my plan and then everything shifted in 48 hours to hopefully helping those in need during this crisis.

SL: How does a jewelry manufacturer and wholesaler help with a pandemic?

SF: I have been manufacturing my collection with factories in China for about 15 years. I have been distributing my accessories and clothing items to consumer and retail stores for the past 18 years from my warehouse in Virginia. When this virus started in China December 2019/January 2020, I was in contact with my suppliers in China and they told me the virus will probably make it to America. They told me I needed to buy some mask and hand sanitizer for my family and myself because when it reaches America supplies will sell out. I actually mailed some mask and hand sanitizer to one of my suppliers in Hong Kong because he was in desperate need. Now the virus is here.

SF: I started getting emails from my suppliers in China about purchasing medical supplies. I ignored them because I am not a medical supplier. A few days later I was on a call with some friends. Two of them are in the medical field and they both mentioned concern about medical supplies since they were running low. I was surprised because I figured once China got back up and running there would not be a shortage of supplies. I was wrong.

I mentioned I could get some medical supplies from my suppliers and it started a completely new business. I am shifting gears from fashion to healthcare to help people in need during this crisis. I am still selling my collection online and drop shipping for my wholesale clients but anything else will have to wait.

SL: What advice would you give to people who are nervous, scared, and uncertain?

Sometimes when one door closes another one opens. I would never have started my company if I was not laid off. By Accenture letting me go I was able to spread my wings and it’s been 18 years and I am still flying high. Dreams do come true but they almost always start from a place of struggle.

SL: Such an important perspective. Struggle breeds even better things. Thank you for sharing your story, Stephanie.

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