Switching Careers: Being your own boss

The job picture has not brightened much since fall 2008, when Wall Street's troubles hit Main Street. But there's been one unexpected silver lining: people are trying their hand at being their own bosses, according to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

In 2008, 0.32% of the adult population or 320 out of 100,000 adults started a new business each month, compared to 0.30% in 2007.

Tony Wong of New York was one of the many to make a go at being a small business owner. He and Rhianna Burroughs of Denver tell WalletPop how they put a new spin on their careers.Tony Wong: Designing a New Future
Tony Wong was taken by surprise when he got his pink slip in April 2008. After all, the architect had survived 20 years juggling difficult personalities and the ups and downs of the residential design market. Still, he didn't waste much time wondering what his next step would be. Like some during this recession, he finally followed his dream and opened a design store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that December.

"Opening a store in this economy is not the best thing to do but every time I open the store, I am excited," says Wong, 44. "I don't have to get on the subway to be in a crowded train and sit at my desk and draft away. Here, every day is different. I am finding that I am talking to people more than when I was in a firm. One thing I am enjoying is interacting with people. I enjoy talking about the products."

To differentiate themselves from the competition, Wong and his partner, Brian Sahd, crafted Abode New York to focus on contemporary home furnishings, tapping into the design community at the nearby Pratt Institute. The couple -- who used their savings and a $50,000 line of credit from their bank to open the shop -- also took care to pick a location on a busy thoroughfare to capture foot traffic. As a result, they've slowly built a reputation for cool stuff.

While Wong and Sahd are committed to making the venture work, it remains a struggle. People are still reluctant to open their wallets as the economy drags. Hence, Sahd got a full-time job as executive director of the Friends of Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

In February, they were able to renegotiate their $4,000 a month lease, shaving $500 off for six months. And some of their vendors have agreed to sell by consignment.

"If this store becomes a self-sufficient entity, I would not mind going back to architecture," says Wong. "But right now, given all the stresses of the economy, I am enjoying being at the store. I like being surrounded by well-designed objects. I don't frown or grumble or mumble when I unlock the door."

Rhianna Burroughs: Learning to Lead
Rhianna Burroughs was one of the lucky ones. After her company Corporate Express was bought by Staples, the Blackberry server administrator was one of the few asked to stay on. But after seeing numerous colleagues leave and her responsibilities change, she started to rethink what she wanted out of life.

"I really always wanted to be a teacher, but I made the decision too far along in my college career to change majors," says the Regis University graduate. "The whole idea of the possibility of being laid off and being forced to change careers made me take a hard look at myself and my career ambitions. I felt that I had the ability and desire to help people and this was not being used while working in a cubicle."

Burroughs, 27, looked at programs in the Denver metro area that would allow her to obtain a master's degree as well as a teaching certificate. She also checked out education-related positions on websites like Monster.com and Craigslist.com. It was on Craigslist that she discovered an ad for the Denver Teacher Residency program. DTR trains people to become elementary school teachers and in return asks for a five-year commitment to the area's public school.

"I felt the DTR program fit me because it offered a master's degree from one of the best universities in the state and additionally provided the hands-on experience and training that I felt I would need to become an effective teacher," she says. "There is also the incentive that my tuition will be paid back to DTR upon completion of my residency commitment."

While the work is hard and the hours long -- she arrives at school at 8 a.m. and comes home after a full day to work on lesson plans and preparation for another two hours -- Burroughs says the sacrifice has been worth it.

"You are never too old or in a field too long to change what you're doing," she adds. "I think that was the biggest obstacle for me, and I realized once I took the 'plunge' that this was the best decision I've ever made. I have only been in the program for three months and at times it feels like I have been doing this my whole life. I can't imagine doing or being anywhere else."
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