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How To Quit Your Great Job

These top-level business executives up and quit to start their own nonprofits.
Trevor Paulhus

Ellen Wood calls it her mid-life awakening. She was 45 and had just experienced the death of a colleague. At the funeral, she reflected on her own life. If this had been her, would she be happy with what she’d accomplished? With who filled up the church? Within two months, she quit her job.

Madeline McClure was on Wall Street, working some ungodly hours that involved 24-hour stretches like this: New York office by 7 a.m. morning meeting, nonstop work through market close, six-hour flight to L.A., dinner and schmoozing with clients, sleep, up by 4 a.m.—West Coast time—to call into that same New York meeting the next morning. Some real Wolf of Wall Street-type stuff. She made $375,000 annually in 1994 money, the equivalent of more than $600,000 today.

Feeling unfulfilled, she left and went back to school.

Kelby Woodard was in politics, a state representative in Minnesota who’d found his way into the public eye after founding and building a pair of successful international-trade firms. It was work that took him away from home three and a half out of every four weeks.

But when it came time to run for re-election, Woodard found himself throwing his hat in the ring for a very different kind of opportunity.

Kelby Woodard, a successful entrepreneur and politician, became the founding president of Cristo Rey Dallas.

Feeling that their time at for-profit companies had run its course, all three would eventually start their own nonprofits (in Woodard’s case, he headed up a new local chapter of a national nonprofit), giving up coveted, high-dollar roles in search of something … different? Yes. More fulfilling? Maybe.

Private business and the not-for-profit sector will forever be linked, the former often in support of the latter. Business executives lend their financial know-how on the boards of nonprofits. Corporate giving campaigns allow companies to hand off those giant checks to organizations of need.

But every once in a while, an executive finds himself or herself tugged a little harder than most by the strings of civic work, and bids the corner office adieu. (OK, sometimes there’s still a corner office in the mix. Executive leaders at some of the biggest nonprofits in Dallas-Fort Worth easily pull in salaries in the six figures.) If the strings are connected to an idea not yet in existence—meaning that the executive in question starts a brand-new nonprofit—then on the other side of the decision to leave there can be uncertainty, long hours, and perhaps a nice home-office near a screaming child.

It can also bring much more, a point to which Wood attests.

A University of Texas at Austin undergrad who got her MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, Wood spent the first half of her 25 years in the business world in real estate accounting and at a biotech startup. During the second half, she entered the investment business, becoming a portfolio manager at Dallas-based Carlson Capital. She’d been there for about six years when a friend at the firm was diagnosed with cancer and, four months later, died. “I was 45, single, no kids,” Wood recalls. “I needed to do something different with my life.”

The mid-life awakening led Wood to leave Carlson Capital in early 2005. She jumped into work at Dallas Social Venture Partners, which took philanthropic money and invested it into nonprofits, targeting at-risk kids. By 2009, at the age of 50, Wood decided to start her own thing, aiming at Dallas’ public education system. “I had no capability at all for this other than a hunger to figure it out, to problem-solve, to find great people, to build a great team,” she says.

“I had no capability at all for this other than a hunger to figure it out, to problem-solve, to find great people, to build a great team.”

Ellen Wood

She didn’t realize it at the time, but Wood shared common experiences with the woman with whom she’d link up on the new venture.

With a J.D. from Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law in hand, Rosemary Perlmeter had started a career at Irving-based Zale Corp. in the 1980s, about a week before the announcement of a leveraged buyout. Perlmeter kept her nose to the grindstone, working her way all the way up to vice president of real estate. “When the company was going through the intensity of the turnaround, it was easy for everyone to feel like it was life or death,” she says.

Eventually the company got back on its feet, giving Perlmeter time to think. “At some point, then, you slow down and say, ‘Wait a minute,’” she says. “‘Is this really what I want to do?’” It was around a “round-figure” birthday—her 40th. The final straw came in a Half Price Books location, of all places, as Perlmeter stood there flipping through some magazine—Fortune, she thinks—that featured a where-are-they-now about early first female-inclusive classes at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

Rosemary Perlmeter dove into nonprofits after working her way up at Zale Corp. during the company’s turnaround.

“They felt there were some things that were just missing, and they wanted a way to resurrect those,” she says. “I remember reading that and feeling incredibly clear that that was sort of where I was.” She’d already been feeling like she wanted to apply what she’d learned during the Zale Corp. turnaround toward some kind of public service: “Once I read all the people giving testimonials about this, suddenly I felt OK with that.”

After negotiating a change in title and hours at her job and dabbling in public service, she decided to move full-speed ahead into nonprofit work by founding Uplift Education, one of the first charter schools in the state, which today serves more than 16,000 students across 36 schools in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Perlmeter and Wood, who knew each other through Wood’s work at Dallas Social Venture Partners, put their heads together in 2009. Both had seen up close the educational challenges facing kids in southern Dallas. Perlmeter had the charter school experience. Wood brought to the table exhaustive research skills. Their approach, as told by Wood: “If we look forward a decade, what do we think we could do that could most move the needle in the public schools in Dallas or across Dallas-Fort Worth?”

The Teaching Trust was born, with a focus on building up school leadership through training and support across the area’s public school systems. During the 2017-18 school year, the organization reached 70,000 students through its 750 leaders spread across more than 140 schools. Schools led by Teaching Trust alumni outperformed their peer schools 72 percent of the time last year when it came to students’ academic growth.   

“It’s been really great working closely with someone who has a business background and made the decision to apply it to nonprofit or civic-related work, because there is some commonality or bond that exists around those experiences,” Perlmeter says. “For the two of us, it’s been easier to work quicker because we’ve had some similar pictures in our head about how things would go.”

Courting Wall Street clients and Texas legislators takes a similar skill set, as TexProtects founder Madeline McClure found out.

That doesn’t mean the transition came easy. Wood, who says the courses she’d chosen prior to nonprofits had been carefully curated to ensure her success, calls the transition the hardest thing she’s ever done: “This time, I just jumped off the cliff with passion.”

Madeline McClure took a similar leap. After applying and getting into a Masters in Social Work program at New York University in 1994, McClure says her new husband’s job change prompted a move to Dallas and her transfer to the University of Texas at Arlington. She worked with Child Protective Services and then the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center (DCAC) upon graduation, helping vulnerable children.

“If we look forward a decade, what do we think we could do that could most move the needle in the public schools?”

Ellen Wood

Her nonprofit TexProtects, which influences public policy to improve child-abuse prevention within the state, started organically, as McClure noticed the high turnover at DCAC. There, she wanted to implement a “hire-ahead” program she’d learned on Wall Street, but doing so would require legislation to change the cap on the number of full-time workers the agency could employ. She also testified to the Dallas County Commissioners in 1998 about upping the number of CPS workers and their pay, and to Dallas ISD to get corporal punishment eliminated. That led to more connections with legislators and more advocacy. TexProtects eventually took shape, born at the intersection of McClure’s social work experience and her Wall Street chops.

It has grown from an organization started in McClure’s home, with a first-year budget of $58,000, to one with offices in Dallas and Austin and a $1.35 million budget. The organization has shepherded 46 pieces of legislation through the Texas Legislature and secured a total of $135 million of state revenue for child-abuse prevention programs. McClure’s story illustrates what can spring forward from putting a hard-line businessperson on a civic task. “You don’t find too many social workers who are also economists,” she says. Her approach to courting clients on Wall Street by learning their investment style translated to the state Capitol. “I did the same thing with legislators,” she says. “If they have some kind of a business background or finance or engineering, I will really use the cost-benefit analysis of why investing in these child-abuse protection programs made the most sense. … For legislators who are more education-minded, or they’re doctors, or [have] a background in the arts, they would be more compelled by the actual outcomes of the research, the stories behind it.”

The art of persuasion helps McClure on a regular basis. She also reaches back to her Wall Street days for skills like relationship-building and marketing. McClure, who announced her retirement in April, steps down having leveraged her grind-it-out Big Apple experience into a fulfilling nonprofit career.

Woodard, who headed up the Dallas chapter of Cristo Rey Dallas College Preparatory School, a member of the nonprofit Cristo Rey Network, finds similar satisfaction in his decision. “I have enjoyed every job I’ve ever had—you find your fulfillment in them,” he says. “But the energy you get from those 500 students when you see how hard they’re working for this, it really puts your own life in perspective.”

Woodard got his start at Target Corp., working his way up to be the director of supply chain assets protection before branching off as an entrepreneur. He says that his experiences built foundations in leadership and marketing, and his political background helped him grasp education policy and consider both sides. “It has been my life’s work to get here,” he says.

None of these former businesspeople have looked back with regret. Recently, Wood was invited to a day-in-the-life event at an old employer and, while there, found herself reflecting on just how removed she felt from her previous world. “I went through a period that was one of the most challenging in my entire life. Not being in something you’re naturally good at—it’s a struggle,” she says. “It’s really hard work, but it’s super-worthwhile.”