There is an old expression that says gifts sometimes come in strange packaging. I hadn’t thought about that quote in a while. But it came to me early one morning in the summer of 1999 as I sat on a bus spitting steam on the side of the NJ turnpike. On that day, as I stared out the smudged window at the cars flying by, I started to wonder if the author of the quote had any idea what the heck they were talking about.
I had been commuting from South Jersey to Manhattan for months. My shiny new undergraduate degrees in Medieval Studies and Political Science prepared me perfectly for a career…in nothing. I enjoyed my subject matter, but the truth was my coursework did not qualify me for much. The other truth was that my true love had always been animals, although “Animals” didn’t seem like I field I could work in without studying, like, SCIENCE stuff. And the final truth was I had no bloody idea how these disparate pieces of diplomas, passion, and income requirements added up to a happy life.
But deep inside, a siren song called. It was a song of purpose. A song of a better world through kindness to animals. (somewhere in there was a refrain about good credit score.) I decided to take some time to regroup, figure out a plan, and earn a few bucks. I would bite the bullet and temporarily go to the highest bidder – which was retail. And if I was going to graduate with honors only go into entry level retail, damn it, I was at least going to work for the best.
Which is how I ended up on a Greyhound stuck on the side of road in Hoboken. I was headed to work at Bergdorf Goodman – arguably one of the finest stores in the world. If my strangely packaged gift was anywhere, my gut said it was there.
My first job at Bergdorf Goodman was selling $2 pieces of chocolate on the Decorative Home floor. I threw myself into being the best darn chocolate salesperson I could be. I rotated stock. I created displays. I told stories of how chocolate first arrived in Europe in the 15th century. When managers were overtaxed, I offered help. In two shakes of a Phi Beta Kappa’s tail, I was promoted to management. I was proud.
But my sirens weren’t letting me off the hook. They sang in unison, “This is greaaaa-t, and we love the employee discount on cos-ME-tics, but we don’t see any animals around heeeee-rrrree.” I told them to pipe down and let me enjoy this accomplishment for a minute.
By Fall 2001, Bergdorf Goodman was looking for a manager to head up their jewelry department – a multi-million-dollar business that commanded over half of the main floor. I knew nothing about jewelry. But I had come to love the store and all its history, along with its amazing people, and I was doing well. I nabbed the promotion.
I was now in the big times. The first week on the job I kept windexing the countertops since I didn’t know what else to do. While my new staff showed me the jewelry ropes, top managers modeled how to meet huge goals. And no business in the world could be a better teacher of service. I was honed into a strong, high performing leader by the best in the industry.
But my sirens were still there, doing their best to compete with the bougie elevator music of the main floor. Their new little ditty was something like, “You seem to be getting very comfortable in your Lou-bou-tins…we thought this was temp-or-ARY…is this the leg-a-cy you want to leave behind when you die…??.” They were getting sassy in their old age. But they were right. Bergdorfs was always meant to be a means to an end. I didn’t want to lose sight of that. I took a vacation to connect with the other pieces of me.
Off went the heels, and on went the hiking boots. I beelined to the deserts of Utah with an animal-loving friend for some exploring.
On day two of our trip, about 50 miles south of the middle of nowhere, we came across a jackrabbit that had been hit by a car. He laid completely immobile in a sliver of shade. We called the sheriff’s office to see what to do. They said there was a place called Best Friends Animal Society about 100 miles north of where we were.
100 miles later, we rolled up to the Best Friends Sanctuary. Gracious people greeted us, and gently took the rabbit and x-rayed his back. We waited for the results in a cabin-like room, and I browsed pamphlets about the organization. One cover said, “Best Friends Animal Society – A Better World Through Kindness to Animals.” My jaw dropped. The sirens launched into a full-throated rendition of Halleluiah. I instantly knew I had found my tribe.
The caretakers returned with a diagnosis of a broken back. The rabbit could not be saved. They were incredibly grateful that we had tried to help him. My chin quivered not only for the rabbit, but for the bond I felt to these people living in the desert taking care of animals.
As we climbed back into the rental car, my mind raced. My well-paying job and family were in the East. But my heart was now with an animal welfare organization in a one stoplight town called Kanab.
If we could set aside the negative connotation of the word ‘stalker’ for a moment, I would say, in a strictly non-creepy sense, that stalking was probably the best way to describe my activity around Best Friends Animal Society after that day in the desert.
I jumped at any chance I could find to interface with the organization. I attended their conferences. I emailed the founders repeatedly, inviting them for coffee if they happened to be in New York. After Hurricane Katrina, I volunteered with their rescue efforts in the South, sleeping in my car and unloading saved animals from trucks at night. I did everything I could to stitch that animal world to my retail world. But it was still Bergdorf’s that buttered by bread, still the East Coast that was home. I just couldn’t figure out how to span the distance between Kanab and Manhattan.
Time passed. In the blink of a mascaraed eye, 17 years had come and gone since I first walked through the doors of Bergdorf Goodman. The song of the sirens became plaintive. “E- LIZ- abeth…You are getting long in the toooooth” My philanthropic biological clock was a ticking timebomb.
And then came a call. Best Friends was planning to open a Lifesaving Center in New York City, and needed an Executive Director. Did I happen to know a strong manager? Someone accustomed to achieving goals? Managing teams? Someone service focused, who could lead the way to saving animals?
You bet I did.
Months later, while in Kanab for the final stretch of the interview process, I was told that over 170 candidates had applied for the job. I was up against leaders who came from animal welfare backgrounds. People who knew how to tube feed kittens. We were whittled down to three. And then to one.
That one was me.
Turns out, the founders of Best Friends and I had a few old friends in common- friends who knew how to sing a mean rendition of “A Better World Through Kindness To Animals.” Never underestimate the power of a shared siren song.
I am now the Northeast Regional Director for Best Friends Animal Society, a national organization dedicated to saving the saveable animals in our nation’s shelters by the year 2025. We operate the largest sanctuary for companion animals in the country, still located in Kanab, Utah. Some of the people I met that day with the rabbit are still there. Best Friends now has centers in Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, and of course, New York.
I have a new team to show me the ropes- this time in animal husbandry. New mentors demonstrate daily what a good job looks like in animal welfare leadership. I am with my tribe. They accept me even though I tend to show up at pet adoption events a little overdressed (not letting the wardrobe go to waste). And my sirens, who finally managed to crash me into the rocks of my dreams, retired to Miami. They do gigs on the weekends for people who need help figuring out what to do with their lives.
So, my advice to anyone older looking to pull off a big career change?
Well, I do believe gifts can come in strange packaging.
But I also believe that keeping the right kind of packaging for the gift you want laying around your apartment increases your odds of getting it. So if you are blessed enough to have a true calling in life, and you can’t just chuck responsibility to the wind in order to go after it, stitch as much of your passion into your life as you can- even if there is no clear path to a career. You will at least be better positioned when an opportunity comes than if you did nothing. Don’t rush, but don’t wait. It took me into my forties to transition to Best Friends. But if I hadn’t stalked… I mean, supported them for years, demonstrating commitment to animals, I would not have gotten the job.
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