When Jennifer Ransaw Smith was single, she "hopped around" from one advertising firm to another in Los Angeles and New York, doing what all high-powered ad reps do to notch the resume-boosting experience that makes them sought-after hires.
"The whole thing [about the industry] is building your book," so the more upwardly mobile career moves, the better, she said.
Yet years later, her life hadn't exactly panned out the way she'd planned. Happily married with two kids and living in Columbia, she was caught off-guard by how miserable she was at work after finally landing the dream job she'd been chasing from place to place all those years.
Ransaw Smith decided that she'd be happier working for herself, and three years ago she started a marketing company. It was a difficult choice, she said, but the risk paid off with a better balance between her life and career. As a woman who was once at a crossroads and who now counsels women navigating career transitions, she will be one of nine workshop leaders at the Women's Empowerment Conference in Columbia on Oct. 28.
After returning from New York to Columbia, Ransaw-Smith was commuting a minimum of 70 minutes to her communications job on Capitol Hill.
"My mother was getting my kids off the bus, cooking dinner and doing the family laundry," she recalled glumly. "I was sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic and getting home around 7:30, and I was so frustrated."
In 2007 she reached her boiling point and took a week off from work with the goal of figuring out what was going wrong in her life. When she put her thoughts down on paper, such habits as feeding her kids a fast-food breakfast en route to school many mornings made her realize "that my family wasn't showing up as No. 1," though she considered them her top priority.
She returned from that weeklong break to tell her employer she was resigning, and in 2008 she started Brand id, a branding and marketing company that has been the most fulfilling achievement of her career, said Ransaw Smith, who is now 42 and has three children.
"Most women listen to that still, small voice inside, but many are too fearful to act on it," she said. "It will never be the right time to give yourself permission to live the life you should be living, but it literally does all begin with that one decision."
The daylong conference, which will be held at the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center and sponsored by Pinnacle Empowerment Center and makingCHANGE, seeks to address the career and financial issues facing women like Ransaw Smith.
Pinnacle is a nonprofit organization in Elkridge that provides women in transition with advice on career and life management. MakingCHANGE bills itself as "a financial wellness center" that offers financial education programs and support services from its Columbia offices.
"This event will serve as a catalyst for women wanting to take charge of their futures," by helping them explore ways to overcome any barriers standing in their way, said Michelle Glassburn, president of makingCHANGE.
"There's a strong link between career and finances — and the special challenges women face in order to achieve success in both areas," Glassburn said. When her firm and Pinnacle started talking about a year ago, "it turned into one of those 'aha!' moments," she said, and the idea of joining together to hold a conference to empower women was born.
Women are often focused on responding to the needs of their bosses, families and friends, "going with the flow of the day and not taking time to take stock of their own needs," she said. The conference will be an introspective day where women can say, "I'm going to put the focus on me and move forward."
Women must also have control of the money side of their careers or risk being "whipped around by finances," she said.
"Bad credit can disqualify women from job consideration," she noted, "and significant research has shown that women under financial stress are less productive employees," making them vulnerable on the job.
Professional and personal happiness often don't always seamlessly merge, she stressed, something to which Ransaw Smith can testify.
Many people approach income and career separately but they're very much linked, said Heather Comstock, executive director of Pinnacle Empowerment Center.
"We want to empower women in transition to concentrate on their careers, their finances, and their personal development," she said.
Branding, for instance, ensures the name of a product or service is tied to a certain level of quality, she said, but that same process can be applied to an individual.
"When somebody says your name, what springs to mind? As women, we don't always toot our horns enough, but we need to identify our styles and strengths and communicate those qualities and skills," Comstock said. Participants will leave the empowerment conference with an action plan "so they don't lose momentum" in their lives.
Deborah Owens, a writer and radio show host, said wealth is an outcome of attitude and behavior, and women can be risk-adverse and in need of instruction to increase their financial acumen.
"Women need knowledge of how the financial market works and, while it's not simple, we can make it less complex so they leave feeling equipped to make decisions," said Owens, whose workshop topic will be "Seven Habits of Financially Successful Women."
The conference is expected to draw 150 women, from those who are re-entering the job market to those who are making a career change — women from all walks of life, no matter where they fall on the spectrum of transition, Glassburn said.
Conference topics include networking, job-search techniques, and strategic volunteering. Four women will also be available for one-on-one coaching. Col. Karen Gibson, commander of the 704th Military Intelligence Brigade, will speak during the lunch break.
"Howard County women are an excellent audience for this," Comstock said. The county is a desirable place to live, but living here comes with a high price tag and women need to earn a certain wage in order to live comfortably and to also build up the long-term assets they'll need in the future, she explained.
"We want them to be inspired and fired up to live the life they want to live," she said.
More information about the conference and registration is available at empowermentevent.org.