FINDING THE SILVER LINING Recession leading people to seek more satisfying ways to make a living

For six years Pauline Taylor was a state employee -- and a good one. She received regular promotions, excellent performance evaluations, a salary that put her squarely in the midst of the middle class. But almost two years ago, Pauline Taylor quit her job and opened a health food store, Live It, Not Diet, with her husband, Carlos, a home improvement contractor.

Mrs. Taylor said she almost literally was forced to make the jump into entrepreneurship by the uncertainty surrounding her job with the state.


It wasn't an easy decision for the couple since it meant surrendering the relative security of Mrs. Taylor's steady state salary.

But the moment of her resignation in February 1990 also marked a changing point in the Taylor lives -- the moment when their priorities changed, when their life goals broadened and when the schism between their professional careers and private lives disappeared.


"When I was a state employee, my goal was to move from being a contractual employee to permanent employee so that I could qualify for all of the state benefits and pensions," said Mrs. Taylor.

"It was to work 9 to 5. Make a good income. Have enough so that I could travel to Jamaica to visit my father when I wanted to. It was to live the basic American way of life.

"But now," she continued, "our goals have gotten so large that we're still understanding them from day to day. It isn't just measured in money. It also is fulfillment, personal fulfillment, the fulfillment of helping people better their own lives through good nutrition.

"Before," said Mrs. Taylor, "my professional life and my private life were separate. Now the two are tied together. There is a spiritual richness there, a oneness, a sense of fulfillment that I never had as a state employee.

"I just got tired of the uncertainty from year to year," she said. "Never knowing if your job was going to be cut. It was all too vague, too uncertain. Then I looked at all I put into the job, all of the times I came in early and left late, and eventually I said that if I am going to be this dedicated and hard-working it might as well be for something I enjoy and believe in."

Mrs. Taylor's circumstances are not unique.

As the economy continues to stagger through a protracted recession, an increasing number of white-collar workers face uncertain professional futures. Both public and private employers are reacting to the recession by cutting their labor costs through downsizing -- and for the first time since World War II, substantial numbers of white-collar professionals are being laid off.

But, as in the case of the Taylors, the current economic hard times can be made into a blessing.


That was the consensus of a dozen black business executives who met earlier this month to discuss the effect of the economy on black professionals.

The group agreed that the economic forecast was bleak and that black professionals would be particularly hard hit because they often have less seniority in their offices and are less likely to be hooked into the "good old boy" network.

But members of the discussion group also insisted that for many, the current hard times could be a blessing in disguise.

"I believe this recession is the best piece of civil rights legislation we've ever had because it's going to force us to develop ourselves," said Keith Snipes, president and founder of Can-Do Productions, a local theatrical company with an Afrocentric perspective.

"In some ways, many black professionals have become too comfortable and now they're seeing the rug pulled out from under them," Mr. Snipes continued. "So now, we all are going to have to become far more creative, far more energetic. We're going to have to find new ways, hopefully exciting ways, to make our talents and training pay for us."

For instance, until last year, Mr. Snipes was a salesman for a firm marketing educational video programs.


"But I didn't want to be there. My interest was in the theater. I had majored in theater in school. I was there because I was comfortable."

"I am already seeing a spiritual rebirth in people -- the churches are overflowing every Sunday," said Pamela Shaw, head of Park Heights Street Academy, a private high school.

"But people aren't just thinking of themselves. You also are seeing a greater commitment to the community. People are asking themselves, 'How can I make my talents work for my people as well as for myself?' "

Noted Frank Coakley, vice president of the Community Development Financing Corporation, "Before, people went into business because they had a dream or a special idea that they wanted to see come to fruition. The current crop of black entrepreneurs are different.

"They might have been vice presidents of major corporations who are getting riffed [an acronym that stands for people who lose their job through reduction in force]. So, it is a different style of person coming out. Either they are forced to, or they are jumping ship because they see the handwriting on the wall."

Added Vernon Reid, an investment broker who left a major local brokerage to open his own firm a few years ago, "I would say that three or four guys I went to school with -- and I mean guys who were the among the best and the brightest students in the world -- are dropping out of the corporate structure to open their own businesses. Not because they have to, but because they want to."


The group agreed that these talented black professionals do not lack the skills and energy to go into business for themselves. What they may lack is the know- how.

Many in the group said they would like to see professionals from different disciplines pooling their resources and talents. They noted that many new business people tend to feel uncomfortable with working with others, for fear that they will lose a competitive edge.

"I'm saying that we've got to look at the pie as something that grows bigger when we work together," said Roland Campbell, a local Realtor.

"There is an educational process which we as technical professionals need to bring back to the community," said Timothy L. Smoot, a certified public accountant.

Mr. Smoot and Joan Pratt, another CPA, have begun sharing their expertise through seminars held in local churches.

"People want the answers to some very basic questions," said Ms. Pratt. "They want to look at financial plans, they want to preserve whatever assests they have, they are concerned about retirement. Seventy-five percent of the retired rely on Social Security or family and friends. It is very scary out there."


TTC Above all, the group agreed, substantial opportunities exist for professionals who are willing to cut their corporate umbilical cords and re-evaluate their personal priorities.

Said Mrs. Taylor, "People don't realize that you often don't need a lot of money to go into business. We started on strictly a shoestring budget. We did without a lot of excess things. I sold my car. We took out equity loans on our property.

"But we parlayed what we had for something we could build on for the future and I am very, very confident that the rest will come.

"The important thing," Mrs. Taylor said, "is that we are happy. We feel fulfilled in what we are doing."