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Making a Career Change During the COVID-19 Pandemic

These people got inspired when the work world was turned upside down and switched careers

spinner image tammy hauser waves from her ice cream truck along with her dog and two kids out in front of the truck with their ice cream
Courtesy Tammy Hauser

From trolley tours to ice-cream truck


Tammy Hauser, 57, Sarasota, Florida

I thought I'd made the pivot of my life when I started Discover Sarasota, a trolley tour company, in 2018. The business was thriving, and in December 2019, I did something impulsive: I bought a super-cute vintage ice-cream truck I saw on Facebook Marketplace. It cost $14,000, and my team thought I was nuts. I planned to put it next to my trolley cottage and sell snacks to my tour guests. Then COVID-19 hit, and on March 20, I had to shut down the business.

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One day, as I looked at this 1979 Good Humor truck in my driveway, I thought, Wait. Food trucks are essential businesses. I own a food truck. So, I launched the ChillMobile. We make as much as $1,900 a day, selling ice-cream treats — such as Toasted Almond bars — and local artisanal items. Boozy pops are a huge hit. We often get booked for neighborhood driveway cocktail parties, and events at schools and older-adult facilities.

We have reopened the trolley, but business is slow. My assistant handles the tours while I run the ice-cream truck with Max, my papillon dog. He often wears an ice-cream bow tie.

I'm glad we're doing so well. It's 80 degrees here year-round. And ice cream is a recession-proof business. But this has been about so much more than making money. It's brought so much comfort and joy at a time when people have needed it.

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Courtesy Rex Roy

From car events to rescued résumés

My Career Snapshot

Rex Roy, 58, Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan

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Detroit is a boom-and-bust town. People here pivot a lot: I've worked in car marketing and as an automotive journalist, and I spent the past eight years as an events producer. Early on in the pandemic, I figured out that COVID-19 would mean losing my job, so I polished up my résumé. I thought, It's good. But will it get me noticed? So, I spent a thousand bucks on design and turned the résumé into an infographic. It made my experience look broad and extensive but in a modern way.

As I showed it to people, many were so wowed by the infographic idea that I knew I was on to something. When I did lose my job last summer, I was happy to have the time to devote to the new pursuit. I needed to find a way to produce the résumés more affordably and have gotten the process down to a science now. Clients fill out a form, and one of our designers turns the information into a beautiful custom graphic for $125. It's like a snapshot of your career, though focused on metrics, not time periods. Right now I'm doing about 10 per week, so it's a great boost to my freelance work. But as it gains critical mass, I see My Career Snapshot taking priority in my work life

spinner image judi townsend holds one of her pet portrait clients
Courtesy Judi Townsend

From mannequins to dog portraits

Furtography Pet Pics

Judi Townsend, 63, Oakland, California

I'd built Mannequin Madness, which I started back in 2001, into a strong business, with four employees and four independent contractors. It's an odd niche: I'd buy and sell used mannequins, keeping them out of landfills. But when COVID-19 hit and Oakland issued shelter-in-place orders, I knew I was in trouble. There is nothing essential about mannequins.

I'm not a dog person, but a friend asked me to dog sit, and it got me thinking: With so many people adopting pandemic pets, we could use our photo studio for dog glamour shots. I didn't realize what a thing it was until I went on Pinterest. People celebrate their dogs’ birthdays, “gotcha” days — anniversaries of when they were adopted — even “bark” mitzvahs. They want Instagram-worthy shots, so I needed to learn to use social media marketing. That was new to me. The Oakland Black Business Fund coached me, and now we advertise on Facebook and Instagram.

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We offer 50 photos in a 45-minute session for $250, and we're doing very well. We're also offering do-it-yourself classes on Facebook Live — how to make a flower crown for your dog, for example — from our studio. It's all an adventure. The best part is that I've been able to keep all my employees and contractors. I'm happy we're finding new ways to stay in business.

spinner image becky smith and her sister debbie cobb smile while looking up from their sewing machines
Courtesy Becky Smith

From high school theater to Etsy masks

Two Sisters Sew Designs

Becky Smith, 56, with Debbie Cobb, 61, Diana, Texas

When the high school where I taught theater went to remote learning last spring, I tried to be creative. But distance theater? Not my thing. I was eligible for retirement, so I took it in June. Here in rural Texas, there was no place to buy masks, so my sister Debbie — who is 61 and also retired — and I got out our sewing machines. At first we were donating masks to older people. We'd set up in the Walmart parking lot. After giving away about 2,000, though, we realized we were good at making masks and opened on Etsy.

It's been hectic but fun. We both live near our parents’ small cattle farm. Last year we would go over to have coffee with them at the start of the day. Our mother died of COVID-19 in December; now we visit every morning for coffee with our father. Then we do our sewing, with the dogs snoozing at our feet. We manage our time better; back in July, we were sewing 12 to 14 hours a day and even had our third sister sewing with us. Today it's much more manageable — about seven hours a day. We've got customers as far away as Istanbul. Someday the mask demand will slow, but we don't think it will go away entirely for a long time. We're branching out. We now make anxiety vests for dogs, lanyards, and skullcaps for bikers. And it's been a lovely way to supplement my retirement income.

spinner image elaine brauch holds a squeegee at work
Courtesy Elaine Brauch

From chemistry to killing microbes

Microbial Solutions Unlimited

Elaine Brauch, 58, Chesterfield, Missouri

We knew a lot about cleaning chemicals before COVID-19. Mike had cofounded a janitorial company back in 1984, and when the pandemic hit, the demand for disinfectants was frenzied. And I had worked for years as a chemist and then in Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) compliance for a large water company. But we both worried about disinfectants. They're poison, which is why they have to be used so carefully. They damage surfaces. So instead of watching cable news and stressing out about the virus, which is what I was doing, Mike and I started looking for alternatives to disinfectants. We found out about a virus killer that uses an electrical charge to destroy microbes. Although it's EPA approved, I'm a scientist, so I was skeptical. We tested and retested, working closely with a pulmonologist and other scientific experts. Once we were convinced of our treatment's effectiveness in killing viruses, we launched the company in May. It's been a whirlwind. We're looking to build our business with residential, church, school, hospital and office buildings. And we have licensed our treatment to people interested in using this approach in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and are looking to expand across the country. I'm the CEO, and I have always wanted to build a woman-owned company. A close friend and former colleague is the COO. And Mike is the CFO. We think the potential for this kind of cleaning will last beyond COVID-19: People are already talking about influenza concerns. And we're builders by nature.

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